Since the middle of the twentieth-century, there has been much study of Christian initiation both in the World Council of Churches and in the Roman Catholic Church. Naturally, the Anglican Way, especially in the West, has been affected by this debate and there have been attempts to modify or reform the received method of Christian initiation of the Anglican Way. None has been more obvious and radical than the approach taken by The Episcopal Church. Let us begin with an overview of the traditional Anglican method.
Initiation in The BCP (1662)
The last words spoken by the Priest in the Service of Infant Baptism in The Book of Common Prayer (1662) are these:
Ye [Godfathers and Godmothers] are to take care that this Child be brought to the Bishop to be confirmed by him, so soon as he can say the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments in the vulgar tongue [English], and be further instructed in the Church Catechism set forth for that purpose.
Here we note the method of Christian initiation under normal circumstances with respect to children that was uniformly in place in the Church of England and the Anglican Family of Churches from the sixteenth century through to the latter part of the twentieth century, and is still in place in much of the Communion of Churches. Baptism leads on to Christian nurture and instruction, which leads on to Confirmation and then to the joy and discipline of receiving Holy Communion.
To appreciate this method we need to bear in mind that the Anglican Reformers in the middle of the sixteenth century took what had been the standard practice of Initiation in Ecclesia Anglicana for a long time and made modifications to it, arising from a very major conviction that they held—that the gracious blessings and privileges given by God in Infant Baptism are only truly and fully received by the baptized when he consciously exercises repentance for sin and belief in the promises of God centered on the Lord Jesus Christ. So they raised the recommended age for Confirmation by the Bishop from about seven to about twelve years and did so because they wanted to provide opportunity for the young person knowingly and consciously to embrace the Faith which his Godparents had held and believed in his stead.
Thus the Order for Confirmation begins with this explanatory Preface read by the Bishop or a Minister appointed by him;
To the end that Confirmation may be ministered to the more edifying of such as shall receive it, the Church hath thought good to order, That none hereafter shall be confirmed, but such as can say the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments; and can also answer to such other Questions, as in the short Catechism are contained: which order is very convenient to be observed; to the end that children being now come to the years of discretion, and having learned what their Godfathers and Godmothers promised for them in Baptism, they may themselves, with their own mouth and consent, openly before the Church, ratify and confirm the same; and also promise, that by the grace of God they will evermore endeavour themselves faithfully to observe such things, as they by their own confession have assented to.
And immediately after the Preface the Bishop asks the young persons this question:
Do you here, in the presence of God, and of this Congregation, renew the solemn promise and vow that was made in your name at your Baptism; ratifying and confirming the same in your own person, and acknowledging yourselves bound to believe and to do all those things, which your Godfathers and Godmothers then undertook for you?
To this each one is to say clearly, “I do.”
So we note that the substitutionary faith exercised by the Godparents for the infant suffices before God in the covenant of grace until the child, in the process of maturing, has come to “the years of discretion.” At this point he can, as a young person, with understanding and commitment, embrace that which, in and through Godparents, he is already committed to. That is, as a twelve-year old he now publicly confesses the Faith of Christ and commits himself to be a true follower of Jesus Christ.
Having publicly made his own what had been held in trust for him by his Godparents, the baptized young person is ready for the ministry of the Bishop, the Father-in-God of the congregation of Christ’s flock, to pray for him and to lay hands upon him. And following this Confirmation he is ready, as a repentant sinner and Christian believer, to approach the Table of the Lord, to receive the heavenly food.
It has been rightly stated that:
The Reformers moved Confirmation to the early teens, so that those baptized as infants could receive elementary Christian instruction and could then make the baptismal professions of faith and repentance in their own persons, immediately before being admitted to Communion. Although the Reformers used Confirmation for a new purpose, it was a purpose in general harmony with the New Testament and the primitive Church, one which gave a renewed emphasis to repentance and faith, and completed what had been begun at Baptism. (The Water and Wine, p.76)
Initiation in The Episcopal Church
Until the 1970s, the method of Initiation in the Protestant Episcopal Church followed that laid out in The Book of Common Prayer (1928) which is the same as that in the earlier 1662 edition (which had been used in the original thirteen colonies). Then, under the influence of what has been called “the liturgical renewal movement” and taking into account the developing doctrine of rights for children and other factors, The Episcopal Church approved in its General Conventions of 1976 and 1979 a new doctrine of Initiation. The first words in the introduction to the Baptismal Rite summarize the new doctrine: “Holy Baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body the Church. The bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble.”
