Is baptism enough?

Sentamu baptismAnglicans 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.)

51NXPjM1dXL._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.

P22_synod-1-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

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24 thoughts on “Is baptism enough?”

  1. Interesting to read this from a Canadian Anglican perspective, where we often appear to go to the other extreme and discount the necessity for personal conversion!

    On another note, I do wish Grove Books would make therir pub
    I cations available in ebook format.

    • Thanks Tim. It seems to me there one is more likely to integrate baptism with personal faith if you believe in BACSI rather than staged rites…

      All Grove booklets are available as PDFs. That’s not quite the same as being a Kindle ebook—but we have found that format is quite tricky!

      • Sorry to develop the techy theme but is epub problematic as well as Kindle? Pdf is better on some readers than others.

        • It would not be worth us producing in more than one electronic format, and Kindle dominates the market. So if we going to do something other than PDF, Kindle would be the one I think.

          Glad the issue of confirmation is proving so gripping…!

  2. 4 decades ago when the Episcopal Church USA introduced its proposed BCP Confirmation was posited as an optional rite, especially for those wishing to renew their baptismal vows. I sat through the House of Bishops debate and furor over this. One bishop actually asked if this was adopted what would bishops have to do [to which one wag commented: chief pastor especially of the clergy, teacher, defender of the rejected, etc.] Consequently the final version of the BCP reflects a mangled use of a confirmation rite which is recommended for those who had been baptized and chrismated before adulthood. We got all of this wrong; however, happily Baptism as full and complete incorporation into the faith community, including Holy Communion from infancy onward was adopted in many/most places is now the practice as intended by the original draft.

    • Fascinating. Someone said something similar to me: ‘If we don’t need confirmation, then how will bishops get to know their churches?’ To which I replied: ‘How about visiting them?!’

      Of course, the most significant thing about ECUSA BCP was that it was not ‘alternative’ but replaced the 1662 BCP. I think that has been the root of a lot of trouble…

      • You see the thing is is that the 1979 BCP didn’t replace the 1662 BCP. it’s the fourth in a wine of America books of common prayer that began in 1789. The 1789 BCP was a radical departure from the 1662 BCP, influenced by both the lauditudinarians and the nonjurers. Also, we are not the only province to produce a modern BCP rather then suipliment their traditional version; the most recent province to do so was the Church Of Ireland, who published their new BCP in 2004.

        • Actually, one should also include the American Proposed Book of Common Prayer of 1785. This was the most Latitudinarian of the American PBs.

  3. It has always seemed to me that paradoxically the Lampe/Buchanan line falls into the old fashioned “catholic” trap of identifying the minimal with the essential. Of course the act of baptism is the minimum essential rite of entry into the Church. But does this make everything else more or less dispensible illustrative extras? Does this mean that confirmation has no connection with initiation?…if so can it be repeated anytime someone feels like renewing their baptismal vows? Why not?
    I think in these ecumenical days, given we are in theological dialogue with RCs and Orthodox we might consider some of their thinking about initiation. The Roman Catholic/Orthodox International Commission has done useful work in this area

    • Surely the logic runs the other way? If baptism is NOT complete initiation, then why should anything else be?

      But note: Colin is not suggesting that nothing else needs to happen. His emphasis throughout is on baptism as complete *sacramental* initiation. He would himself emphasise the importance of continued growth in discipleship.

  4. As a nonconformist (URC) minister looking forward to celebrating a believer’s baptism this Pentecost evening, I will be inviting others who are present to gather round the baptised person when they emerge from the water, to lay hands on him, and to pray for the Holy Spirit to anoint, empower, fill and transform his life. I remain bemused by the notion that Anglicans appear to require a bishop to pray in this way, and marvel at the fact that God seems content to act in response to these prayers of ours despite the fact that none of us meet these (Anglican) criteria. I fully concur that confirmation is a rite in search of a theology, and do wonder whether sometimes we get our theological knickers in too much of a twist over this.

    Incidentally, rather than speak of ‘adult’ baptism (which might imply a minimum age), it may be more helpful to distinguish between credo-baptism (ie: faith-related) and paedo-baptism (ie: of infants).

    I really appreciate your theologically reflective blogging – keep up the good work!

    • Thanks Paul. In fact, I would argue *against* these two terms..for reasons I think I commented on in another comment.

      Infant baptism is just as much predicated on faith as ‘adult’ baptism in Anglican theology, and that is why there is only one liturgical rite. The debate is then whether one assumes incipient faith on the part of the child which is unarticulated, or following an interpretation of 1 Cor 7, the child participates in the faith of the parents.

      For me, the crucial argument for infant baptism is the life of Jesus. Since he had a perfect relationship with his Father when an infant, his life holds out the possibility of that for us. And in fact this is the way that all Christians treat their children. I have never yet heard an anabaptist say to a child: ‘Now, this is what *we* do, and when you become a Christian you can do it too.’

      • I have only been ‘within’ the Anglican communion for the last few years and in that time have witnessed a number of infant baptisms. In many instances I hadn’t seen the parents before the baptism and have seldom seen them since (if at all). I hear the questions asked of the parents along with their affirmative answers. What I don’t see is how the parent’s lives are reflective of Christ or how they are invested in the church. This may be because I am relatively new to the congregation. My point is, however, there is not much ‘apparent’ faith of the parents for the child to participate in. I suspect the child has a greater chance of growing up agnostic. If the child later in their life feels Christ’s call in their life would the act of Confirmation still be sufficient? I cannot see how.

        I appreciate your looking at this in your blog and the folks at Thinking Anglican’s for signposting it.

