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The Confirmation Rubric: A Historical Sketch.

By James Arthur Muller.

Philadelphia: Evangelical Education Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church, 1946.

IN THE YEAR 1281 Archbishop Peckham of Canterbury decreed "that no one be admitted to the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of the Lord who has not been confirmed, unless he be at the point of death or unless he has been reasonably hindered from the reception of confirmation." The reason for this decree, said the Archbishop, was the widespread neglect of Confirmation, insomuch that "many, indeed innumerable many, grow old without the grace of Confirmation." The Archbishop's decree is at once testimony to contemporary conditions, as well as to his desire to change them.

His decree found its way into a rubric in the Sarum Manual. But neither decree nor rubric appears to have had much effect. Dioceses were large, travel difficult, medieval bishops often busy with affairs of state, so that the administration of Confirmation was haphazard at the best. As the historian, Canon W. Capes, author of "The English Church in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries," concludes, "Children were brought wherever a bishop could be found, and sometimes more than once for the blessing that might follow, but as there was little rule or method, many were left altogether unconfirmed" (p. 229).

The Sarum rubric, without the clauses permitting exceptions, was taken over into the first English Prayer Book of 1549. There it read: "And there shall none be admitted to the Holy Communion until such time as he be confirmed." In the Second Prayer Book, three years later, it was expanded: "And there shall none be admitted to the Holy Communion until such time as he can say the Catechism and be confirmed." This remained the form until 1661.

Despite its unconditional nature, this rubric had no more effect in making Confirmation universal, or even customary, than had its medieval prototype. Many bishops in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries desired to have instruction precede admission to Holy Communion, but they appear to have been indifferent to Confirmation.

Episcopal injunctions and visitation articles abound in queries as to whether parish priests admit any to the Communion who cannot say the Creed, the Lord's Prayer, and the Commandments in English; occasionally they also specify a knowledge of the Catechism; but there is seldom any reference at all to Confirmation.

This accords with all the other evidence of episcopal practice at the time. When a bishop traveled through his diocese, children were brought to him for Confirmation, sometimes in large numbers, but in many dioceses the bishop seldom if ever traveled, and Confirmation was seldom if ever held. And when it was held it was not always in an edifying manner. Bishop Cosin, writing in about 1640, complained of the "offensive liberty that herein hath been commonly taken, to confirm children in the streets, in the highways, and in the common fields, without any sacred solemnity."

Richard Baxter, describing his own confirmation in 1630, tells us that, being then about fifteen years old and hearing that the bishop (Thomas Morton) was coming, he and his schoolmates ran to see him, "not knowing anything of the meaning of the business." They were lined up with thirty or forty others in the churchyard, and then, with no preliminary question, the bishop "passed hastily over us, laying his hands on our head and saying a few words, which neither I nor any that I spoke with understood, so hastily were they uttered. . . . And yet he was esteemed one of the best bishops in England."

Baxter says that in the part of the country where he lived (the diocese of Lichfield), only "about one in ten or twenty" was confirmed. In 1661, when a revision of the Prayer Book was under discussion, the Puritan party objected to the unconditional nature of the Confirmation rubric lest "all the thousands in England that never yet came under the Bishop's hands (as not one of many ever did, even when they were at the highest)" might "be kept from the Lord's Supper." The obvious reason why a large part of the population was unconfirmed in 1661 is that the English Church had been suppressed during the Commonwealth period and no confirmations held, but the parenthetical reference to the period preceding the Commonwealth is significant.

Lack of Confirmation No Bar

Although many were unconfirmed, that did not mean that they were kept from the Communion. As already indicated, the efforts of bishops were normally directed to seeing that the parish priests instructed their people before admitting them to Communion, but instructed or not, confirmed or not, all adults were, by the law of the land as well as of the Church, expected to communicate on certain occasions. The rubric at the end of the Marriage Service, before 1661, provided that "the new married persons (the same day of their marriage) must receive the Holy Communion;" and a rubric at the end of the Communion Service, before and after 1661, provided that "Every parishioner shall communicate at the least three times in the year, of which Easter to be one." The Canons of 1604 direct ministers to warn their parishioners to obey this provision "under the penalty and danger of the law." Lest we think of the word "parishioner" in the modern sense of one who voluntarily connects himself with a parish, we should remember that in the seventeenth century all inhabitants of a parish were parishioners; in short, the provisions of rubric and law here mentioned, applied to all Englishmen, confirmed or unconfirmed.

