Sunday, October 24, 2010

Communion before Confirmation

For discussion on Sundays 31 October and 7 November

Policy on Christian Initiation:
Children, Communion and Confirmation

1. The Meaning of Initiation

Initiation means ‘beginning’ or ’joining in’, and here refers to those rites and practices through which one comes to participate in the life of the church.

It has been taken in particular to refer to baptism, confirmation and admission to holy communion.

The relevant Common Worship volume, Christian Initiation, includes ‘Rites on the Way’ and Rites of Affirmation’, reminding us that ‘initiation’ is part of a process rather than a single event or events. All Christians are ‘On the Way’ (to quote the title of the most recent General Synod report on initiation}.

Our policy on initiation seeks to be faithful to the teaching of scripture and the church as we have received it within the Anglican tradition.

2. Initiation in the Christian Tradition

2.1 The New Testament

Most scholars today would argue that christian initiation as portrayed in the New Testament is 'complete' in water baptism. Baptism was the outward sign of conversion which 'effected' incorporation into the body of Christ, the church. It was a once and for all rite that corresponded to the 'conversion' of the individual (which might be understood as a lifelong process).

In the New Testament the Apostles lay hands on baptized converts and disciples “and they receive the Holy Spirit” (Acts 8.14, 19.6). However there are also reports of converts receiving the Spirit before baptism (Acts 9.17), and elsewhere of Baptism itself bringing the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2.38).

The attempt to reconcile these accounts led to the suggestion, indeed the 'doctrine', that there was a necessary second part to Christian initiation which required the laying on of hands by an apostle (or later by a 'successor' to the apostles).

The New Testament does not really provide sufficient evidence to support such a definite conclusion, and it might be better to conclude from this early ‘charismatic’ period of the Church’s history that God himself is not bound by rites and ‘sacraments’. Furthermore, Christians of this time would probably not have been as ‘troubled’ as their successors by the exact order in which the elements of initiation took place, because they would have seen them as together comprising a single ‘process’. 'Ritual' practice might have varied from place to place.

2.2 The Early Church

What we call ‘confirmation’ has its origins in the second century in a rite of the laying on of hands in association with the rite of water baptism. By now this is understood to be for the reception of the Holy Spirit, and is therefore a necessary supplement to water baptism.

In the first centuries of the Church most candidates for initiation were adults. They underwent a period of preparation which involved instruction, fasting, penitence and prayer leading up to baptism, ‘confirmation’ and admission to holy communion on a single occasion, usually at the Easter Liturgy on the night of Holy Saturday/Easter Sunday.

As the Christian community grew the majority of candidates were children born into Christian homes. Furthermore the bishop, originally the local pastor, could only be in one place at Easter and was represented in most places by a priest. As a consequence, what originally had been a singleprocess was now experienced by the candidate as a series ofrites over an extended period.

Baptism, administered soon after birth by the ‘parish priest’, was 'confirmed' later
when the bishop laid his hands upon the candidate. This latter 'event' then came to be thought of as a separate ritedistinct from baptism (Confirmation’ with a capital ‘C’). It became one of the ‘seven sacraments’ and so required its own theological identity and explanation. Rather than ‘conferring’ the Holy Spirit, it was interpreted as a ‘strengthening’ in the Spirit for the christian life, theprocess of conversion and growth in faith.

Confirmation, thus understood, ceased to be a (part of the) sacrament of initiation. Christian initiation was complete in water baptism (which was itself understood as conferring the Holy Spirit). However, in as much as admission to holy communion was made to depend on the previous reception of the sacrament of confirmation, it continued to have an initiatory function.

2.3 Reformation and beyond

Because 'conversion' was seen in protestantism more as an 'event' than a 'process', its 'sign', baptism, was often postponed until the candidate could give an account of their faith. Where infant baptism was retained, a new 'rite' was devised which replaced (though sometimes retained the name) 'confirmation'. Its purpose was to give the candidate the opportunity to 'confirm' the baptismal promises made on their behalf by their godparents, and for the church to 'confirm' the candidate's understanding of christian teaching on faith and morals.

