Julie Johnson essay's written as part of her training to become a Reader

Letter offering advice to a godchild considering whether to be confirmed

Dear Louisa

Thank you very much for the letter in which you share your thoughts about being confirmed and asking me for advice. There is no right age for a person to be confirmed [1]but at sixteen you are on the threshold of adulthood; your mind is expanding as well as your relationships, which are becoming more complex. Your attitude towards God is hopefully developing and your whole faith will be becoming more mature. At the same time, you will feel vulnerable and self-conscious. Is being confirmed right for you at this point in your life? Sometimes young people feel a pressure to be confirmed because this is what others in your church or school are doing? There are sociological as well as spiritual reasons why you feel as you do. Can you pray about this or at least ask others to pray for you? Often pray can be difficult, especially praying for oneself which is why asking others can help.

Perhaps my first suggestion would be for you to find out about confirmation classes in your area. If the confirmation class in your area is a good one is will not be one of teaching faith but about taking you further in your own faith and introducing new concepts. This would allow you to develop new spiritual experiences at the same time as working together as a group, learning together and exploring together. Sharing your thoughts with others could be part of learning to pray together and individually. I am thinking of a course like Youth Emmaus [2]. Although it was published some time ago it is still popular. But there are many other courses which are also excellent. The point is to find one which you are comfortable with. Maybe during or at the end of the course you may find that confirmation is not right for you. On the other hand, it will strengthen you in your way forward. At a time of crucial identity formation in your life you would be able to understand what the Christian faith is all about, in a safe environment where you know that no one is going to laugh at you for what you say or believe. Another thing to do would be to talk to your parish priest and find out what he thinks about your confirmation.

Faith is a journey and all Christians are on a journey. I like to think about this journey as being like a river. The river starts as a small spring of water and gradually as the stream moves on, it is joined by other streams to form a river; small at first but then growing a depth. However, sometimes the river can run underground and you can’t see it, but at is always there, only hidden. Sometimes the river is very shallow and if there is little rain it can almost dry up but once it rains again the water starts to flow again, until at last it is a mighty river which eventually will make its way to the sea.

You ask why it is necessary to be confirmed when you have already been baptised and I can see that in many ways this is because of different theological views of what exactly is meant by initiation into the Christian faith. First of all, we should perhaps consider this and whether it has anything to do with baptism or confirmation. There are many people who would be able to describe the moment when they became Christians, when they were converted to the Christian faith, rather like St Paul on the road to Damascus, who saw a brilliant light. This has been described as “Behold I shall cause breath the enter you, and you shall live”[3]. The experience of conversion can be very powerful and lead to a discovery of a new framework of understanding the world and (one’s) place in it amongst other things.[4] I personally have never had such an experience like this. It sounds as if you haven’t either.

If it helps you I could tell you something about my own experience on the journey of faith. I remember, at university there was a popular song “What’s it all about, Alfie”[5] originally sung by Cilla Black in 1966. It has been covered many times now and is a standard jazz classic. It seemed to me, at the time to be asking the questions:

-who am I?

-why am I here?

- what is my value?

-where am I going?

- on what basis do I make decisions?

I was older than you when I was thinking these things through and maybe to continue the song theme, there is another song which perhaps influenced me “We can work it out” by Lennon and McCartney from even earlier 1965. When the questions became:

-who is important to me?

-self? family?

-what is important to me?

-who (or what) is my God?

-where do I place my trust?

Perhaps trying to think about these questions may help you. Thinking about all these questions took me through a long journey, through Christian Union, Anglo-Catholicism, various churches and ministers, notably at Bedford and including York Minster. Then gradually the river became deeper, and although it went underground at certain parts of my life it has always been there. But remember I had already been baptised and confirmed! Perhaps this mattered? I can only say that somewhere, somehow the Holy Spirit was at work, nagging me. Remember, the Holy Spirit is at work in us, even if we don’t know it. Confirmation is not exactly like getting a driving licence! But it does open you up to receiving the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

So, you see, you do not have to have a big conversion experience, but if you are thinking of confirmation you do have to realise it is a commitment, a way of asking the Holy Spirit to be with you and although your faith river may flow shallowly or even sluggishly, it will always flow. “The Christian life is a marathon, not a sprint. It is not possible to handover ‘the whole of our lives’ to God at once, because we live, and as we live we change- hopefully, though from glory to glory. To be a Christian is to be a ‘becoming person’.”[6]

Now to get back to serious considerations of why, if you have been baptised, should you need to be confirmed.