As H. Hensley Henson (now Bishop of Durham) puts it: "So long as the Caroline Settlement last, Confirmation could not be insisted on as the invariable preliminary to Communion, for the very sufficient reason that Communion was an act transacted in the parish, obligatory on the adult parishioners as such, and enforced by penalties, whereas Confirmation was limited to that small number on whom the bishops in their occasional processes through their huge dioceses laid their hands." ("Cross Bench Views of Church Questions," p. 344.)

In the American Colonies a confirmed communicant was an even rarer phenomenon. Except for those who had been confirmed before coming to America, and the few who were confirmed on visits to England, no communicant on these shores was confirmed from the time of the planting of the Church in 1607 until Seabury's return as a bishop in 1785. Indeed, there is no evidence that our early bishops, such as Seabury and White, were themselves ever confirmed, although they went to England for ordination.

In England William Laud, who became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1633, set an example of more frequent confirmations, which was followed by a few of his contemporaries, but not much had been accomplished in this line before the overthrow of the Church by the Commonwealth.

"Ready and Desirous"

It was at the restoration that the rubric was given its present form; "And there shall none be admitted to the Holy Communion, until such time as he be confirmed, or be ready and desirous to be confirmed"; the last clause being added to meet the Puritan objection that without it "all the thousands" who had never been confirmed might be excluded from the Communion. It was also in this period that Confirmation began to be more frequently administered.

It should perhaps be noted here that at this time and previously it was taken for granted that all Englishmen were, in theory at any rate, members of the English Church, and that rubrical provisions, whether observed or not, applied to them. Bodies of Christians in England outside the English Church were not contemplated, indeed were prohibited by law. There were, however, bodies of Christians not of the English Church outside of England, to whom it does not appear that any English Churchman in the seventeenth century thought that Prayer Book rubrics applied. As the preface to the Prayer Book put it: "In these our doings, we condemn no other nations, nor prescribe anything, but to our own people only."

With the reformed Churches on the Continent English Churchmen in the seventeenth century were in the friendliest relations, and when on the Continent they communicated in these Churches, and members of these Churches, when in England, communicated at English altars. Further, English Churchmen communicated with congregations of foreign Protestants in England, and foreign Protestants communicated with English congregations on the Continent. And there was no question as to Confirmation. The late Canon of Canterbury, A. J. Mason, cites many instances of this in his book, "The Church of England and Episcopacy," and, on p. 484, sums up by saying: "Communion was freely practiced on both sides."

It might be added that no one ever questioned the right—and duty—of King William III, who was a Dutch Calvinist, and Kings George I and George II, who were German Lutherans, to receive Communion in the Church of England, although they were neither confirmed nor ready and desirous to be confirmed.

Although it was assumed until the time of the Commonwealth, that all Englishmen were members of the English Church, and laws were passed at the Restoration to make dissent impossible, it soon became clear that such bodies as the Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Baptists, which had flourished under the Commonwealth, were too numerous to be suppressed. Although they were not granted toleration until 1689, no very serious attempts were made to prevent their existence from 1672 on.

Thus there flourished in England no inconsiderable groups of English Christians who were not members of the English Church. Out of this situation grew the practice of "occasional conformity," that is, the occasional reception of the Communion in the English Church by members of these other bodies. This occasional conformity was practiced for two quite different reasons, and by two quite different sorts of Nonconformists. The first were those who out of Christian charity desired to maintain communion with their brethren of the Establishment. Abeey and Overton in "The English Church in the Eighteenth Century" (p. 186), describe the situation thus: "There were many quiet religious people, members of Nonconformist bodies, who, as an expression of charity and Christian fellowship, and because they did not like to feel themselves entirely severed from the unity of the National Church, made a point of sometimes receiving the communion from their parish clergyman. . . . This was particularly the custom with many of the Presbyterian clergy. . . . Some distinguished Churchmen entirely agreed with this. 'I think,’ said Archbishop Tenison, 'the practice of occasional conformity, as used by the Dissenters, is so far from deserving the title of a vile hypocrisy, that it is the duty of all moderate Dissenters, upon their own principles, to do it.' . . . And Burnet (Bishop of Salisbury) among others, argues in the same spirit, that just as it had commonly been considered right to communicate with the Protestant churches abroad, as he himself had been accustomed to do in Geneva and Holland, so the Dissenters here were wholly right in communicating with the National Church, even though they wrongly considered it less perfect than their own."

