Anglican Confirmation for Suspicious Evangelicals Pt1

The work of catechizing believers is a central task of the Church in every generation. In this present moment, in which many evangelicals and non-denominational Christians are moving towards more historic and liturgical expressions of the Faith, traditional Anglican churches have an opportunity–and a challenge–in catechizing these newcomers. While the task of catechesis is (ideally) carried out across the entire scope of a parish’s ministry, one particularly significant opportunity for robust Anglican catechesis is through the process of preparation for Confirmation. This two-part article, while touching on important theological issues concerning Confirmation and its place within a catholic ecclesiology and sacramentology, aims to provide a case study in how the Confirmation process can be used to advance the efforts of traditional Anglicans in helping what I am calling “suspicious evangelicals” enter deeper into the Anglican Way.[1]

When we planted Christ the King Anglican Church in Marietta, Georgia in the spring of 2020 (timing that, incidentally, worked to our advantage), our clergy team quickly recognized a potential problem as we began taking the first steps towards forming a parish. We were heartened that we had dozens of people attending our services and events who were attracted to our commitment to finding creative ways to worship and fellowship together even in those early months of the pandemic, but it was clear that few of them were there for the fullness of the traditional prayerbook Anglicanism that our Reformed Episcopal Church plant had on offer. After all, the great majority of our attendees were coming from non-Anglican backgrounds, with conservative Presbyterians, Baptists, and non-denominational evangelicals being the main sources of our growth. Even as other churches began to re-open, the bonds that had been forged during these first months of our existence meant that we had a sizable core group of regular attenders who were committed to our mission. But were they committed to the Anglican Way more generally? Not yet.

Indeed, the central question many attendees had during that time was, “How do I become at home in this tradition?” With the partnership of our planting priest, Fr. Tony Melton, my task as our Director of Catechesis was to envision a process, within our broader catechesis plan, by which these non-Anglicans could acquire the information, attitudes, and habits that would enable them to find their home in the Anglican Way. While it was tempting at the outset just to treat Confirmation as a pro forma welcome by the bishop, we knew that for the long-term health of our parish we needed to explore deeply theological topics, even those that would be seen as quite controversial, that would use the Confirmation process as a means of developing a more sacramental and (reformed) catholic imagination.

With this background in mind, this two-part article series presents the journey that Fr. Tony and I have taken through creating and leading adult Confirmation cohorts at Christ the King over the last two years.[2] We share this not as a prescriptive statement on how all Anglicans should approach the Confirmation process, much less as something we think needs no further refinement, but rather as an attempt to facilitate further reflection on this critical issue of helping non-Anglicans–and especially those “suspicious evangelicals” increasingly showing up in our pews–become “at home” in our tradition.

Reading the Room

All good teaching begins with the teacher or catechist knowing the specific learners whom the Lord has entrusted to their instruction.[3] In our case, the typical adult attendee who we hoped would take part in our Confirmation process was something like Rick. Rick (a composite of many of our parishioners) is in his mid-forties, a long-time faithful churchgoer equipped with a strong knowledge of the Scriptures and the basics of Christian theology. He enjoys inductive Bible study and is conversant in the core content of traditional catechisms: the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments. Conversely, he lacks knowledge of much of church history (besides perhaps John Calvin or maybe Augustine), and has little ability to articulate a theology of the sacraments or even of the church more broadly. Rick is initially a little skeptical, even hostile to the idea of Confirmation: what difference does it make if I’m already saved? Isn’t this laying-on-of-hands deal just a bunch of hocus-pocus? And (perhaps this question is unspoken, but it’s always there, under the surface), if I go through with this, does that invalidate my Christian experience thus far or the “confirmation” that I received in another tradition? He is, in other words, a “suspicious evangelical.”

I am confident that there are many men and women like Rick who in recent years have found their way into an Anglican parish, and who have similar faith profiles. How, then, do we engage folks like Rick in the context of a Confirmation process for the sake of expanding his theological imagination? Or, in other words: how might we design a learning experience that accomplishes our aims for a room full of Ricks?

