The Book of Common Prayer
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    Everyman's History of the Prayer Book
by Percy Dearmer




WE have indicated the history of the four services in constant use, the Sacrament of the Holy Communion, its prelude — the Litany, and the two parts of the Divine Service, Mattins and Evensong. Let us now pass to the Sacrament of Initiation.

Panel of the font at Gresham. (The priest in full surplice and stole immerses an infant.)

The initiation into the Christian fellowship has always consisted of two parts, Baptism and Confirmation, so closely allied in the Primitive Church that the laying on of hands was but the concluding part of the Baptismal Service — as closely allied still in the Eastern Church, where the priest anoints the babe with oil consecrated by the bishop (there being no imposition of hands) immediately after baptizing it. It is only in the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches that the postponement of Confirmation till the age of intelligent childhood has separated from Holy Baptism the rite which completes the act of Christian initiation. In the Primitive Church the Communion followed immediately on Confirmation; and still in the East the newly baptized and confirmed babe is communicated, and Communion is habitually given to little children.

The Sacrament of Baptism, we are told in St. Matthew, was instituted by Christ in one of his last solemn commands — " Make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I commanded you" (St. Matt. xxviii. 19-20). Confirmation was instituted through the Apostles, but we cannot doubt that in practising the Laying on of Hands they knew that they were fulfilling their Master's wishes. The New Testament is full of baptismal teaching, and it is evident that the writers regard it as of the highest and most sacred importance and as a thing absolutely necessary. From the reference in Hebrews vi. 2 to "the teaching of baptisms, and of laying on of hands," we gather that Confirmation also was regarded as one of the first principles or fundamental acts of the Christian life, and also that Baptism was preceded by repentance and faith (cf. Acts ii. 38, xvi. 31). The Apostles must have laid their hands on converts immediately after baptizing them; but, since Baptism could be administered by inferior ministers, such as Philip the Deacon, while even then Confirmation was reserved to the highest officers of the Church, we find an instance (incidentally preserved because of the action of Simon Magus) of two Apostles journeying from Jerusalem to Samaria to lay their hands on converts whom Philip had baptized (Acts viii. 5, 12, 14-17). One instance is preserved, owing to the invalidity of a baptism, of the Apostle Paul baptizing (Acts xix. 3-6), and here we find, as we should expect, that the Laying on of Hands followed immediately on the Baptism. In the case of the eunuch baptized by St. Philip (Acts viii. 36-38), however, no Confirmation is mentioned; but since it was regarded very early (Acts viii. 17) as the giving of the Holy Spirit, we can hardly imagine that it was ever omitted. The simple creed in this instance (Acts viii. 37) is only given in some of the texts, and may be of later date.

This is all the New Testament tells us — Repentance, Profession of Faith, Baptism in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, which has been used ever since, and Confirmation, which was then called the Laying on of Hands. There is no mention of unction except in connection with the healing of sick persons.

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The Apostolic Fathers tell us little more. In the Didachè (which is probably c. A.D. ioo, if not as early as A.D. 90), the triple formula is mentioned, and also previous instruction with fasting: a preference is expressed for the running water of a river or stream; and if the water is not deep enough for immersion, then pouring water upon the head is mentioned as sufficient. St. Justin Martyr (c. A.D. 150) in his Apology also describes Baptism out of doors:—

"Those who are convinced of the truth of our doctrine, and have promised to live in accordance with it, are exhorted to prayer, fasting, and repentance for past sins; and we pray and fast with them. Then they are led by us to a place where there is water, and in this way they are regenerated, as we also have been regenerated that is to say, they receive the bath of water in the name of God the Father and Ruler of all, and of our Redeemer Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Ghost. For Christ says, 'Except ye be born again, ye cannot enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.'"

(With large 5th century font for immersion.)
Baptism was at first, of course, mainly a service for the admission of adult converts. After the Peace of the Church, and throughout the 4th century, great numbers of adults forsook paganism and were baptized. In the 5th, fresh races were being converted in the less

central parts of the Empire; in the 6th, the conversion of our own race began. Thus there were still vast numbers of adult baptisms; and in the prolonged and elaborate ceremonies of the 6th or 7th century the service is still one of adult baptism. Undoubtedly the rite loses in impressiveness when infants are baptized, as every one knows who has witnessed the baptism of converts in the mission field. But the principle that the children of Christians shall grow up inside the Christian Church, and not as outsiders, is so important that Christendom as a whole has been content to lose the touching ceremonial of adult baptism, except on the comparatively rare occasions when it is still required. It is probable that whole families, including infants, were baptized by the Apostles, since the Baptism of Lydia and her household is mentioned (Acts xvi. 15), and St. Paul mentions (1 Cor. i. 16) that he baptized the household of Stephanas. Infant baptism was certainly held in the 2nd century to be a tradition of the Apostles.