The other group who occasionally conformed did so for political reasons. The Test Act of 1673 made it necessary for all holders of public office to take communion in the English Church. Conformity practiced for this reason was denounced by some Dissenters and by some Churchmen, and in 1711 an act was passed in Parliament imposing ruinous fines on all who thus conformed. But the act was repealed seven years later, and occasional conformity of this sort continued until the repeal of the Test Act in 1828.

Occasional conformity of the former kind was practiced at the end of the eighteenth and through a good part of the nineteenth century by the Methodists. Although some Methodist Societies in England received Communion from their lay preachers within four years of Wesley's death, others preferred to receive it at the parish church. G. L. May, in "Some Eighteenth Century Churchmen," published in 1920, tells us (p. 91) that "within the present generation (and still more in our fathers' time) North Country Methodists were still wont to receive the Blessed Sacrament in their parish churches on Sunday mornings, and attend the services of prayer and preaching in their own chapels on Sunday evenings."

Stand of Bishops Hobart and Whipple

There is a passage in Bishop Whipple's "Lights and Shadows of a Long Episcopate," pp. 10-11, which reveals the attitude toward the Confirmation rubric of three leading nineteenth century American bishops-Hobart Delancey and Whipple himself. Hobart, Bishop of New York, 1811-30, was the outstanding leader of the High Church movement of his day; Delancey, Bishop of Western New York, 1839-65, was a pupil and follower of Hobart; Whipple, Bishop of Minnesota, 1859-1901, was a candidate and priest under Delancey. In the passage referred to, Whipple tells how, when he was rector at Rome, N. Y., a Presbyterian who had married one of his communicants asked if he might take Communion with his wife. "I replied: It is not our Communion Table, it is the Lord's; if you have been baptized in the name of the Blessed Trinity, hear the invitation, 'Ye who do truly repent and desire to come.' It is your privilege." It was my custom to seek counsel of my bishop. When I laid the matter before Bishop Delancey, he said, "You have done right"; and then he added, "When Bishop Hobart was the rector of Trinity Church a man came to him and said: "Bishop, it gives me great sorrow to leave your Church before the Holy Communion. May I come?"

The Bishop asked, "Were you baptized in the name of the Blessed Trinity?"

"Yes," was the answer.

"Do you believe in the Apostles' Creed?" asked the Bishop.

"Yes," was the reply, "I believe it with all my heart, but I am not sure that I interpret it exactly as you do."

The Bishop replied, "The Church has not bidden you to accept Bishop Hobart's interpretation."

Bishop Tuttle, Bishop of Montana, Utah, and Idaho, 1867-86, of Missouri 1886-1923, and Presiding Bishop of the Church, 1903-23, tells in his "Reminiscences," pp. 201-4, how in 1868 one of his clergy asked him how the Confirmation rubric was to be regarded. The Bishop replied that it had the force of law, but that when Christians of other denominations presented themselves at Communion, they should not be repelled. Disobedience of the rubric to this extent could be justified, he felt, on the ground of mercy and custom; but a public invitation to members of other denominations ought not to be given. But in later years his views changed and he came to interpret the rubric as applicable "only to the children of our own church homes and Sunday schools, not to devout Christians of other names," and that he "did not hesitate to invite people publicly in these words: 'All Christians, by whatever name they call themselves, who will come with us in faith and penitence and charity to partake of our blessed Lord's Body and Blood in the Holy Communion this morning will be cordially and lovingly welcomed.'"

Mixed Commission in 1870

The subject was hotly discussed in England in 1870. The occasion was this: When the "Company" appointed to revise the Authorized Version of the New Testament, which included Scottish Presbyterians and the English Nonconformists as well as Anglicans, was about to begin its work, Dean Stanley of Westminster addressed to each member a circular stating that "the Dean of Westminster has consented to administer the Holy Communion to such of the Company as shall be disposed to attend." Practically all of them came. The "Guardian" editorially praised the service as "a happy augury of the spirit in which their joint undertaking will be prosecuted," and the two English bishops among the revisers, Ellicott of Gloucester and Moberly of Salisbury, a High Churchman, expressed their approval.

When, however, it became known that among those who had communicated there was a Unitarian, violent protests appeared in the Church papers denouncing the service as "blasphemy," "sacrilege," and "profanation"; and a memorial signed by some fifteen hundred clergy (about eight per cent of the whole clerical body in England) was presented to Archbishop Tait of Canterbury, in which the signers "respectfully stated" their belief "that the Church expressly guards against such a cause of offense" by the Confirmation rubric.

