A helpful book on Confirmation
Review of 'Defend, O Lord: Confirmation according to the Book of Common Prayer' by Martin Davie
One of the things that often seems to puzzle non-Anglicans or Roman Catholics is the whole concept of confirmation and to be honest, if I am anything to go by, not all Anglicans fully understand the confirmation service, it’s origins and purposes either. When I picked up a copy of Margie Davie’s booklet Defend, O Lord: Confirmation according to the Book of Prayer, I was expecting an updated version of Stott’s confirmation book which was first published 50 years ago. However this is, as the book’s subtitle states, an explanation of the BCP service rather than a doctrinal introduction to Christian faith and discipleship.
Though a short book it was provoking in places. Not in a polemic way but that it got me thinking about some issues of exegesis and doctrine in a way I hadn’t for awhile. Martin Davie does a great job of showing the provenance of the confirmation liturgy according to the Book of Common Prayer (he argues that as Common Worship is based on the BCP that that service is still binding, but given that most confirmation services today would use CW I think a trick is missed not looking at the more modern version too). He explores how it developed and what modifications were made along the way.
The explanation of key words was helpful - especially the double meaning of ‘confirm’ (comfirmare in Latin) as ratifying (of the baptismal promise) and strengthening (of the candidate by God for Christian life). Of particular help was Chapter 4: Questions about confirmation today - where it clarified that confirmation wasn’t ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit’ as a second blessing apart from the receiving of the Spirit at conversion (and baptism). The appendix with a version of the 1662 BCP confirmation service put into modern English was interesting, although I wouldn’t know if it has canonical validity.
The whole explanation of the link between baptism and admission to holy communion was very helpful and cleared up a few issues for me and will regard some action in my local church! The explanation of the traditional preparation for confirmation based on the BCP Catechism which looks at The Christian Covenant, The Apostle’s Creed, the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer and the Sacraments made me realise that I have to rethink my preparation of future confirmation candidates. This all picks up on Davie’s earlier work: Instruction in the Way of the Lord: A Guide to the Catechism in the BCP (2014).
Now for a few quibbles that got my grey cells working overtime. It may be that I am too low church for my own good but it seemed that this work was more sacramental in its approach than most Latimer Trust publications - perhaps boding well for a broader audience than usual and which might be particularly useful for an episcopal readership.
I struggled with language such as ‘the action of the spirit in Baptism - grants us new life in Christ and the forgiveness of sins’ (79). A plain reading of Acts 2.38 suggests that repentance precedes baptism (which is done in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins) so that it is the repentance that leads to new life and the forgiveness of sins which baptism publicly confirms.
Similarly in the next sentence ‘at confirmation we are given the gifts of the Spirit, and particularly the sevenfold gifts prophesied in Isaiah 11.2-3’ attributes too much, I think, to the imposition of bishops hands upon the confirmation candidate. The argument that Davies uses (62-3, 70-2) is that the precedent for the bishop imparting the gift (or gifts) of the Holy Spirit on the candidate are the stories in Acts 8 and 19.
Apart from the obvious risk of placing too heavy an emphasis for the explanation of a doctrinal issue on narrative history it appears that those events in the early church where the fullness of the spirit was delayed from initial belief and repentance were two key moments in redemptive history where the gospel reached the Samaritans and the Gentiles. To say ‘The laying on of hands by Peter, John and Paul is an outward sign of their prayer that Samaritans and the disciples at Ephesus will receive a further gifting by the Spirit after their baptism. In the confirmation service the bishop is doing exactly the same thing’ (my emphasis) seems to be over-egging the pudding.
I found the repeated explanation of the link between Isaiah 11.2-3 of the seven fold gift of the Spirit (3, 17, 56, 59-62, 63, 79, 82 & 96) and the gifts that the confirmation candidate receives on the imposition of hands - fascinating, but ultimately overloading significance onto the OT prophet. Presumably it’s a messianic prophecy that we can part take in, being ‘in Christ’, though to tie it in so strongly into the episcopal laying on of hands didn’t convince this reader. This I imagine comes from the older sources that the author quotes (another admirable feature of the book is its diversity of authors referred too) and does no doubt give continuity to thinking around confirmation across different periods of church history.
I enjoyed reading and interacting with this booklet, learnt lots and have further things to reflect on and put into practice in my local church. I warmly recommend this new book on confirmation.