SERMON: Here I Stand

‘Here I stand: Confirmation in today’s Church

Revd Andrew McKearney’s Sermon for 3rd Sunday in Lent 23-March-14

Today we are thinking about confirmation; and it’s lovely to be doing so on the day that Katharine and Deborah are being confirmed by Bishop John. As many of us as are able and would like are invited to come this evening to St Aldate’s Church in the centre of Oxford at 6 o’clock for the Confirmation service.

I’ve had a slightly confusing week sorting out the confirmation. St Aldate’s have been emailing me with details of the service, the time of the rehearsal, the seating arrangements and so on with their emails entitled ‘Confirmation’. At the same time I’ve been booking a flight with easy jet and finding somewhere to stay for Sarah and myself after Easter in connection with which I’ve been receiving similarly entitled emails ‘Confirmation’! They’ve all been good news, ‘confirmation’, but about very different events!

So what is confirmation in the context of the Church of England?

You might think that this is you confirming your faith and that’s why it is called confirmation. But that’s not the case. The person doing the confirming is not you but the Bishop who lays hands on your head and says:

“Confirm, O Lord, your servant with your Holy Spirit.”

So this is a sacramental action by the Bishop to confirm you; and the laying on of hands happens both at confirmation and in a number of other contexts such as ordination and the healing ministry, an action that has its roots in the Bible, both Old and New Testaments.

A key aspect of all the sacraments of the Church, confirmation included, is this covenant between God and his people; sacraments promise, and deliver what they promise.

One of the things that’s quite striking about confirmation, and those of us who are coming tonight will I think notice this, is the emphasis that is placed on the Holy Spirit.

Before either Katharine or Deborah are confirmed, the Bishop will extend his hands over all 13 candidates and pray:

“Let your Holy Spirit rest upon them:

the Spirit of wisdom and understanding;

the Spirit of counsel and inward strength;

the Spirit of knowledge and true godliness…..”

After they have all been confirmed we will be invited to pray that they will:

“….daily increase in your Holy Spirit.”

And the words of confirmation said by Bishop John are:

“Confirm, O Lord, your servant with your Holy Spirit.”

David in the first of this Lent series pointed out that immediately after Jesus’ baptism he is then endowed with the Spirit in the symbol of the dove. Others have made the link between confirmation and the day of Pentecost told in the Book of Acts when the Holy Spirit was poured upon the disciples. And last week in the story of Nicodemus we heard Jesus talk in St John’s Gospel about being born of water and the Spirit. This can give rise to the misunderstanding that the Holy Spirit is only present in confirmation and not present in baptism – that’s not the case! But ever since confirmation and baptism became separated in about the third century there’s been a tendency to think this way.

Let me remind you that in the early days of the church, baptism and confirmation always went together, for both adults and children. This is still the case in the Orthodox churches of the East; whenever anyone comes for baptism, whether a baby or an adult, they are baptised with water, anointed with oil blessed by the Bishop and receive communion whatever age they are – the bond is made, the covenant sealed, the deed done.

But in the West, from the third century onwards, baptism and confirmation became separated. The Church had grown numerically and the Bishop who had previously been responsible for all baptisms could no longer do them all – he didn’t have the time. So he delegated baptism to the parish clergy, and kept for himself that part of baptism which came to be called confirmation. It was often administered when the Bishop went to visit a parish he would confirm those who had been baptised. And there is something very special in this Western tradition that directly involves the Bishop. He or she (and we hope it won’t be long before we do have women bishops in the Church of England!), he or she represents the Church down the centuries and throughout the world. Tonight, just before laying hands on their heads, Bishop John will say:

“Deborah: God has called you by name and made you his own.”

“Katharine: God has called you by name and made you his own.”

This naming by Bishop John of each candidate is profoundly important because the sacraments of baptism and of confirmation impart the character of Christ to the person receiving them. At baptism the priest makes the sign of the cross on the person and says:

“You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.”

At confirmation the bishop says to each candidate:

“God has called you by name and made you his own.”

