BAPTISM is the first of the sacraments. In one sense it is the greatest, because, though the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ surpasses it in dignity, it is the condition for the reception of all other sacraments, and through it God gives the first and the permanent sacramental union of the Christian with the human nature of our Lord. As the first to be received, it is the gate or door of sacramental life, and it supplies the foundation on which the sacramental life is built. Through it the beginning of the covenanted Christian life of grace is made. The baptized receive at their Baptism the specifically Christian gifts of God. They are made members of Christ, they are united to Him in His human nature, they are incorporated in His human life. Being members of Him who is the eternal Son of God, they are made children of God; and they receive the Holy Ghost, by whom His human nature is indwelt.
It is not denied that all men everywhere are children of God by creation, or that the Holy Ghost works outside the limits of the baptized, or that there are gifts of what theologians call "actual grace" in those who have not been brought within the covenant by Christian Baptism. The statements of Catholic theology are affirmations, not denials. They are positive assertions of the great gifts with their distinctive value which are bestowed by means of Baptism. The son-ship by creation is raised to a nobler sonship, the work of the Holy Ghost has a more intimate character, there is "habitual grace," as well as "actual grace," in the baptized.
The connexion of Confirmation with Baptism is very close. In the ancient Church, as still in the East, they were administered in normal cases as two parts of one great rite. The Western restriction of the minister in Confirmation to a Bishop, while the Easterns were content that a presbyter should confirm with chrism which a Bishop had blessed, led to a separation of Confirmation from Baptism in the West in those cases in which a Bishop did not baptize. By the sixteenth century it had become rare in the West for Baptism and Confirmation to be administered at the same time, and for infants to be confirmed; and the practice of the ancient Church was rarely maintained except when the child of some great person was baptized. In the sixteenth century the Church of Rome and the Church of England altered the law of the Church so as to make it conform with the custom which had become usual, and definitely separated Confirmation from Baptism, and restricted Confirmation to those who had reached years of discretion.
The gift in Confirmation is the gift of the Holy Ghost. On this rudimentary statement there is general agreement among the Tractarians and among the Anglo-Catholics of to-day. But the close connexion of Baptism and Confirmation in early times and through a long period of the Church's history makes a more explicit answer difficult. The discussion whether at Baptism the indwelling of the Holy Ghost, who then comes to the soul chiefly to cleanse, is bestowed, so that in Confirmation there is a renewal of the same indwelling chiefly for the purposes of strengthening, or whether in Baptism the Holy Ghost works on the soul from without and does not indwell the soul till the administration of Confirmation, has divided many who in most matters are agreed. If it is the opinion of the present writer that on the whole the evidence from Holy Scripture and from tradition favours the belief that the soul of the baptized, even before Confirmation, possesses the indwelling of the Holy Ghost, he is aware that the contrary opinion is held by many Catholics whose learning and ability he must greatly respect.
Since the sixteenth century the age at which Confirmation has been administered in the Church of England has in a large majority of cases been greater than that at which it has usually been administered in the Church of Rome, and the tendency in the rules made by the Bishops has been to prevent the Confirmation of any who have not reached the age of at least twelve or thirteen years. Different reasons have led Anglo-Catholics to regret, and in some cases to resist, this tendency. The unprimitive character of the practice by which both the Church of Rome and the Church of England have refused Confirmation to infants has been more fully realized. It has become better understood that the Church of England, in requiring the confirmed to have come to years of discretion and to be able to say the Creed, the Lord's Prayer, and the Ten Commandments, and to be instructed in the Church Catechism, does not order an age anything like so old as thirteen; and that in the Church of Rome children of seven years old are habitually confirmed without any apparent ill results. The experience of parish priests and the researches of scientific educationalists have concurred to show that the practical advantages of the younger age are great. Hence, Anglo-Catholics in general are strongly in favour of an age for Confirmation much younger than that which is usual in the Church of England, though it is not likely that more than a few of them agree with the present writer in his opinion that the departure of the Church of England and the Church of Rome from the practice of the ancient Church by postponing Confirmation is unjustifiable. Speaking for himself alone, he must express his belief that it would be easier to justify at the bar of Scripture and history and reason either the administration of both Baptism and Confirmation to infants or the postponement of both till years of discretion than the present method of the Roman Catholic or the English Church.