1. How it began
Symbols in daily life
Symbols enter deeply into our daily life.
If you analyse a handshake, it can be made to appear a rather stupid and meaningless action. But the outward sign conveys an inward wish—of congratulation, sympathy, or just friendship.
The Union Jack can be shown to be no more than a piece of material in three colours. But what emotions it can stir, what loyalty it arouses!
Again, the wedding ring is a much treasured symbol. If a bride were to lose her ring, she would not thereby become unmarried. If children playing at weddings slipped a ring on to a girl's third finger, that would not mean she was married. But what woman thinks lightly of the outward sign of her marriage?
Symbols that Jesus used
In our Lord's life and teaching He made use of symbolism.
First and foremost He ordained the two Sacraments, Baptism and the Lord's Supper.
But in other ways also He gave outward signs of inward blessing.
In St. John 20. 22 we read: "And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost."
In the short account of the Ascension at the end of St. Luke's Gospel we read: "He lifted up his hands, and blessed them."
In His miracles of healing He often laid hands on those He cured.
When little children were brought to Him, " He took them up in his arms, put his hands upon them, and blessed them " (St. Mark 10. 16). Taking them in His arms must have given them a great sense of security, and laying His hands upon them was a token of blessing.
Laying on of hands
There was nothing new about the laying on of hands as a symbol of divine blessing.
When Jacob was dying, he blessed the two sons of Joseph (Genesis 48. 14). He deliberately put his right hand on Ephraim and his left hand on Manasseh, although Manasseh was the elder. His action was more than a gesture of goodwill. It definitely conveyed a status.
The prophet Ezekiel, referring to his commission to preach to the house of Israel, said: "The hand of the Lord was strong upon me" (Ezekiel 3. 14). That gave him a sense of authority, strength and guidance. He would scarcely have used the metaphor if the laying on of hands were not a well-known means of bestowing blessing.
Did Jesus institute Confirmation?
There is no direct command of our Lord recorded in the Gospels with reference to the laying on of hands for blessing.
St. Mark 16. 18 refers to the laying on of hands for the healing of the sick, and the Apostles anointed with oil for the same purpose (St. Mark 6. 13).
But while they were explicitly told to baptize and to celebrate the Lord's Supper, there is no such injunction about laying hands on people in blessing as distinct from healing.
We might go so far as to say that since it is an ancient symbol, and an extremely natural one (grown up people have an almost instinctive urge to pat children on the head when they feel benign towards them!) which was also used by our Lord, the Apostles would carry on its use without considering any need for a direct command. This is, in fact, what happened.
The clearest example in the New Testament is in Acts 8. 13-17.
Philip had been preaching in Samaria and men and women had believed and been baptized.
"Now when the apostles which were at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent unto them Peter and John: who, when they were come down, prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Ghost: (for as yet he was fallen upon none of them: only they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). Then laid they their hands on them, and they received the Holy Ghost."
An incident like this, and a similar one in Acts 19. 6, makes it difficult to understand how anyone can deny that what we now call "Confirmation" is in the Bible. Indeed the laying on of hands, which of course covers both Confirmation and Ordination, is mentioned in Hebrews 6. 2 as among the foundation principles of the faith.
The Holy Spirit is not limited
It is only fair, however, to point out that there is no invariable way by which people received the Holy Spirit in the New Testament.
There was no hard and fast rule.
Those who were converted through Peter's preaching on the Day of Pentecost were baptized and, according to the apostle's word, received the Spirit. There is no mention of any laying on of hands (Acts 2. 38).
Cornelius and his household received the Holy Ghost before ever they were baptized (Acts 10. 44-48).
Four elements in becoming a Christian
At least four elements seem to have been present in the initiation of people into Christ:
The exact order of events does not seem to be important. In the story of Saul's conversion, Ananias laid hands on Saul even before he was baptized. And this was not only for healing (to restore his sight), but that he might be filled with the Holy Ghost (Acts 9. 17).
the hearing of the word of God,
the receiving of the Holy Spirit, and
the laying on of hands.
It was natural that with the passage of time a more settled state of affairs should develop. The spontaneity of the first converts gave way to a more ordered system in the next generation. The children of believing parents could not be left outside the fold, so they were baptized in infancy. This initial act of God was followed by the hearing of the Word, which would lead to Confirmation and the receiving of the Holy Spirit. The laying on of hands might indeed be an assurance that the Holy Spirit had been given rather than an actual bestowal of the gift. The outward sign and the inward reality need not coincide in point of time.
There is no question at all that Confirmation was firmly established in the post-Apostolic Church. The essential elements of it, as in Acts 8. 13-17, were the laying on of hands and prayer for the Holy Spirit. These are the vital things still. Yet if one asks a group of candidates at the beginning of Confirmation instruction what is the most important thing that is going to happen at their Confirmation, the answer is almost sure to be: " We shall confirm the promises made at our Baptism." They certainly must do that, but only as a preliminary to being confirmed, by the laying on of hands, with prayer.
It would, of course, be a great mistake to dispense with the renewal of vows by those who are to be confirmed. In the mediaeval Church, Confirmation came to be regarded as simply the outward sign of the anointing of the Holy Ghost spoken of in 1 John 2. 20. Accordingly it was administered to quite young children, and accompanied by anointing with oil and other elaborate acts of ritual. Our reformers restored Confirmation to its primitive use as a rite for confirming (making strong) those who had made profession of their faith. The heart of the service, as we shall see later, is the laying on of hands by the Bishop.
Why the Bishop? That is a reasonable question to ask. We might also ask why Peter and John were sent to lay hands on the Samaritan converts. Could not Philip have done so ? Today there are Churches, such as the Lutheran, in which the ordinary parish clergy confirm. Our Anglican view of the Bishop is that he is the chief pastor, or shepherd, of the flock. That is why he carries a shepherd's crook, or staff. The Vicar or Rector is instituted by the Bishop to care for the souls in the parish on his (the Bishop's) behalf. The Bishop is, therefore, the symbol of the unity of the Church. It is important to remember that you are not confirmed into your parish church, but into the whole Church of Christ. Further, the Bishop is the link with the past. From very early times there has been an unbroken line of Bishops, and this continuity gives us the sense of belonging to the historic Church of England. The link was not broken at the Reformation. We are the same Church as was here in the third century (or even earlier).
So when you are confirmed as a member of the world-wide and historical Church, it is fitting that it should be by the one who embodies both universality and continuity in his office. In saying this we do not " unchurch " those Christians who belong to churches which have no bishops. Nor do we make exaggerated claims for the efficacy of episcopal confirmation as if there were some magic in the Bishop's hands. We do say that the rite should be administered by the one who has the fullest authority to act on behalf of the whole Church, which is one across the world as well as one down the centuries.
To sum up, although Confirmation is not one of the two Sacraments ordained by Christ Himself, it is a rite observed in the Church from earliest days and is connected with giving assurance of the power of the Holy Spirit. It is important that it should be linked to a declaration of personal repentance and faith on the part of the candidate. The essential thing in Confirmation is the laying on of hands, with prayer, by the Bishop as the chief pastor of the flock. While we recognize that there are many branches of the Christian Church which dispense with Confirmation, we cannot but feel that they do so to their loss. We regard it, not just as a convenient way of becoming an adult member of the Church, but as a means of grace, bringing a distinctive blessing of the Holy Spirit.