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The Sacrament of Confirmation: a moment of grace

William, Br Joseph Emmanuel’s Godson, is Confirmed by the Bishop of Wakefield

Confirmation has undergone huge changes in my life time. Perhaps most important have been the changes in theological understanding (about which more below), but we can begin in an easier place. We can observe the people coming forward to be confirmed. When I was young, ninety percent of them, perhaps more, were teenagers, may be aged thirteen or fourteen, more likely fifteen, only rarely as young as twelve. Any adult being confirmed alongside them was an exception. Bishops rarely confirmed less than twenty people at any given service and often many more. The service was probably on a Sunday afternoon or perhaps a weekday evening and would be attended by the candidates’ families and godparents, but not the whole church community. First Communion would follow later, most likely on the following Sunday. Quite a lot of those being confirmed because they had reached the right age, would not be seen in church very often once confirmed.

In my experience as a bishop in recent years a typical parish Confirmation would have only eight or nine candidates, the age range would be from ten through to senior citizens, sometimes in their 80s, with almost every decade represented, often more adults than youngsters, and at almost every Confirmation some of the candidates needing to be baptised. The Confirmation would be set within the Eucharist. This would be the occasion for First Communion for some candidates, though very often several would have been communicants before. The service was most often on a Sunday morning, attended by the wider church community, with often very few family or other supporters specially there for the candidates. A far greater proportion of those confirmed would be there when I returned, perhaps two years later for another Confirmation, than in the days when Confirmation seemed to mark an exit from church attendance.

How the Bishop confirms has also changed. When I was confirmed, we knelt, two by two, before a seated mitred bishop, and would have been looking at his knees were they not covered with vestments. He placed his right hand on one of us, his left on the other. As we got up to return to our seats we bowed to him. Today we would go with the Bishop to the font, witness the baptism of some of our fellow candidates, be sprinkled with water from the font to remind us of our baptism, move with the Bishop to the place of Confirmation and stand in a semi-circle as s/he came to each of us in turn, looked us in the eye, called us by name, anointed us with the oil of chrism and laid a hand upon us as s/he spoke the words, “Confirm, O Lord, your servant with your Holy Spirit.” It is something much more relational and personal than in the past if the rite is celebrated imaginatively and well.

But what does it mean? It is important to say that, if it is in any way sacramental, the confirming that gives the rite its name is not the confirming that the candidates do, but the confirming that God does. This needs emphasising, for to listen to people advocating Confirmation or clergy preparing candidates or even bishops preaching at Confirmation is often to get the impression that the principal point is the making of a mature adult profession of faith. That certainly is part of it, but, as with any sacramental act, it is only a preliminary to set the scene for God to make it a moment of grace.

The key question is whether Confirmation is to be understood as a stage of Christian initiation. Does Confirmation complete something that Baptism leaves incomplete? For the Church of England the key document was the Ely Report (‘Christian Initiation: Birth and Growth in the Christian Society’) published in 1971. It was a seminal work and still shapes Church of England understanding of the relationship between Baptism, Confirmation and Communion and the liturgies and pastoral practices that go with it. At heart it teaches that Baptism is complete initiation into the Christian community. It sees Confirmation as a pastoral rite and a declaration of mature Christian discipleship. It is worth recalling what it said:

‘Confirmation has often been regarded in the past as in some cases the completion of Christian initiation. We believe that Confirmation signifies far more than an isolated rite, important as that is; it is also a focal point in an on-going ministry of training. We propose that this vital element of training should now receive the widest possible recognition, and thus restore to Confirmation its true function of fostering the spiritual growth of the individual Christian.’

The reality through the more than forty years since has been that the Ely Report’s view that Baptism is complete initiation has been accepted and the Common Worship rites express that theology. Not surprisingly, there has been a slow move towards admission of children to Communion before Confirmation, but there has not been a consistent move in the direction that Ely advocated to make Confirmation the climax of a period of teaching and training to equip Christians for discipleship and ministry. Instead, Confirmation has survived, but without a clear single purpose, used in different ways in different communities for people on varying paths of the Christian journey. It has sometimes been said to be a rite looking for a theology. For myself I am content that the renewal of vows, prayer, oil, hand-laying and a desire that God confirm the candidate with the Holy Spirit does have the potential to be a huge moment of grace, whatever age the candidate and whatever their stage on the Christian pilgrimage. I find myself more interested in what it means in each individual case than in a general theological statement about what Confirmation is for in principle. I have seen it deepen faith, change lives and develop vocations.

Anglicanism is unusual in requiring episcopal Confirmation. The Roman Catholic Church, which teaches that Baptism makes a person a complete member of the Church (and admits to Communion on that basis), but also that Confirmation ‘renders the bond with the Church more perfect’, allows presbyteral Confirmation, though using the oil of chrism consecrated by the Bishop. I can find no absolute ecclesiological reason why Confirmation should need a Bishop, though I am clear that our canons require it, but I see an enormous advantage in a church that easily degenerates into congregationalism in having this opportunity for a relational encounter between those moving forward on their Christian journey and their chief pastor. Every reminder that we are part of the catholic church is good.

I don’t think the decline in Confirmation is much to do with a confused theology, nor with the admission of children to Communion, many of whom are later confirmed. The reasons are much more in line with the general decline in church going and in particular the failure of the Church to engage with young people. When such people do find themselves drawn into the life of the Church, Confirmation remains one of the things it has always been – a wonderful opportunity to express joy in God’s love and care for them and the Spirit God has planted within them.  f

 

 

Michael Perham was until 2014, Bishop of Gloucester and Bishop Protector of the European Province of SSF.