What is Confirmation?

The Rector considers the meaning of Confirmation ...

I, like many of you, was confirmed when I was 11 years old.  The Bishop who confirmed me was the Bishop of Warrington, Michael Henshall.  Bishop Michael is a ‘leap year baby’ and so he took as his text for his sermon ‘LEAP - loyalty, enthusiasm, adventurousness & perseverance’.  I was confirmed with 75 other people, almost all were children.  I remember coming home and making a commitment to God that I would stand by the promises that I had made to God in front of a church full of people.  It was a very moving and special occasion for me, and even now, I remember it well.

I went to Confirmation classes in church for the best part of an academic year led by the clergy, and we were taught that we were making the promises for ourselves that our godparents had made on our behalf when we were baptised.

Confirmation marks the point in the Christian journey at which we affirm for ourselves the faith into which we have been baptized and our intention to live a life of committed discipleship.  This affirmation is confirmed through prayer and the laying on of hands by the confirming bishop.  The Church also asks God to give us power through the Holy Spirit to enable us to live in the way of Jesus. But, today the traditional Church of England pattern of Christian initiation is changing in three ways.

First, in most dioceses provision now exists, as it does in York Diocese, subject to agreement by the bishop, the parish priest and the congregation or the Parochial Church Council, for children who have not been confirmed to receive Holy Communion after appropriate instruction provided that this is in the context of a programme of continuing nurture leading to confirmation.  My predecessor, Rev Steve Jarratt took the Benefice through this process  and now, at Wigginton, several young people receive Holy Communion who are not confirmed.  They are children who come to church regularly with their families and have been through the six week benefice programme of preparation.

Secondly, increasing numbers of people who have been baptised as infants are not being confirmed as teenagers but are being confirmed later as adults, often either as part of a journey to Christian faith or as part of a return to it.

Thirdly, increasing numbers of people are not being baptized as infants, but are being baptized when they come to faith when they are older.  In this case provision is made for a return to the older Western pattern with baptism, confirmation and receiving the Eucharist taking place in the same service.

What this means is that there are now a number of different patterns of Christian initiation in the Church of England.  Our confirmation is essentially a continuance of the developing awareness and reality of faith and the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives.  At our baptism, faith was conceived.  We became part of Christ’s body, the church.  Our confirmation is the gentle unfolding of what our baptism means.  When we celebrate confirmation, we celebrate that we are on a journey to wholeness, peace and the perfecting of love.  We have said yes to God’s invitation to be part of the visible, living body of Christ on earth.  Confirmation is our public commitment to faith along with our brothers and sisters in Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.

The earliest mention of Confirmation being separated from Baptism in the early church was in 215, when Hippolytus wrote his Apostolic Tradition and Tertullian wrote ‘De Baptismo’.  Both writings describe a ceremony after baptism which consisted of a prayer said by the bishop with his hands extended over the candidates, the anointing of the candidates on the forehead, the imposition of the hand on the head of each and the sign of the cross on the forehead.

Originally, no distinction was made between infants and adults in the use of this post baptismal ceremony.  When infants were baptised, they were also anointed and hands were laid on them.  But the requirement of the Roman and African churches that the anointing and imposition of the hand must be reserved for the bishop came to result in their separation from baptism, for infants and adults alike.  As dioceses covered large areas, and there were not many bishops, the post-baptismal ceremony was inevitably delayed until the candidates could appear before a bishop.  This separation between baptism and confirmation, which was originally imposed on the church by practical necessity, came ultimately to be regarded as the normal practice, and led to a situation in which baptism was thought to be appropriate to infancy and confirmation to later years.

The problem comes when we believe that we receive our spiritual growth and sustenance through receiving Holy Communion.  When can children receive this spiritual food to help them to grow strong as Christians?  The response is when they are old enough to understand.  Do we adults understand fully about our Christian faith?  No, we understand through receiving the body and blood of Christ!  So we may be preventing children from growing through the grace of the sacrament we enjoy and value so much!

I have organised 14 services of confirmation in the last 14 years and have seen 61 candidates confirmed.  It has been very exciting watching all those people learning more about their faith and growing stronger as they drew closer to Christ and his people and received the amazing gift of the Holy Spirit!  I thank God for all those people!