You were baptised when you were a baby. You won’t remember your own Baptism but during the service your mother and father, myself and your other godparents made certain promises on your behalf. You were too young to make the promises yourself, so we promised that you would “turn to Christ as Saviour, submit to Christ as Lord and come to Christ, the way, the truth and the life.” Firstly, the sign of the cross was made in water on your forehead, a sign that “Christ claims you for his own”.[7] Rather frightening really, as if you have no option. (?) Then water, which had been blessed, was poured over your head as a physical sign that you had started out on your life long journey and that God had promised to be with you in joy and in sorrow.[8]

Some Christians believe that Baptism should only take place once the person to be baptised can make the commitment to a Christian life as their own, in other words they should wait until they are adult. There are also churches, like the Pentecostalists when the person is totally submerged in water to recognise the cleansing from sin. Does this matter? Perhaps it is the process rather than the action which matters. In other words, think of the marriage ceremony. Does it really matter if the bride wears white and carries some “borrowed, something blue”? These are really just symbols and important to some people as they are, do not alter the validity of the marriage ceremony. You could also argue that at the place where Jesus was baptised by John, the river Jordan is quite shallow, so it is unlikely that Jesus was completely submerged.[9]

So why do the Church of England, and other churches believe in confirmation, a sort of two stage initiation? Maybe I could draw your attention to some parts of the Acts of the Apostles. In Acts 11, “John baptised with water but you will be baptised by the Holy Spirit”[10] Does this somehow mean that you have been baptised with water when you were a baby but you need to be baptised by the Holy Spirit now you are growing up? Most theologians believe that at Baptism you received the Holy Spirit. Indeed, the very words of the Baptism service. “I baptise you in the name of the Father and of the Holy Spirit” leaves no doubt. What about the events in Jerusalem at Pentecost? This receiving of the Holy Spirit was different and additional to the baptism by John. There are some passages in Acts which might lead to an understanding that a sort of two-fold “initiation”, perhaps Baptism and Confirmation is needed? In Acts 8 the Samaritan believers did not receive the Holy Spirit immediately. In Acts 19, a handful of disciples who had been disciples of John the Baptist declared themselves unaware of the Holy Spirit but subsequently “Paul placed his hands upon them, and the Holy Spirit came upon them.”[11] It might also be considered that Paul himself had a two stage initiation in that there were three days between his surrender to Jesus on the Damascus road and his baptism. But Luke was not interested in writing a book on Christian initiation. [12] To seek out and separate into stages all that God has done and is doing is impossible. The important thing to remember is that God has created a new way of being, focused on Christ and made available to us through the Holy Spirit. Therefore, the importance is in your reaction and in you realising it.

The origins of the rite of Confirmation lie more in a combination of theology and an accident of History, although there have been reports by the Church of England about the need for Confirmation as well as Baptism.[13] The laying on of hands was introduced at Baptism in the late second century in the Western church as a sign of the reception of the Holy Spirit is part of becoming a Christian. In the Middle Ages, it was separated from the Baptism of infants and at the Reformation it came to be seen as the occasion for “confirming” the vows made by parents and god parents in infant Baptism.

So, it is clearly important for those baptised as infants to have the opportunity to “own for themselves” the commitment made on their behalf by others. This calls for some sort of “ritual” which includes the laying on of hands and to receive the Holy Spirit. But that is not the end of it, because you have been confirmed does not imply some magical act and life will be a bed of roses afterwards. It is an important step in your Christian life but an important step when the river of your faith, which I mentioned earlier, will be filled with water. But the river is continuous. It will keep flowing and with God’s help will always flow deeply and strongly, continually being refilled.

Lastly, I shall quote something from Proverbs at you! “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths”.[14]


Bibliography

Congar Yves, “I Believe in the Holy Spirit” translated by David Smith 1997

Cottrell Stephen et alia, “Youth Emmaus” 2003

Green Michael, “I Believe in the Holy Spirit” 2004

Percy Martyn (ed) Previous Convictions, London: SPCK, 2000 (quoted in Witcombe)

Sykes Stephen, “Contemporary Doctrine Classics from the Church of England” 2005

Witcombe John “The Holy Spirit and the People of God” 2nd Edition

http://www.cofe.anglican.org

References

[1] Service of Holy Baptism Common Worship

[2] Service of Holy Baptism Common Worship

[3] Ezekiel 37:5

[4] John Witcombe “The Holy Spirit and the People of God”

[5] Film “Alfie” 1966 Paramount Pictures

[6] Quoted in Martyn Percy (ed) Previous Convictions, London: SPCK, 2000

[7] John Witcombe “The Holy Spirit and the People of God”

[8] Church of England Service of Baptism CW

[9]

[10] Acts 11: 15-18

[11] Acts 19:1-8

[12] “I believe in the Holy Spirit” by Michael Green

[13] Stephen Sykes “Contemporary Doctrine Classics from the Church of England”

[14] Proverbs 3:5-6