Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Sacraments, the Church Fathers, and Bishop Beckwith

Some of you have noticed a bit of unhappiness between the Bishop of Springfield Peter Beckwith and a liberal parish, St. Andrews of Edwardsville, Illinois.

Part of the controversy is that he is no longer willing to confirm people at St. Andrews. For he has little to no confidence that candidates of the parish are able and willing to truly make the vows, the profession of faith involved given the lack of orthodox teaching there.

Some who are used to baptism and confirmation being used as glorified social promotion and to the Eucharist being indiscriminately distributed like candy at a parade think that’s just horrible. How uninclusive! The sacraments should be for everyone!

Well . . . I’ve actually been learning some things taking Liturgics from Cranmer House. One thing I’ve learned is that the church fathers were very careful about distributing the sacraments. Heck, if you weren’t a baptized Christian, you weren’t even allowed to attend the Eucharist. You could listen to the liturgy of the word but when it was time for the Lord’s Supper you were dismissed.

And baptism (from which confirmation is derived) was not given to just anyone who said “I believe!” and wanted it. You had to convince church leaders that you were for real. As early as 225 A.D., we see in Hippolytus’ Apostolic Tradition that involved a thorough examination, a long catechumenate (three years under Hippolytus!), and another examination at the end of that period. Only if you passed through all that were you then baptized and admitted to the Eucharist. Many catechumens were martyred first!

I’m not recommending we go back to that (although the reader may rightly ask, “Why not?”), but giving out confirmation and other sacraments with no regard to whether the faith of those receiving is for real is dead wrong.

And it can endanger the souls of those receiving. Paul wrote that those who receive sacraments unworthily can fall under judgement, even death. And how many people deceive themselves about their standing before God by holding on to their baptism and confirmation as some ticket to heaven even though they completely lack Christian faith?

The charitable thing for a bishop or priest to do when there is no reason to believe someone’s faith is for real and indeed Christian is to withhold the sacraments (of baptism and confirmation at least) and gently explain why. People will be upset. Some may walk. But that’s better than contributing to self-deception that leads to Hell. And perhaps it may serve as a wake-up call.

Indiscriminate confirmation instead calls to nothing but self-deceived complacency. Kudos to +Peter Beckwith for wanting no part in that.

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