Anglicans often get into difficulties with baptism. On the one hand, there continues to be a difference of view between those who are happy with the Church’s policy of baptising people of any age (i.e. including infants) and a minority who would take a more Anabaptist position and associate baptism with articulated profession of faith by the individual (i.e. by ‘adults’ only). On the other, there is a problem with the relationship between baptism and confirmation, generated from two directions.
Confirmation made some sense as a rite of passage to adult membership of the Church in a Christendom context. If the majority of the population was baptised as infants, confirmation made sense as an opportunity for catechism (teaching) of candidates, and as a rite of full admission to Church membership, in particular, admission to Holy Communion.
But in recent years, the rationale for confirmation has been undermined in two directions. For one thing, since we are no longer in a Christendom mode of operating, and fewer people have been baptised as infants, adults coming to faith are more often baptised at that point, rather than being confirmed as a sign of new faith commitment. It seems a real artifice to then confirm immediately at the point of adult baptism.
For another thing, theological thinking about baptism has argued that this one sacrament should be sufficient for the other—admission to Holy Communion. If Communion is the ‘family’ meal, and baptism is admission to the membership of the family, why should we require any more of the baptised before allowing them full participation? This has led to the recent ‘admission of children to Communion prior to confirmation’ which is the policy in most (if not all?) English dioceses now. (Note that Anglicans have never believed in two rites of infant baptism and adult baptism. There is one rite of baptism, which is administered sometimes to infants, sometimes to adults.)
These two factors have truly led to confirmation being a ‘rite in search of a theology’. (Note that, for Anglicans, confirmation is a ‘rite’ and not a ‘sacrament’, since the Church of England only recognises baptism and Communion as dominical sacraments.)
But a recent publication under the aegis of the Church’s Faith and Order Commission appears to be proposing a theology for confirmation in which it ‘borrows’ some of the sacramental significance of baptism. The Journey of Christian Initiation adopts the idea of ‘staged rites’ (which underlies quite a number of the Common Worship services) to suggest that Christian initiation is only sacramentally complete once baptism has been followed by confirmation, the latter including episcopal laying on of hands and invocation of the Spirit. The next booklet in the Grove Worship series is a broadside against this idea by the redoubtable Colin Buchanan, former bishop of Woolwich. Against the report, he offers a robust defence of the notion of BACSI—’baptism as complete sacramental initiation’—based not only on NT texts, but also on key historic Anglican documents.
Colin starts by attacking the basis of the proposal in Journey:
So how can confirmation claim sacramental standing to supplement water-baptism, or even (which The Journey nearly says) to complete sacramental initiation? The Journey amazingly answers: ‘…it meets the first criterion…of a sacrament in the Catechism: an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace (the second criterion being dominical institution) (p 14). There we have it—The Journey cites the catechism definition, then calls confirmation a ‘sacrament,’ though it is neither so described nor even mentioned in the section on sacraments in that very catechism which is preparing candidates for confirmation… When two criteria are vital, meeting only one is a useless commendation. (p 4)
Colin then goes on to scrutinise Journey’s use of the NT passages, starting with the nine mentions of baptism in Acts. He is particularly critical of deriving the practice of (apostolic) laying on of hands as a normative accompaniment to baptism:
The Journey assumes that ‘being baptized’ (note that, apart from 8.38, Acts always uses the passive) must have meant receiving not only water, but also the laying on of apostolic hands, conforming to the pattern. But will that assumption fit the occurrences? Well, [three of the instances] could fit the pattern, but [two others] would be very hard to make fit it, and [a further two] would be frankly impossible. Furthermore, in Acts 8.4–17 and Acts 19.1–6, where a laying on of hands is mentioned, then … ‘to baptize’ could not include the laying on of hands and would have to mean solely the administration of water. Yet everywhere else ‘being baptized’ has to be read as concealing this laying on of hands within it. We encounter an interpretative key which not only distorts the history being told, but more generally distorts the biblical authors’ use of language.
He similarly considers in detail the mentions of baptism in Paul and the other NT writers, and concludes that Journey is seriously misreading the evidence:
So what of this post-baptismal apostolic laying on of hands? It occurs so rarely in the New Testament that a colossal onus of proof rests on those who advocate it as the normative pattern. Not only do the gospels give no hint, but they include Jesus teaching the apostles in John 14–16 about the gift of the Spirit, silent about their destined role in ministering the Spirit. Not only does Acts have but two instances of a post-baptismal laying on of apostolic hands, but it has seven without such action, in some of which it was impossible. Not only do Paul’s letters constantly cite baptism, but none attaches to it any apostolic role in laying on hands (an impossibility in 1 Cor 1). No doctrinal element in becoming a disciple is somehow omitted from the baptismal account and needs subsequent provision by another rite. Nevertheless The Journey, with a built-in desired outcome which the New Testament virtually vetoes, scrabbles around the three exceptional texts to cobble together a case, and assert an apostolic pattern.
Colin goes on to explore in detail the three passages in Acts in which laying on of hands accompanies baptism in some way, and in a fourth chapter unpicks the idea of associating confirmation with the sacramental role of baptism in Christian initiation. He sets out what Journey calls ‘certain truths about Christian Initiation’ which ‘seem clear,’ but is unconvinced:
Here are ‘truths’ alleged as ‘clear.’ Baptists would undoubtedly doubt it. And in the light of Scripture, history and Anglican formularies, we too have to say ‘no.’ The Journey is pushing out a boat, one as watertight as a sieve.
The fifth chapter of the booklet supports this, offering a tour de force of engagement with the church fathers, the Anglican Reformers, and modern Anglican texts in a way which I suspect only Colin could do. His conclusion is that confirmation is precisely that—confirmation of what happened in baptism, and not a separate ‘sacramental’ rite which adds something which was somehow missing in baptism. This leaves confirmation still a ‘rite in search of a theology’, and in fact something quite unnecessary for adults being baptised.
It has no visible meaning when administered to those baptized as adults (though something similar may be used for other Christians becoming Anglicans), and the meaninglessness is hardly alleviated by its being coupled with baptism in a single rite—baptism still lacks nothing in sacramental initiation which confirmation can supply. Anointing complicates that meaninglessness.
This is a fascinating debate, and I think Colin offers a characteristically robust—and in this case, persuasive—argument. It has important implications for how we see baptism, how we use baptismal liturgy, issues in mission, and the reception of non-Anglican Christians into the Church of England.
But the debate also raises important issues about Anglican identity and doctrine. The idea that baptism is not complete sacramental initiation appears to be presented at every point by Journey as the Anglican position—and the report itself claims the authority of FAOC, so is potentially speaking for the House of Bishops. But, as Colin argues, this is not so, and the BACSI position has a much better historical and theological claim as the Anglican position. Something similar is happening here as has happened with other aspects of Anglican worship. When I was training ordinands, they were universally surprised to learn that in Anglican liturgy the person leading Communion ‘presides’ whilst all the congregation ‘celebrate’, and he or she does that standing by a ‘table’ and not an ‘altar.’ Here is another arena where Anglican doctrine and Anglican practice have drifted apart, and could do with coming together again.
The booklet Baptism as Complete Sacramental Initiation by Colin Buchanan is available post-free direct from Grove. You can sign up to receive regular emails with news of new titles from Grove at www.grovebooks.co.uk
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