Although this new kind of confirmation was not strictly initiatory (it was, as it were, confirming that initiation was complete in baptism), it often became the gateway to holy communion, and so acquired a secondary initiatory significance.

3. Confirmation and the Church of England

3.1 Schools of thought

The English Reformers saw confirmation principally as an event in which the bishop admitted candidates to holy communion on the basis of an examination of their understanding of the reformed faith expressed in the catechism. Because he did this through the laying on of hands (and because he was a bishop after all!) this latter act came to be seen by some either as an effective 'strengthening' in the spirit, or (by a particular 19th and early 20th century school of thought) as the conferring of the Holy Spirit and the completion of (a two-stage) initiation begun with baptism.

The fact that the Prayer Book required confirmation also of those baptized as adults seemed to reinforce a two-stage Anglican understanding of initiation and the necessity of both for admission to holy communion.

3.2 The Age for Confirmation and Communion

The Prayer Books envisage children being presented for Confirmation when they come to the “years of discretion” or are “of perfect age” (BCP 1662 “competent age”), that is to say around the age of seven in canon law. The actual test is that "they can say the Creed, the Lord's Prayer, and the Ten Commandments" and answer questions on the same from the 'short Catechism' (i.e. the first part of the Prayer Book Catechism).

Responsibility for rehearsing children in these texts fell primarily on parents and 'masters'. The role of the 'Curate of the parish' was to ensure this was done and provide 'remedial' instruction when it was not.

The age of 13, often taken by Anglicans to be the ‘correct age’ for Confirmation, appears to have its origins in the 1604 Canons which prescribe that bishops make three-yearly visits to ensure that all are confirmed by the age of 16. By late Victorian times this age conveniently coincided with the age of transfer to public school or, in the case of others, the school-leaving age.

Anglican writers down to that time are usually to be found complaining that Confirmation is being delayed too much. George Herbert, for example, in his Country Parson (1632) – a manual for the clergy – says:

“the time of one’s first receiving [holy communion] is not so much by years as by understanding . . . Children and youths are usually deferred too long under pretence of devotion to the Sacrament”.

By “understanding” he does not seem to be referring to the completion of some course of preparation, but whether:

“one could distinguish the sacramental from common bread,

whether, that is, one understood the ‘context’ in which the bread was being eaten - that this meal was ‘different from all other meals’ (to quote the Passover Haggadah).

3.3 The Reality

In practice, whatever the theology, confirmation came to be popularly thought of as admitting one to 'full membership' of the church.

Confirmation for many became almost a 'graduation' from Sunday School, and marked the end, rather than the deepening, of their participation on the life of the church (although now of course they had the 'right' to receive holy communion on an occasional attendance).

The focus of confirmation in the Church of England in a way became the preparation for it rather than the event itself or what followed from it. Preparation was generally understood as 'confirmation classes' (usually taken by the most junior member of the clergy available) on the lines of 'extra RE'.

In recent years the church of England has de factorecognized that confirmation is not necessary for admission to holy communion, and by implication, that baptism alone initiates, through inviting baptized members of other churches to receive.

In recent years there has been, on the one hand, some movement towards admitting children to communion at an earlier (pre-secondary) age, and, on the other to transforming confirmation into a rite of adult commitment.

4. Moving Forward

Although it is said that Baptism represents complete initiation into the Christian faith there is of course a sense in which this initiation is expressed (and sustained) through admission to holy communion. In principle baptism admits to holy communion, but it is not inappropriate for there to be an interval between the two for further preparation. This is particularly so in the case of children, and Confirmation has been valuable structuring such preparation.

However what might be described as an overemphasis on confirmation (in both traditions) has often led to preparation being thought of as for this additional rite rather than for admission to holy communion. When confirmation is postponed to adulthood, there still remains a possibility of it, rather than actual participation being seen as the actual sign of full membership of the church.