About the year 200, Tertullian describes Baptism and Confirmation in fuller terms than Justin, speaking of the ceremonies as things long established and everywhere practised: it is therefore certain that the sign of the cross, unction, and the giving of milk and honey are a good deal earlier even than this. Tertullian, in his epigrammatic way, sums up the whole rite of initiation:—

"The flesh is washed, that the soul may be cleansed; the flesh is anointed, that the soul may be consecrated the flesh is signed, that the soul also may be fortified; the flesh is overshadowed by the laying on of hands, that the soul may be illuminated by the Spirit ; the flesh is fed with the body and blood of Christ, that the soul also may be nourished by God."

Baptism, Tertullian says in others of his writings, is given by the bishop, and, through his authority, by priests and deacons; but in certain cases it may be conferred by lay-folk. Preparation: The candidate must prepare himself by prayer and fasting, and by keeping vigils. Baptism: It is ordinarily celebrated on Easter Even (in the night) or during the fifty days that follow. The font is blessed; the candidate solemnly renounces the devil, his pomps, and his angels [which at this time meant the renunciation of pagan ceremonies, gods, and demi-gods] ; he enters the font, and is baptized in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Confirmation: The bishop then anoints him with consecrated oil, signs him with the cross, and lays his hands upon him, invoking the Holy Spirit. First Communion. Tertullian alludes to this in the same quotation; and in another place he mentions that milk and honey were given to the neophytes [doubtless as a sign that they had reached the Promised Land, "flowing with milk and honey"] ; and we know that the neophytes partook of this immediately after their First Communion.


  We can imagine with what solemnity, and with what a hush of awe, these appealing ceremonies were celebrated over men and women, who thus renounced paganism, and entered the fold where they were henceforward to live in daily peril of agony and death. Careful testing and instruction were necessary before a pagan could be admitted into the outlawed Church. Thus it was that, first of all, when any candidates presented themselves, their names were taken down and inquiries made into their characters they were then admitted as catechumens, to be instructed in church every day by the bishop or one of his priests, until they entered the baptistery on Easter Even for the last great rites. When the ages of persecution passed away and the Peace of the Church had begun, the Catechumenate was abused by many converts from paganism, who remained catechumens — such was the awe which Baptism inspired — and did not enter the font till old age or the time of their last illness. Among those who set the bad example was the Emperor Constantine himself. But there were also many earnest men, feeling their way to the new thought, who waited in their reverence till they should be less unworthy and untrained for the heavy responsibility of being a Christian. St. Martin of Tours, for instance, born about the time of Constantine's death, and destined to be one of the wisest of bishops, was only a catechumen when as a young soldier he gave his cloak to the beggar.

We know that in the 4th century the candidate was admitted to the Catechumenate with much ceremony, which included the exsufflation, or breathing upon him, the signing with the cross, in Rome the placing of a grain of salt in his mouth, in Spain a preliminary unction. The preparation of the catechumens through Lent included solemn visits to the church (these "scrutinies" were seven in the Rome of the 7th century), with exorcisms and prayer at each ; and at the third visit took place "the delivery of the Christian Law " — the four Gospels being laid on the altar, read from and explained — the delivery of the Creed, and of the Lord's Prayer.

Frontispiece to The Catechumen, licensed 1689. (He wears his cassock and fullsleeved gown. In the background is sketched an altar with chalice and flagon thereon.)
This practice, changed to less formal catechizing, continued through the Middle Ages; and we have it still in our Church Catechism, which is an instruction to be delivered in church in preparation for Confirmation, on these same subjects — the Creed, the Christian Law (for the Decalogue is in the Catechism made Christian by the Duty to God and the Duty to our Neighbour), the Lord's Prayer. The Church Catechism is in fact an instruction, admirably condensed, on these three things, prefixed by the teaching of the Baptismal Vow, and followed by the appendix on the Sacraments.

