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.”