Creating the Cohort

We decided early on that a traditional classroom setting would not suffice for our purposes. Instead, we wanted to create something that offered more opportunities for relationships and reflection, and so we landed on a cohort model for our Confirmation process. With groups of about twenty, we needed ways to help facilitate connections and allow members of the cohort to talk through their ideas and concerns with one another, such that there would be a real sense of camaraderie and community within the cohort. By incorporating prayer, a fellowship meal (home-cooked by other parishioners) to share with one another, and lots of time for conversation and discussion, we crafted a schedule for each of our four monthly three-hour sessions that played into our strengths in the areas of hospitality and personal pastoral care.

We also knew that it would be important to bill the cohort as a means of gathering more information about Confirmation; we needed to be clear up front that there was no requirement or even expectation that a person who signed up for the cohort would end up choosing to be confirmed (though of course, we hoped that they would). This would make the cohort less threatening to those who had concerns about Confirmation and increase our pool of potential confirmands. And while we were sure to publicize the cohort to our whole membership via our weekly communications, we spent time personally calling and exhorting those whom we thought would particularly benefit from participating in this cohort. Rick had been on the fence about attending the cohort, but our effort in extending him a personal invitation helped him make the decision to attend.

With these logistics in mind, we turned to the even more critical task of mapping out how to strategically use our allotted time for the purpose of helping Rick move deeper into the Anglican Way and the catholic tradition.

Crafting the Content

As we continued to think about the deficiencies in Rick’s theological outlook, we settled on Rick’s lack of ecclesiology as a foundational problem from which we could then get at other issues of importance to us, such as apostolic succession and the sacraments. The first session of our cohort, therefore, provides an introduction to a reformed catholic doctrine of the church.

Session 1: A Theology of the Church

The goal of this first session is to help cohort members recover an understanding of what the Apostles’ Creed calls “the holy catholic church.” Many of the people who come to us have an unhealthy attitude of semper reformata and need to be reminded of “the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3), leaning more into the necessary continuities with the past and away from inclinations towards novelty and division.

By way of opening, we ask cohort members how they would define “the church.” We then turn to the 1928 BCP’s “Offices of Instruction” for a traditional Anglican definition: “The Body of which Jesus Christ is the Head, and all baptized people are the members.” Here we stress the importance of Baptism to this definition, noting that the Church is visibly marked and sacramentally created. We also lean into the language of “members” as referring to limbs or parts of the body. A limb, if dismembered, shrivels and dies when it is detached from the body; so too salvation comes by Christ through membership in His Body. The emphasis on “all” baptized people can cause consternation among more Puritan-minded folks, and so we remind them that it is God (not us!) who will ultimately sort the wheat from the tares (Matt 13:24-30).[4]

Continuing with the structure of the Offices of Instruction, we proceed into the four marks of the Church according to the Creeds: “The Church is described in the Creeds as One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic” (1928 BCP). We next analyze each of these marks in turn.

By “one,” we mean that the Church “is one Body under one Head” (1928 BCP). The image of the vine and the branches (John 15:1-6) is a helpful illustration. Here we press the point that the Anglican Church is an ancient branch of the one Church, founded in Britain in the second or third century. What, then, do we make of the fact that the Church is so divided today? Here we introduce the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral as an Anglican approach to seeking the reunion of the major branches of Christ’s Church, and argue that the language of esse, bene esse, and plene esse provides a way of charitably thinking about ecumenical relations.

By “holy,” we mean that “the Holy Spirit dwells in [the Church], and sanctifies its members” (1928 BCP). The reasoning here is that the Church is holy by virtue of her union with Christ, not to mention the Church’s own virtue and witness. This is an important point for us to make because it is all too common for Christians today to denigrate the Church for the many sins and shortcomings of her members. While acknowledging brokenness within the Church Militant, Scripture demands that we have a more positive, charitable, and receptive posture towards the Church, the Bride of Christ. In other words, if the Church is holy, we must relate to her differently; we cannot love Christ and hate His Bride.

By “catholic,” we mean that the Church “is universal, holding earnestly the Faith for all time, in all countries, and for all people; and is sent to preach the Gospel to the whole world” (1928 BCP). Here we point people to the so-called Vincentian Canon: we desire to believe “what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all.” This is, we believe, an affirmation of Christ’s promises to His Church that the Holy Spirit “shall teach you all things” (John 14:26) and that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt 16:18). Again, the result of understanding this mark of the Church is a shift in our posture towards her; the Church is our Mother, having birthed us into a lineage that extends back for generations, and so we are to have an attitude of receptivity towards her. We therefore happily claim the label of “Catholic,” refusing to surrender its usage to the Roman Church alone.

