This Sunday, the Right Rev. Chilton R. Knudsen, Assistant Bishop of Maryland, will visit Emmanuel. As part of the festivities, two of our own will be confirmed. The question is: confirmed to what? And what is the rite of confirmation, that it should wait until a bishop shows up to enact it?
In the catechism of the Book of Common Prayer, the definition of confirmation is given as a reaffirmation of our Christian faith: “Confirmation is the rite in which we express a mature commitment to Christ, and receive strength from the Holy Spirit through prayer and the laying on of hands by a bishop.” (860) When I was growing up, the Roman Catholic Church talked about the sacrament along similar lines, describing it as being sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as an adult within the Church. (In fact, the Episcopal practice use to be that one couldn’t receive communion until one was confirmed.) In both cases, the name makes perfect sense—we confirm and are confirmed into the community of faith that most of us were baptized into as children. Where once others made promises and statements of faith on our behalf, now we taken them wholly upon ourselves. The words of the service echo this understanding in the prayers over the candidates when we ask that God “renew in these your servants the covenant you have made with them at their Baptism” and “send them forth in the power of that Spirit to perform the service you set before them” (BCP, 418). Thus, the ceremony is poised between two points, recognizing both the covenant that has already been made “at […] Baptism” and the continued unfolding of their vocation as our Triune God draws them into the service “set before” the confirmands. Past, future, and the believer’s commitment to both are brought into a single unity, because we recognize with the Rev. Sara Miles that “conversion is not a single moment of epiphany but an ongoing process.”* In many ways, the conversion of ourselves and our communities is the task of the Christian life, and confirmation stands as testament to that complicated, grace-filled process.
Now, let’s talk about the bishop. We believe as a church that Baptism is “full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit” (BCP, 298), so what are we and the Spirit doing in confirmation? I don’t think the answer lies in any sort of insufficiency with our Baptisms, but rather the bishop as symbolic of the larger Church. In fact, bishops are the default presider for Baptism, and priest do so in most Episcopal parishes under the auspices of our bishop(s). (I could go into a longer discussion about how the word “Episcopal” refers to bishops and what that says about our communal identity, but I only have so much room in these meditations.) Accordingly, when the bishop comes to a congregation and confirms the already baptized, we’re recognizing and lifting up what God is already doing in that place. Just as past and present collapse in the moment of the rite, the near and far are inexorably linked too. The confirmed are members of a parish, but they are also members of a diocese, of a denomination, and the Church Universal, the royal priesthood and body of Jesus Christ. When a bishop lays their hands on us, it’s in recognition of our membership in all those manifestations of Christian community. We are all saints of God, and the person of the bishop is an important reaffirmation of just how far those identities can extend. We are called to be faithful followers of Jesus, as best as we can, not in any one time or place, we are called to be Christians in all times and all places. For these reasons and so many more, let’s join together on Sunday to joyously and emphatically celebrate the continued movement of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in the lives of our friends.
*from her book Take this Bread