Sunday, June 01, 2008

Reflections on Confirmation

The Messenger
Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
June 2008

Reflections on Confirmation

I felt a mix of pride and relief when the fourteen young people (along with two adults) from Grace Church were confirmed by Bishop Beckwith at Trinity + St. Philip’s Cathedral back in April. I was proud because these fine young men and women had taken their preparation seriously and relief that everyone was confirmed without any last-minute complications. The service itself was a joyous, even at times raucous, event. Although I know some miss the custom of the bishop confirming our parishioners here at Grace, many of the parents of our confirmands mentioned that they were very moved by the service. In particular it was a great opportunity for all of us to see some of the diversity and breadth of our Diocese of Newark.

Looking back on it, Confirmation class was one of the highlights of my work at Grace so far. We met in the parish library at 7:00 on Sunday evenings, covering the usual topics such as the Scriptures, the sacraments, the Nicene Creed, and Anglicanism. These subjects often led to interesting and wide-ranging comments and questions and gave me a chance to dust off some of my old teaching skills. It was a privilege and a gift to reflect on the major challenges and questions of our Christian faith with this bright and inquisitive group. Before the class began, the confirmands signed a covenant in which they pledged to seek a closer relationship with God and their peers in the group; develop a better understanding of the Episcopal Church; and to reach a personal decision on whether they wanted to confirm their faith. Each of our confirmands certainly took those promises very seriously

The confirmands were all required to attend an overnight diocesan Confirmation retreat. Some of us made the retreat at St. Luke’s in Phillipsburg (and got to see Fr. Tom Mathews in his new home) and the rest attended a retreat at the Church of the Annunciation in Oradell. The retreat began with some icebreaker activities and then some games such as “Confirmation Jeopardy.” We ended the first night with Compline and then it was down to the floor and into our sleeping bags. The next day gave the confirmands a chance to meet Bishop Beckwith as well as attend sessions on various ministries and spiritual practices. The retreat ended with a celebration of the Eucharist. Much like the Confirmation service itself, the retreat gave us a chance to meet other Episcopalians and to appreciate the variety and the complexity of our Church.

The confirmands also had a service requirement. I requested that they perform their service here at Grace Church, specifically helping the Altar Guild, or serving as an usher or an acolyte. On their own initiative, one girl offered to help with Sunday School and two others asked if they could serve in the Parish Office. Some of the confirmands have continued to offer their service although it is no longer required. I am rethinking how to provide service opportunities for next year’s confirmation class. I would be happy to hear suggestions from parishioners.

Confirmation has a long and convoluted history, and today in the Episcopal Church it is sort of an ambiguous sacrament. Some have even called Confirmation “a sacrament in search of a theology.” Many of you will remember the days in the Episcopal Church when only those who had been confirmed were able to receive Communion. One of the key features of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer is the heavy emphasis placed on Baptism. The prayer book recovered the early Christian understanding that Baptism provides full initiation into the Church. In other words, Baptism is in no way “completed” in Confirmation. As Mother Lauren reminds us each Sunday, “All baptized persons are welcome to receive Communion.” But, certainly as long as infant Baptism remains common, the Church will need to provide young people, particularly teenagers, with an opportunity to stand up on their own and affirm their faith. And hopefully Confirmation can also be an opportunity to pray and think deeply about the Christian faith, a chance to grapple with some of the big questions of life, and the start of a mature commitment to Jesus Christ.

We began each of our classes by saying together the Collect for Confirmation. I think it can be a great prayer for all of us, confirmed or not, as we try to live a Christian life of faith and service:

Almighty God, we thank you that by the life, death and resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ you have overcome sin and brought us to yourself, and that by the sealing of your Holy Spirit you have bound us to your service. Renew in us the covenant you made with us at our Baptism. Send us forth in the power of that Spirit to perform the service you set before us; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.