Finally, by “apostolic,” we mean that the Church “continues steadfastly in the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship” (1928 BCP). The Church continues in the apostolic teaching by continuing to uphold and pass on the regula fidei (in effect, the Creeds) and in the apostolic fellowship through apostolic succession. This latter point is so significant for Anglican ecclesiology and for a theology of Confirmation that we defer its discussion to our second session, when it becomes our central focus. To ease concerns about our apostolic heritage being set over or against Scripture, we point out that likewise the doctrines of the Trinity and the hypostatic union are not explicitly found in Scripture; indeed, the Church gave us the biblical canon in the first place. We desire in all things to be biblical, but our reading of the Bible can and must be informed by the voice of the Church.

In closing, we break into small groups and have cohort members read and discuss how several biblical passages (John 3:1-8; Matt 28:18-20; Rom 6:3-12; 1 Cor 12:12-14; Acts 8:14-17) relate to these definitions or marks of the Church. The result of viewing the Church as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic must, we contend, be a renewed posture towards the Church. We want people to take on a spirit of receptivity towards the Church, like a child towards his mother. This requires, then, a shift in how we think about the Protestant Reformation. Rather than simply celebrating this chapter of church history, we can instead conceive of it as a necessary event that nevertheless had a number of unfortunate and unforeseen consequences. This is a difficult paradigm shift for Rick, but his many years bouncing around various non-liturgical churches has created in him a desire for the deeper liturgical and historical roots that the Anglican Way can offer.

Session 2: Apostolic Succession and the Episcopacy

Having established a general framework for ecclesiology, our second session takes a deep dive into the concept of apostolic succession and the significance of the Episcopacy. Again, we start with definitions, noting that the phrase “apostolic succession” can be used to describe at least three different ways in which the succession of bishops is important for understanding the role of the historic episcopacy. First, apostolic succession guarantees continuity in apostolic teaching, which was a particularly important point for the early heresiologists. Second, apostolic succession provides for continuity in apostolic function, insofar as the bishops carry on the apostolic work of preaching, ruling, and ordaining. Third, apostolic succession transmits apostolic grace, as in the laying on of hands at Confirmation, an idea which sets up the content for our final two sessions.

The bulk of this session, then, traces the emergence and development of the Episcopacy in the early church, allowing the Fathers to speak for themselves in defense of the significance of bishops. In order to avoid trying to claim too much on historical grounds, we acknowledge that the New Testament seems to reflect a time when the division between presbyters (presbyteros) and bishops (episkopos) was less clear. What is indisputable, however, is that the Church quickly transitioned to a threefold order, with Ignatius of Antioch (d. 117) a crucial witness to this process. For Ignatius, the bishops are the organ of unity in the Church, and he therefore time and again exhorts the recipients of his letters to be in harmony with their bishops.[5] This sets up a detailed examination of the writings of Irenaeus (d. 202) on apostolic succession, allowing us to glimpse the apparent universality of the Episcopacy as the normative form of church order by the late second century.[6] A brief exploration of the testimony of Tertullian (d. 220) to the universality of the Episcopacy by the end of the second century shows the geographic dispersal of the threefold order.[7] And finally, the writings of Hippolytus of Rome (d. 236) provide more insight into the Episcopacy through his account of the consecration and ordination rites of the Roman Church.[8]

Having shown the early, widespread emergence of the Episcopate in the early church, we briefly turn to how the Anglican Church maintained apostolic succession at the time of the Reformation, as its first bishops had been consecrated in the Roman Church. Anticipating a question we sometimes get from at least one person in each cohort, we acknowledge that Pope Leo III declared Anglican orders null and void in his Apostolicae Curae (1896), but point out that we have a strong Anglican response to Leo in the English archbishops’ Saepius Officio (1897). In wrapping up this topic, I like to point to this line from Michael Ramsey: “All who are baptized into Christ are members of His Church, and Baptism is the first mark of churchmanship. Yet the growth of all Christians into the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ means their growth with all the saints in the unity of the one Body, and of this unity the Episcopate is the expression.”[9] We are inviting our cohort members into the fullness of the unity of Christ’s Body.