Thus it was then that, as the Empire became Christian, and souls were increasingly admitted into the Church in infancy, the Catechumenate changed its character, and became the catechizing of children after their Baptism, and often after their Confirmation as well.

But the initiatory rite was still celebrated with great magnificence, and infants were treated as if they were adults, their part being taken by deputy — by godparents, in fact. Here, then, again, in the replies made by the sponsors at our service, we have a reminder of the days when Europe was in process of conversion from paganism to Christianity.
Baptism, Confirmation, and First Communion were administered in the West, as follows, in the 7th and 8th centuries:—



Maundy Thursday. A vase of oil, and a vase of chrism (oil perfumed with balm) is consecrated towards the end of the Canon. The people add little vials of oil for their personal use in the anointing of the sick.

Easter Even. (Afternoon or morning.) The last exorcism. The Effeta, or touching of the lips and ears with the finger moistened with saliva. Unction on the breast and back. The candidates renounce Satan (turning to the West in the Oriental Churches) and recite the Creed (turning to the East). They depart, after prayer.

Easter Even. (The night service.) The Easter Vigil with long Lessons from the Old Testament interspersed with Psalms and Canticles.

The bishop and his clergy go, in a litany-procession with lights and incense, to the baptistery. (In the midst of the tank-like font of the great Roman baptistery of St. John Lateran was a large porphyry candelabrum with a golden lamp oi perfumed oil: there were silver statues of Christ and St. John Baptist, with the Lamb of God in the midst, and under it a fountain of water that fell into the font; jets of water also sprang from seven stags' heads round the font.) As the Litany ceases, prayers are said, and the bishop signs the water: two ministers then plunge lighted tapers into the water, and the bishop pours chrism on it in the form of a cross, stirring it with his hand.

(1153-1278, with 14th century Gothic additions. In the background, the Cathedral and the leaning Campanile.)

The candidates then take off their clothes in two adjoining vestries. The archdeacon presents them to the bishop, and they make a threefold profession of faith. The bishop, with priests and deacons (all wearing long linen tunics) enter the water with the candidates, and pour it over their heads, the bishop saying, "I baptize thee in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost."


They go into a church or chapel (at St. John Lateran, the Chapel of the Cross, behind the baptistery) for the Consignation or signing. The bishop anoints their heads with chrism. They put on white robes, assisted by their godfathers and godmothers. (In the Gallican and Celtic rites the bishop now girt himself and washed the feet of the newly baptized.) The bishop invokes the Holy Spirit and crosses the forehead of each neophyte with his thumb moistened with the chrism, saying to each one, "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Peace to thee." (In the Eastern Churches the neophytes then turned to the East and recited the Lord's Prayer.)

(The Bishop, in his rochet, cope, and mitre, is signing the forehead of a child, who is held up by a kneeling sponsor. By him kneels a clerk in surplice, holding a dish containing the oil-stock. By the altar are four clergymen in surplices and caps.)


During the Baptism and Confirmation the choir have sung Litanies in the church. A procession now enters from the baptistery ; the bishop prostrates himself before the altar, stands, and intones the Gloria in Excelsis, thus beginning the first Mass of Easter Day. It is still night. At this service the neophytes make their first Communion, standing before the altar in their white robes. Afterwards they drink milk and honey and water, which have been blessed during the Canon. (This ceremony was given up at Rome about the time of Gregory the Great. It is still retained in the Coptic Church.) Then comes the dawn of Easter Day.
During the Octave of Easter the neophytes wear their white robes, and go to church every day.

(Panel of the font at Gresham. The bishop wears a hood over his rochet: his mitre has been broken off.)

Most of these imposing ceremonies have been preserved in a more or less attenuated form up to the present day, in one part or other of Christ's Church but as the need of adult baptism decreased and multitudes of infants all over Christendom had to be baptized, the rites changed both in significance and in character. The times for the rite were increased, Whitsuntide being added first in the West, the Epiphany and Christmas in the East; priests, who had at first merely assisted the bishop, carried out the rites on these great occasions in his presence, the blessing of the oil of Confirmation being, however, always reserved to him; then, as necessity required, they administered baptism without him on other Holy-days (the first Baptismal Rubric of the Prayer Book still gives "Sundays and other Holy-days" as the proper occasions for this Sacrament). In the East they administer Communion also to the newly-baptized, the bishop's part consisting only in the annual consecration of the chrism. But in the West, as the bishop's presence was still required, the newly-baptized had to wait till the occasion of an episcopal visit, and often had to wait a long time.