This claim is based upon what occurred in the Early Church in and from the third century and what still is the practice in The Orthodox Churches, but which has not been the practice in the Catholic Church of the West since the late patristic period. In the Early Church, there was great variety—indeed a bewildering diversity—of approaches and forms but in general the way in which an adult convert was received into the Church involved, in one complex ceremony, Renunciation of the Devil, Profession of Faith, Baptism in Water, Anointing with oil (chrism), Laying on of hands by the Bishop and receiving Holy Communion. In the Orthodox Churches today the Baptism of Infants follows this general outline, but without the presence of the Bishop. The parish priest baptizes, anoints with oil (blessed by the Bishop) and then gives Holy Communion (a tiny amount usually on a spoon) to the Infant.
So the new practice of The Episcopal Church is like that of The Orthodox Churches but without the rich doctrinal, liturgical and disciplinary context of Orthodoxy. The Episcopal Service contains a Renunciation and “The Baptismal Covenant” before the Thanksgiving over the Water and the Blessing by the Bishop (if present) of the Chrism. Then follow the Baptism and the marking with the sign of the Cross (where Chrism is used), the Welcome of the baptized into the congregation and then Holy Communion. Infants, children, young people and adults are all invited and urged to receive Holy Communion as often as it is provided.
There is a certain untidiness in the Episcopal Rites in the 1979 Prayer Book because—under pressure from Bishops whose visits to parishes have been often historically only for “Confirmation”—Confirmation is retained. However, it is not retained as the completion of Baptism as in the traditional Anglican Way, but rather as a kind of recognition that the baptized communicant is taking up the responsibilities of church membership and Christian living.
Perhaps here is the place to note why, from the standpoint of the Reformed Catholic Faith of the Anglican Formularies, the giving of Holy Communion to infants and young children is unwise, indeed erroneous practice. The apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 10-11 has much of importance to teach us about “discerning the Lord’s Body.” Here we are warned of the consequences of partaking of the bread and the cup without keeping Christ’s death in mind. A person doing so is guilty of profaning the Lord’s broken body and shed blood. Therefore, self-examination is a necessary preparation before coming to the Table of the Lord. For to partake without “discerning the body of the Lord” draws God’s judgment upon the communicant. Thus,
We may surely conclude then that, as infants and small children can neither rigorously examine themselves nor discern the significance of the sacramental bread and wine, it is better that they should not communicate but rather wait until the “years of discretion” (at least 12) for this privilege. (The Water and the Wine, p.38)
Of course, one can add all kinds of practical points to this theological and spiritual reason why it is better for children to wait until they are fully aware of what kind of holy and unique Table it is to which they go. And one can also supply a variety of reasons why in the modern format of services on Sundays in Anglican Churches (e.g. many “Family Communion Services” with very few Morning Prayer Services) there is great pressure to allow small children to communicate—for receiving a blessing does not seem to satisfy children who are used to having their rights respected and their felt desires satisfied by their parents and relatives. Further, especially in The Episcopal Church, with its strong doctrines of inclusivism and communitarianism, from which none of any age or orientation is to be excluded, the full inclusion of children sacramentally is not doubted or questioned.
While the practice of Infant Communion has gained ground in the (numerically declining) Anglican Churches of the West, it has not had much success in the greater part of the [numerically growing] Anglican Family of Churches of the Global South. Wherever there is strong Evangelical Faith then the call for repentance and faith is primary and this acts as a supporter of traditional Anglican initiation. And wherever there is strong Anglo-Catholic Faith this also acts as a supporter because Confirmation is treated as a “Sacrament” which is separate from Baptism and which is judged to be best received before becoming a regular communicant.
It would seem that if there is to be a genuine Revival of The Anglican Way in the West, firmly based on the Bible, the historic Formularies, and tried and tested Anglican practice, then a return to the traditional form of Initiation will be required, for it is probably the only way right now to keep in its primary place the Gospel call for genuine repentance for sin and saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
[for further reading, THE WATER AND THE WINE by R. Beckwith and A Daunton-Fear, Latimer Studies 61, Latimer Trust, London, order from www.latimertrust.org This is one of the few defences and commendations of the classic Anglican Way in print and is most important for the Jewish background to initiation.]
The Rev'd Dr. Peter Toon MA., D.Phil (Oxford)