To this Archbishop Tait replied that while he thought that the Unitarian in question, "feeling he could not accept the great doctrines which the Service most distinctly proclaims, committed an error in being present," nevertheless "Nothing could be more proper in itself than a celebration of the Holy Communion on such an occasion. ... I consider there was no course open but to leave to each individual the decision of the question whether he could conscientiously present himself or no. . . .

"But some of the memorialists are indignant at the admission of any Dissenters, however orthodox, to the Holy Communion in our Church. I confess that I have no sympathy with such objections. I consider that the interpretation which these memorialists put upon the rubric to which they appeal at the end of the Confirmation Service, is quite untenable.

"As at present advised, I believe this rubric to apply solely to our own people and not to those members of foreign or dissenting bodies who occasionally conform. All who have studied the history of our Church ... must know how it has been contended that the Church of England places no bar against occasional conformity" (Davidson and Benam, "Life of Tait," II, 63-72).

Dr. Gwatkin on the Rubric

One might go on citing subsequent distinguished leaders of the English Church to the same effect. The evidence was summarized by the Church historian, the Rev. Dr. H. M. Gwatkin, in his study, "The Confirmation Rubric," published in 1914.

"It seems historically clear," he says, "that the rubric was never seriously understood as excluding Nonconformists till long after the rise of Tractarianism. It was then a new interpretation, and it was rejected by great Churchmen of all schools. Archbishops Tait (of Canterbury) and Maclagan (of York) considered that it was not meant for Nonconformists. Bishop Creighton (of London) had reached the same position in 1897, and added that Archbishop Benson (of Canterbury) agreed with him. So, too, the other great historian of the Bench, Bishop Stubbs of Oxford; and Wordsworth of Lincoln, the typical High Churchman of his time, not only rejected the new interpretation, but is said to have added the solemn reminder: It is the Lord's Table, not ours.'"

Dr. Gwatkin might have added that Archbishop Temple of Canterbury also told Bishop Creighton that he agreed with him, and that H. Hensley Henson, now Bishop of Durham, wrote in 1902, "The rubric in the Prayer Book ought not to be regarded as asserting a principle of universal application, namely, the necessity of Episcopal Confirmation as preliminary to the reception of the Holy Communion, but as the domestic rule of the Church of England, to which its members must conform as the condition of being admitted to the full privileges of members. ... It is the generous practice of the Church of England to admit to the Sacrament all who present themselves, throwing the entire responsibility of approaching the Lord's Table on those who do so, asking no questions and interposing no difficulties" ("Cross Bench Views of Church Questions," pp. 346-7).

The Kikuyu Controversy

Dr. Gwatkin's study, mentioned above, appeared during the Kikuyu Controversy, of which a word ought to be said. In 1913 at Kikuyu, in British East Africa, there was a gathering of missionaries of several Churches to consider a scheme of federation. The English Church was represented by Bishops Peel of Mombasa and Willis of Uganda. Each mission had been working in an area of its own, but native Christians not infrequently moved from one area into another. One of the proposals in the contemplated federation was that communicants in one area were to be welcomed to the Communion in any other to which they temporarily moved. In other words, if a communicant of the Methodist Mission came to live for a time in Anglican territory, he was to be received as a communicant without Confirmation. At the close of the conference Bishop Peel celebrated the Communion according to the Prayer Book, a Presbyterian preached the sermon, and the delegates from the various missions received. The Service was held in a Presbyterian Church, that being the only church in Kikuyu.

Bishop Weston, of the neighboring Anglican diocese of Zanzibar, in German East Africa, was much perturbed by the reports he heard of the conference, and appealed to Archbishop Davidson of Canterbury to bring Bishops Peel and Willis to trial for "propagating heresy and committing schism." The Archbishop, after receiving a full account of what had occurred, replied that the facts afforded no grounds for such proceedings, but that he would carefully weigh the questions raised and ask the advice of the Central Consultative Body of the Lambeth Conference, consisting of eleven bishops, among whom were the Archbishop of York, the Archbishop of Armagh, the Primus of Scotland, and the Primate of Canada. He also had personal interviews with three African bishops concerned, all of whom came to England during the course of the investigation.

