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Reclaiming Confirmation

by Phil Colvin

Phil is Diocesan Youth Coordinator for the Anglican Diocese of New Westminster

Having been involved with the preparation of candidates for confirmation for several years now, I’ve been to quite a few services of confirmation. And each time it’s quite the event. It begins with a full procession of candidates, clergy and the Bishop, walking among a full Cathedral of family members and supporters.

It’s conducted with rousing music from the Cathedral choir and congregation, as part of a service which lifts candidates from their place as pilgrims from their parishes and affirms them as confirmed members of the whole Church. And as I watch individuals and groups at the close of the service posing for pictures with the Bishop and members of their families I find myself wondering,

“Gosh, I wonder how many of these folks will be in church this time next year.”

Confirmation is a tricky rite for us to get our heads around. In the body of the Anglican Church, it’s an important sacrament. So important, in fact, that it’s one of the few which we require candidates to undergo some form of preparation before it takes place. And in our diocese, we have affirmed the role confirmation plays as a personal commitment into the wider Church through celebrating these services together twice per year.

Here is, for me, where some of that trickiness occurs:

At confirmation we affirm personal commitments in a public space; yet the preparation and follow up from the day of confirmation varies widely from parish to parish. By celebrating it the way that we do, and by not having a consistency in our preparations for it, we might appear to be creating a feeling that the preparation is for the day of confirmation itself.

It isn’t; at least that’s not the intention of the sacrament of confirmation as it’s expressed in our liturgy.

The service is a moment in time; a place of pause for commitment, celebration and (most importantly) rededication to a lifetime to come as part of the Body of Christ.

Much of the problem lies with the fact that the secular world has been appropriating the sacraments of the church for many years, and confirmation has been no exception.

Go to any high school or college graduation and you will be in very familiar territory. The ‘liturgy’ of such events has been lifted from the work of the Church: the sense of these moments being long prepared for, the iconography of a chancellor or principal “conferring” a diploma or degree upon a recipient and the equation of the moment as a rite of passage.

This has been a major problem when it comes to the sacrament of confirmation among young people (and we do need to recognize that, although many are confirmed at other ages, the greater number of confirmands are teenagers and young adults and act appropriately) because rather than seeking to rejuxtapose confirmation as an antithesis to a graduation, we’ve actually been all too happy to dilute our sacrament to match the secular version.

Perhaps we’re just relieved that teenagers are still being confirmed?

It’s time to reclaim confirmation. To take what we do well, with our wonderful services and atmosphere of the confirmation day, and to link it with a new approach to preparing our candidates for the equally wonderful Christian life ahead of them.

We don’t need to prepare our young people for a big afternoon at the Cathedral. Instead, we should be empowering them to take control of their own life with Christ, to be empowered for service in the Church and to be challenged to embrace a life of mission and prayer.

Let’s embrace a theology of confirmation which may reduce the numbers of young people who are confirmed, but which trades the stamp of a graduation ceremony for a stepping stone in their journey of faith. And let’s do it so that a year later all those who were confirmed can look around the setting of the Cathedral during a confirmation service and think to themselves, “This was the place where I began this new life. I’m glad I made that choice to start.”


About Andrew Stephens-Rennie

Andrew is an Anglican lay leader who loves pioneering responsive, contextual solutions to the challenge of being church in the 21st Century. He serves as an assistant to the rector for Evangelism and Christian Formation at Christ Church Cathedral Vancouver and is a founding member of the emerging St. Brigids community (www.stbrigid.ca).
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4 Responses to Reclaiming Confirmation

  1. I’m a second year Anglican seminary student. When I began this year, I was placed in a Lutheran church. Our acting principal who sent me there sent me with the specific instruction to learn about the confirmation prep classes: “Those Lutherans, they just do it so much better”. Not only do Lutherans generally have a much longer preparation process, they also have a catechism that they *really* like to follow.

    Maybe it’s time for the Anglican Church of Canada to reintroduce a catechism – one that teaches confirmands about the historic vitality (and challenges) of the Church and the symbols to which they’re about to dedicate their lives but also one that points forward to the new reality of what the church can be with their dedication and their involvement.

    “Perhaps we’re just relieved that teenagers are still being confirmed?” I think is dead on. What we, collectively, don’t seem to have realized yet is that this sense of desperation by the wider church counteracts any good we do in preparing our young people to enter into community as full members in their own right. If the rest of the church is just so happy to have young people in the pews that we don’t trust the ones we confirm with the responsibilities of the church, what sort of meaningful rite of passage are we carrying out and what are we communicating to those going through with it?

    I would love to see a confirmation liturgy and training process (and a graduation ceremony for that matter!) that took seriously its role as a gateway and not as a capstone.

  2. Nick – I’ve wondered about that for some time, too – should we reintroduce a catechism. I often wonder if intentionally extending our process to two or three years would lend itself more towards formation within the Christian faith. I fear that in a shorter time, we do our best to provide information rather than true formation.

    My question, I think is, “yes, they’re being confirmed…but to what end.” Just because we’ve gone through a process doesn’t necessarily mean that confirmands are any more equipped to live out a thoughtful, intentional and humble Christian life.

    If that’s, in fact, what we want.

  3. When I first wrote this article last year, we were about to host our first diocesan confirmation preparation retreat focusing explicitly on a confirmand’s subsequent Christian life. It felt like a good step for us; recognising that since the diocese was taking leadership in the rite of confirmation we should also take some leadership in preparation. We’re doing our second confirmation retreat this weekend; and I’m hopeful that as this becomes a regular part of how we all prepare for confirmation in this part of the world we’ll reformulate our own programs more effectively.

    This year I’ve moved our parish’s program away from ‘theoretical’ sessions and towards ‘practical’ ones. Our preparation sessions have included attending events around the Church, being introduced to a compassionate service ministry we regularly serve at and attending other denomination’s church services and reflecting on the distinctive aspects of each other’s worship.

    We’re not quite there yet but I feel the move towards a ‘vocational’ approach to confirmation prep is going in the right direction for us; and will help to convey the message from the Church that we consider this part of our welcome to our confirmands (to our worship and to the ministries which make us who we are) rather than as our farewell to them which I can’t help but feel the ‘theoretical’ approach often seems to suggest.

    • I can’t help but think that that move from theory to practice will be a help towards not just being well-informed about Christianity, but also being well and truly formed in it. It seems to me that more of an apprenticeship model would help us all in practicing what it is we say we’re on about.

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