(He rides a mule, and wears a hood over his rochet. Three clerks accompany him on mules, and three precede him on foot.)

Hence children were often quite old before the bishop came their way and confirmed them (wearing his rochet and hood or chimere, and often performing the short rite on horseback, in the Middle Ages); and thus the custom of infant Confirmation and Communion slowly and gradually died out. At the last revision in 1661 advantage was taken of this to make Confirmation the occasion for a public renewal of the baptismal vows, when children had reached years of discretion; but the Reformers intended them to be still quite young at the time of their Confirmation and First Communion, and, until the i9th century, they were sometimes under ten, and seldom more than a year or two older.

Mediaeval England, while retaining in a shrunken form most of the ceremonies of the ancient Roman Church, had added some Gallican customs, notably the presentation of a lighted candle to the babe — a striking act and full of plain significance. The Blessing of the Font had become a separate service, performed on Easter Even and the Vigil of Pentecost, when the water was renewed and hallowed, whether there were any children to be then baptized or not: this solemn benediction was indeed the only one of the ancient rites that retained anything like the ancient splendour. The baptism itself was a service probably little more imposing in its common administration than the hurried rite which one witnesses to-day in Italy or France.

The First English Prayer Book brought back into its proper prominence the actual baptizing of the infant, which in the Sarum rite had been smothered up among ceremonies that had long lost most of their meaning. The Blessing of the Font was still a separate service, and was ordered to be done once a month. The preparatory part of the service (relic of the Catechumenate) still took place at the church-door, near which the font always stood in the Middle Ages, as itis bound by law to do still; the babe was named, signed on the forehead and breast, and exorcised. After the Gospel, the priest and people said the Lord's Prayer and Creed, and then all went to the font, where the service proceeded much as now. After the Baptism, the child was anointed, and clad in the white robe (called the chrisom).

(Fonts were formerly kept locked up under their covers, the hallowed water remaining in the font.)

In the Second Prayer Book the prayers for Blessing the Font (taken by Cranmer in 1549 from the Gallican Mozarabic Missal) were placed immediately before the baptism. The surviving relic of the Catechumenate was further reduced by the omission of the exorcism and Creed, and the transference of the signing with the Cross and of the Lord's Prayer to their present place after the baptizing. The service was made to begin at the font itself, and thus the little procession from the churchdoor was lost, with its beautiful words, "The Lord vouchsafe to receive you into his holy household, and to keep and govern you aiway in the same, that you may have everlasting life." The unction and white robe were omitted. At the last Revision in 1661 , the blessing of the font was made clearer by the insertion of the sentence
"Sanctify this Water to the mystical washing away of sin," and the words "of Infants" were added to the title, because the new service for Adults was then added to the Prayer Book, which thus touched hands with the earliest baptismal rites. At this time also the Catechism was taken out of the Confirmation service, and printed separately.

An idea has grown up in recent years which has done not a little harm: it is the notion that there is one proper and correct way of performing each of the services of the Church, and that if everything is not carried out according to some imagined standard, a great offence is done against what is supposed to be Catholic order. It is, of course, true that in each Church the duty of the clergy is to obey the rubrics of that Church and to follow its lawful customs; and it is equally true that when they prefer their own private judgement, they do so to the great detriment of the services — as happened, for example, in the final degradation of the baptismal rite during the Georgian era, when children were baptized in the drawing-rooms of private houses, or from small basins put in the font. But the preceding chapters of this little book will have at least made it clear that there is no one and only way of performing any rite of the Church; and of nothing is this more true than of the many and changing rites and ceremonies which have gathered round the two acts of the Christian initiation.

(From the Catacomb of Callistus, 2nd century.)
The dove shows that the subject is the Baptism of Christ; but there are contemporary pictures in the Cataconibs of the baptism of catechumens which are exactly similar, except that there is no dove and that the minister wears the tunic and pallium instead of the loin-cloth as here. On the left is another ancient symbol of Baptism — a fisherman drawing a fish out of the sea.
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