In short, as often be seen said, confirmation has been asked to bear too much, and should be better be understood as a modest rite associated with baptism and admission to holy communion, without itself being initiatory. Through the bishop it brings the individual into contact with the wider and apostolic church, and is an opportunity for affirmation and prayer for the neophyte. It is not, and nor is theCommon Worship rite, about the giving of the sacramental giving of the Spirit.

The appropriate time for this kind of confirmation is around that of 'first communion' but could precede or follow it.

4.4 The Proposed Policy

In practice ‘admission to holy communion’ might be understood as short hand for a ‘participatory appreciation’ of the Eucharist. Children bought up to participate in the liturgy come at some point to recognize that they are doing something really special before they understand how theologians have attempted to explain it. Something like what Bishop Ian Ramsey called ‘disclosure situation’ is involved.

The suggestion is that the ‘formation’ of baptized Christians takes place within the context of the liturgy, and it is through participation in the liturgy that one comes to appreciate it (rather than through a detached course of preparation).

The basis of the proposed policy is that the years in which young children participate in the (liturgical) life of the church, from their baptism through the age of discretion, is the equivalent for them of the catechumenate of the early church. It is within this period that they are appropriately fully initiated into the body of Christ through baptism and admission to holy communion.

Preparation for this initiation is primarily a matter of participation rather than instruction, although of course participation itself involves an important educational dimension (a ‘junior church’ rather than a ‘Sunday school’). Furthermore ‘preparation’ is not confined to the period leading up to admission to holy communion, but is a life-long process of ‘mystagogy’ primarily located in liturgy.

The proposal is that baptized children be admitted to holy communion and confirmed at or around the age of discretion.

It is emphasized that the proposal is not simply that children might be admitted to holy communion 'before' being confirmed (in the sense that the traditional order of these elements of initiation might be reversed as a matter of course).

The suggestion is rather that children of the age of discretion be considered to be ‘ready and desirous to be so confirmed’ (Canon B 15A) because of their active participation in the life of the church for at least a year, and subject to their own and their parents’ agreement.

The corollary is that Confirmation itself be administered closer to the age of discretion, and in practice at around the time of (before or after) transfer to secondary school.

It is submitted that such a policy is more consistent with the tradition of the church than one in which children are admitted to holy communion at an early age, and in which Confirmation is redefined as a rite of adult affirmation separated often by many years from baptism and ‘first communion’ (as well as with the requirements of theGuidelines agreed by the House of Bishops in March 1997).

4.5 The Proposed Practice

The Guidelines require that admission to holy communion is “marked in some suitable way before the whole congregation”.

It is envisaged that admission might take place during a Parish Eucharist towards the beginning of the Church’s year (perhaps the Feast of Christ the King).

In the weeks (September/October) leading up to this preparation would be made in Sunday School including ‘rehearsals’ of the various parts of the liturgy.
Children admitted would receive communion in the normal way on subsequent weeks, and would attend the ‘full’ eucharist on occasions when there was no Sunday School (Ash Wednesday, Christmas and Easter in particular), due recognition of their presence being made.

A children’s liturgy would be held at the beginning of each ‘term’ in which those already admitted to communion would play a larger part as servers etc.

All Sunday School children would attend the Confirmation service when usually, but not necessarily, those who had been admitted to holy communion and completed a course of preparation would be confirmed.

In the weeks preceding Confirmation all children in Sunday school would receive an introduction to its meaning and participate in a ‘rehearsal’ of the rite. Those to be confirmed would attend a special session of preparation.

It is envisaged that eventually most children would be admitted to communion between the ages of 7 and 8, and be confirmed by 10 or 11.

4.6 ‘On-going’ Christian Formation

A ‘formational’ dimension should also be incorporated into the life of the church as a whole to emphasize the ‘progressive’ character of Christian initiation.