What one might find peculiar about these first two sessions of our Confirmation cohort is that we don’t actually talk at all about Confirmation! But we firmly believe that a proper understanding of ecclesiology and apostolic succession is necessary for helping “suspicious evangelicals” like Rick even have the right framework or categories for understanding why Confirmation is so important in our tradition. In the second of this pair of articles, we will examine how we do eventually “land the plane” with Confirmation, by way of an investigation of a biblical theology of blessing and then an examination of the liturgy around Confirmation itself.

Notes

  1. Defining the “Anglican Way” is beyond the scope of this essay, but I proceed from an understanding of Anglicanism as an effort at “Reformed Catholicism.” See further the comments of my presiding bishop on this topic at https://anglicancompass.com/the-anglican-way-both-catholic-and-reformed/.
  2. Much more could be said about youth Confirmation cohorts, but that is another topic for another time.
  3. On this often-neglected aspect of the catechetical process, see further Kyle R. Hughes, Teaching for Spiritual Formation: A Patristic Approach to Christian Education in a Convulsed Age (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2022), 14-38.
  4. We usually supplement this definition with the one provided by Article XIX: “The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance, in all those things that of necessary are requisite to the same.” Here we have to point out that “visible” means “earthly,” and is meant to contrast with the heavenly Church Triumphant.
  5. See, for example, Ignatius, Eph. 2.2, 3.2, 4.1, 6.1; Magn. 3.1, 6.1, 13.2; Trall. 2.2, 7.2; Phld. 1.1, 4.1; Smyrn. 8.1-2.
  6. See, for example, Irenaeus, Haer. 3.3.1, 3.4.1, 4.33.8.
  7. See, for example, Tertullian, Praescr. 20, 32.
  8. See, for example, Hippolytus, Trad. ap. 2, 7.
  9. Michael Ramsey, The Gospel and the Catholic Church (Repr., Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2009), 72.

Rev Dr Kyle Hughes

The Rev. Dr. Kyle Hughes serves as an assisting deacon and director of catechesis at Christ the King Anglican Church (REC-ACNA) in Marietta, GA. An accomplished researcher and author in the fields of church history and Christian education, his most recent book is "Teaching for Spiritual Formation: A Patristic Approach to Christian Education in a Convulsed Age" (Cascade, 2022). He and his wife, Karisa, live in Powder Springs, GA with their three young children. Follow him at www.kylerhughes.com or on Twitter @KyleRHughes10.


'Anglican Confirmation for Suspicious Evangelicals Pt1' have 3 comments

  1. July 1, 2023 @ 11:14 am Charles Haddeb

    It is said that Apostolic Succession guarantees continuity. How do you then respond to someone who says, “it did not do a good job in the episcopal church.” ? I would really appreciate a response here. Thank you.

    Reply

    • July 2, 2023 @ 7:01 pm Kyle Hughes

      Charles, this is a great question. In making this point in AH 4.33.8, Irenaeus does not mention what happens if a bishop, rightly consecrated, were to become a heretic or apostate (even the suggestion of such would be problematic for his polemic, no doubt). I think though that he (by which I suppose I really mean I) would respond that the apostolic grace transmitted through the line of bishops can be lost by a bishop who becomes a heretic or apostate. In other words, apostolic succession and grace require apostolic faith; they can’t be separated. So perhaps what I mean is that apostolic succession guarantees continuity in the true Church that maintains apostolic faith (Matt 16:18); a bishop or church that denies the apostolic faith, however, is no longer in apostolic succession. There’s part of me that worries this argument could be taken in a Donatist direction, but maybe I’d think of it in the same way as one can lose his baptismal grace by willful apostasy (Heb 6:4ff). That is to say, when a church willfully places themselves outside of Christ’s Church, the mere fact of having a succession of bishops is not sufficient for the preservation of apostolic succession in the sense described herein. But I’d be happy for anyone else to chime in on this one.

      Reply

  2. July 7, 2023 @ 4:01 pm Frank Freeman

    In the second para of CREATING THE COHORT, the wording reads: “…it would be important to bill the cohort …”.
    Is that a typo; did you mean ‘build’?

    Reply


Would you like to share your thoughts?

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

(c) 2024 North American Anglican