        • Thanks Andrew. I have to say that that is not the way baptism in the C of E is supposed to work—and the liturgy really mitigates against it. I think that kind of practice does make a mockery of the rite…and so undermines other public worship too.

  5. At times like this I wish I had not rid my library of many documents regarding the TEC BCP revision – upon my retirement from parish ministry. Relying on aging memory I do recall in response to Perry, that we collaborated in theological dialogue with both the Orthodox and RC liturgists. In fact our thinking was much influenced by the evolving RC initiatory theology and liturgy. That corpus was considered too radical for the Vatican and last I heard the files sit in dusty archives. Among other things it called for normative age of baptism being adulthood [sorry about the term, Paul]. The American bishops/ reaction to our revisions was very similar to the Vatican’s. So on the one hand we have a rubric that defines Baptism as full and complete initiation. On the other hand the bishops’ resurrected Confirmation rite [which could and often does include renewal of vows by those previously baptized and confirmed or received] became a counterpoint to the baptismal rubric I have cited. In terms of Orthodox practice, TEC very much adopted their practice of baptism with chrismation as complete initiation. Of course this precluded the necessity of a bishop as long as the chrism was blessed by one. Clearly the discussion needs to continue and I look forward to reading Colin Buchanan’s latest work. His thinking has been most helpful on this side of the pond.

  6. Ian et al –

    I neglected to mention that in the 1979 BCP, provision for persons who have made a ‘mature’ profession of faith in another denomination do not need to be confirmed – regardless of what denomination in which they made that profession. [They are ‘received’ into the fellowship of TEC.] Previously TEC required persons who had not been chrismated by the Orthodox or confirmed in the RC Church, were required/expected to go through confirmation. There are still a few resistant bishops ignoring this. The irony of course is that many/most persons receiving ‘confirmation’ in the RC were ‘confirmed’ by a priest designate using episcopally blessed oil rather than a bona fide bishop. I know of such persons having to undergo confirmation in TEC since episcopal hands did not touch them… Such trivia truly deserves a remedial course by parish clergy and bishops, on what is actually intended and provided !

    • Reception is good. People find it insulting to have to be confirmed in the C of E if they made an adult profession of faith in baptism even in a non-episcopal church.

  7. Theologically, I think that you are correct that baptism by water in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is full initiation into the life of the church. I believe quite firmly that baptized infants and children should be admitted to Holy Communion as soon as they can eat solid food! However, in my context, as a member of a US Episcopal parish in SE Ohio I am opposed to doing away with the rite of episcopal confirmation for three reasons. Firstly, in the US Episcopal Church, if confirmation was formally abolished 90% of our parishes would stop requring baptized youth to make any sort of public profession of faith. I assume everyone here on this blog agrees with me that a public profession of more or less adult faith is a very important thing. Indeed, the end of confirmation would probably mean the end of any attempt at the serious chatichisis of teenagers- we’d move entirely to a model of youth ministry that’s all fun and games with a little bit of Jesus on the side. Secondly, while baptism is full initiation into the sacremental life of the church, we need a second rite to signify the beginning of full, adult participation in the practical life of the church. Or do you really want a seven year old serving on Vestry/PCC? Finally, I was ove part of an episcopal denomination – the United Methodist Church- which did not practice episcopal confirmation. The result was that bishops were office managers of clergy. Most of them got to preach and celebrate Communion once a year at Annual Conference. Most of them saw lay people only if they were delegates to Annual Conference. In theory confirmation is not needed for bishops to make visiting parishes a major part of their ministry, but in practice it is. Finally, there is an important theologal reason for continuing to do confirmation even though it is no sacrement. That is because it is fitting that men and women entering our Church from other denominations make their profession of faith in the presence of a man or woman who by virtue of his or her office represents the wider Church- the bishop.

    • Whit, thanks for those observations. My brief responses:

      1. Why not have ‘reaffirmation of baptism’ as the adult rite? It might not be very different, but it would stop the dilution of baptism, and also undo the farce of saying that you must be episcopally confirmed, but not episcopally baptised. It would also then make adult baptism stand alone with integrity.

      2. Yes, i would like 7-year-olds to fully participate in the practical life of the church! With *appropriate* responsibility. According to Paul, we should expect children, baptised and filled with the Spirit, to be able to contribute to the spiritual life of the congregation.

      3. I do wish bishops could make it a priority to visit congregations for something other than a ceremonial role! If you are pastor to the pastors, surely you should be visiting anyway??!

  8. Thanks Ian. I totally agree with you. A rite of passage to maturity/adulthood is not at issue here. There are other ways of celebrating that. In my parish, high school students are licensed chalice-administators and youth serve as ushers as well. Of course there is also provision for a youth member of the vestry [UK: “PCC”] As for infant communion, we administer a drop of wine on the tongue ala Orthodoxy.

  9. Fair enough Ian. But we have confirmation and people ( and bishops themselves)seem to value it being an episcopal rite.So perhaps we need greater clarity as to what we think it conveys and what purpose it might serve now,and whether it should have a part in the initiation process.I haven’t read this report but Martin Davie is a fairly conservative evangelical ( he’s recently published a commentary on the 39 arts) and there must be other evangelicals on FOAC.Does this mean that for some at least the Lampe/Buchanan view has not proved convincing?

  10. Surely, Baptism is the gateway to full membership of the body of Christ. there seems to have been no rite of Confirmation in the Scriptures – unless you like to cite the coming of the Holy Spirit on the Disciples at Pentecost. But, where were the Bishops – unless……


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