On November 23, the Feast of Christ the King, our bishop, the Rt. Rev. Douglas J. Fisher, will be visiting my parish, St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Westborough, Massachusetts.
The visit of a Bishop is a special event. The Canons (official governing rules) of the Episcopal Church stipulate that the Bishop visit each congregation in the diocese “at least once in three years” during which the Bishop “shall preside at the Holy Eucharist and at the Initiatory Rites.” In some dioceses, there are few enough parishes that the Bishop can visit every parish once per year. In larger dioceses, there may be a team of Bishops who help cover these visits. In our diocese of 60 or so congregations, the Bishop visits about once every two years.
One of the customary things a Bishop does during the visitation is to administer Confirmation to candidates who have been preparing for this sacramental rite. This year we have six people who have been preparing for Confirmation since January. There is also one more person, who, although already baptized and confirmed, has been preparing with them and will publicly re-affirm her baptismal vows before the Bishop.
Confirmation has a long and somewhat complicated history in the Western tradition of Christianity. We find its root in the practice of the original apostles. St. Luke, writing in the Acts of the Apostles, notes that people, after deciding to follow Jesus and being baptized, were brought before the apostles so that the apostles could lay their hands on them and impart the gift of the Holy Spirit. One such instance is recorded in Chapter 8:
Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. The two went down and prayed for them that they might received the Holy Spirit (for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit. (Acts 8:14-17)
The ministry of the apostles was handed to those who took their places, who the church came to call “bishops.” This apostolic ministry of leadership has continued to be handed down through the generations to the present day, even to Bishop Doug Fisher in Western Massachusetts. Following that biblical example, Bishop Fisher and other bishops continue to visit parishes and to lay their hands upon faithful people with the prayer that they received the gift of the Holy Spirit.
In many places, also following an ancient custom, those who are confirmed are anointed on the forehead with the Sacred Chrism, that same blessed and perfumed anointing oil that we use at Baptism. It is a reminder of the “seal of the Holy Spirit” that was imparted at Baptism.
The Bishop’s prayer for candidates at Confirmation is that God will strengthen them with the grace and gifts of the Holy Spirit so that they can live out their vocations and ministries in the world. I still like the traditional prayer that the old Prayer Books used before the laying on of hands:
…daily increase in them thy manifold gifts of grace: the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and ghostly strength, the spirit of knowledge and true godliness; and fill them, O Lord, with the spirit of thy holy fear… (1928 BCP, p. 297)
This beautiful prayer lists the traditional seven gifts of the Spirit that the book of Isaiah mentions (Isaiah 11:2).
The late liturgist Leonell Mitchell framed the rite well, writing, “Confirmands affirm their baptismal commitment, and God renews the covenant and empowers them with the Holy Spirit to fulfill their baptismal promises and live the baptismal life to which they are committed.”
So as we prepare for the Bishop’s visit, please remember to pray for our candidates for Confirmation, and on the morning of November 23 gather with them to welcome our Bishop to this wonderful house of God.