The Consultative Body, considering the Confirmation rubric, said it was "undoubtedly the rule of the Church of England," but that "evidence is abundant to show that exceptions to the rule have been allowed in special cases by many Bishops of weight and learning and of diverse theological positions in all parts of the Anglican Communion, . . . nor can the rubric in this case be so interpreted as to prevent the admission to occasional communion of individuals who from peculiar circumstances are deprived of the ministrations of the Churches to which they belong."

So much for the plan provided for African members of other Churches communicating in Anglican Churches. As for the closing service of the Kikuyu Conference, the Consultors desired "to abstain from any expression of judgment about it." It was, they believed, "acceptable to Him to whom it was offered," but they felt that habitual action of the kind ought not to be encouraged since "it would perplex the minds and distress the consciences of multitudes of loyal Churchmen." It was wittily said at the time that they came to the conclusion "that the service at Kikuyu was eminently pleasing to God and must on no account be repeated!"

Archbishop Davidson, basing his opinion on the advice of the Consultative Body as well as on his own investigations, said that the rule of the Church "that in all ordinary cases admission to Holy Communion shall follow and not precede Confirmation ... is one which must be open, as the very wording of the rubric shows, to exceptions. . . . No careful student of our Church's history will maintain that the rule or direction, which dates back to a Provincial Constitution of Archbishop Peckham in the thirteenth century, has been consistently or rigidly observed during the last six hundred years." Originally the rule had "no bearing upon others than the Church's children," and the rubric now is "laid down for the guidance of Church people with regard to their children."

"Looking carefully at present-day facts and conditions, I have no hesitation in saying that in my opinion a diocesan bishop acts rightly in sanctioning, when circumstances seem to call for it, the admission to Holy Communion of a devout Christian man to whom the ministrations of his own Church are for the time inaccessible, and who, as a baptized person, desires to avail himself of the opportunity of communicating at one of our altars."

The closing Service of the Kikuyu Conference had been referred to in the controversy it aroused, said the Archbishop, as though it had been the deliberate inauguration of a new plan of intercommunion. It was not that. "It was simply a spontaneous act of devotion to their Lord on the part of a group of keen Christian workers who in the midst of a vast heathen country had been taking counsel as to the best mode of making known the Gospel of Jesus Christ." Moreover, "it was far from being the first time that in the Mission Fields of Africa or of the Far East non-Episcopal Missionaries have participated in such a service, when the celebrant was a Missionary bishop or a leading presbyter of our own Church." But lest such a service be looked on as "a demonstration in favor of a particular ecclesiastical policy" or "an attempt to rush a solution" of the problem of reunion it might be wise to abstain from such services at present. The Archbishop was careful not to condemn the service. He praised the motives prompting it, but advised against a repetition on the ground of expediency ("Kikuyu," 1915).

Lambeth 1920

The Lambeth Conference in 1920 adopted a resolution that a priest "has no canonical authority to refuse communion to any baptized person kneeling before the Lord's table (unless he be excommunicate by name, or, in the canonical sense of the term a cause of scandal to the faithful)"; and another that "nothing in these resolutions is intended to indicate that the rule of Confirmation as conditioning admission to the Holy Communion must necessarily apply to the case of baptized persons who seek Communion under conditions which in the Bishop's judgment justify their admission thereto." The Lambeth Conference of 1930 reaffirmed these resolutions.

In 1931 the Upper Houses of Convocation (that is, all the Bishops of England) resolved that on special occasions when Anglicans and Non-Anglicans are engaged in some form of Christian endeavor and are in sympathy with the progress of visible and organic unity, the Bishop may approve the holding of a Corporate Communion according to the Anglican rite.

Thus the English episcopate has given definite sanction to the sort of service which was held at Kikuyu and whose repetition Archbishop Davidson and the Lambeth Consultative Body somewhat hesitantly advised against in 1915. According to the volume edited by G. L. H. Harvey entitled "The Church in the Twentieth Century," published in 1936, many conferences of Anglicans and Non-Anglicans in England now have the happiness, thanks to this resolution, of meeting together round the Lord's Table; and "some bishops have begun to recognize that ordinary Christian congregations which have been drawn into close touch with one another in the service of the Kingdom of God may be regarded as groups 'engaged in some form of Christian endeavor' and 'in sympathy with the progress of visible and organic unity,' and have sanctioned intercommunion services" (pp. 178-81).

On July 25, 1937, the Archbishop of Canterbury (Cosmo Lang) himself celebrated the Communion at St. Mary's Church, Oxford, and, in cooperation with the Bishop of Oxford, invited all the members of the World Conference on Church, Community, and State to receive.

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