I hope that many of us remember our own confirmation. Others of us may have never been confirmed and in which case in the light of this sermon you may wish to consider it. I have no recollection at all of my own confirmation! I went to a school where at a certain stage you got confirmed. The person who prepared us was called ‘Willmot’ and given the nickname ‘Weary Willmot’! I hope that the meetings that Deborah and Katharine have had with me have not had a similar flavour!

Teenage confirmations used to be the norm and fitted with the way society worked – it was a teenage rite of passage and for many of us that’s how it was and it served its purpose well. Throughout history the Church has adjusted to the context in which it has found itself moving these markers to line up as best as possible with wider society. Age has always been an issue for confirmation. Should churches confirm people when they are young but risk them not understanding what it is they are being confirmed into? If you confirm people when they are young does this run the risk of confirmation becoming a passing out parade? Should churches wait until the person has become mature enough to be able to make an informed commitment but risk them leaving the church before that time comes?

The last statistic that I saw suggested that more than 50% of people being confirmed are now adults – I think we shall see this tonight at St Aldate’s – it is no longer a teenage rite of passage. Last week we discussed in the committee room across in the hall (and I hope you will be joining us afterwards if you can) that adolescence now starts significantly younger than it did; and I would like to add that adulthood comes much later too. Some are saying that adulthood is now reached at around the age of 30, by which is meant that someone is financially independent of their parents, no longer living at home, has found a life partner if that is their calling and settled into a chosen career.

If this is the new context that we are in with teenage years starting perhaps at 9 or 10 and adulthood not being reached until about 30, it’s not surprising that teenage confirmations have declined. Plus of course wider society is no longer supportive in the way that it was of church involvement at any age, least of all the teenage years. So confirmation tends to now be, as it was for Pauline who is serving for us today, at the age of 10 or younger, or, as it is for Deborah and Katharine, as an adult.

Not only has age been an issue for confirmation but so too has its connection with receiving Communion. Should it be the gateway to receiving Communion as we will have known it to be? And here it is important to notice that not only has society changed but so too has the life of the Church of England.

When many of us were young the principal services at church on a Sunday were Matins and Evensong with Communion being in the early morning and once a month after Matins. In that context where Communion was not central to the life of most parish churches, the question of whether the nurture of children in the Christian faith should involve them in taking Communion was simply not asked. Now, after what was called ‘the parish communion movement’, the Eucharist is the central act of worship every Sunday in almost every parish church. And in adapting to these new circumstances the Church of England has now made it possible for a parish to admit baptised children to Communion before confirmation.

The last statistic that I saw indicated that 15% of parishes in the Church of England have chosen to go down this route. It is normally from about the age of 7. There is proper preparation sometimes referred to as ‘Communion classes’. And its strength is that children then experience the full sacramental life of the church that means such a lot to all of us in our Christian lives.

I’ve been reading a good book with the title ‘Why sacraments?’ There the author, Andrew Davison writes:

“There is every reason to extend Communion to children. If they are baptised, they are fully members of Christ’s body. The ‘age    of reason’ is chosen as the age at which children are capable of receiving Communion with proper reverence. There is no necessity for a child to be able to understand the intricacies of eucharistic theology. Not only would that bar many adults from receiving, but it would also put the emphasis on our understanding rather than on God’s grace.”

And he concludes:

“If anything, it is adults who should seek to emulate the faith of children, not children who need to emulate the sophistication of    adults.”

Now I’m sure I’ve heard that before somewhere!

The final important aspect of confirmation that I’ve not yet mentioned is owning the Christian faith for yourself. When Deborah and Katharine are presented to Bishop John this evening he will first ask whether they have been baptised – Baptism and Communion are sometimes referred to as the ‘dominical sacraments’ because they alone of all the sacraments of the Church are clearly instituted by Christ himself. Once they have said that they have been baptised, Bishop John will ask:

“Are you ready with your own mouth and from your own heart to affirm your faith in Jesus Christ?”

Then follow three questions; questions that are asked to parents and godparents at every child’s baptism, now asked directly to the candidates:

“Do you turn to Christ?

Do you repent of your sins?

Do you renounce evil?”

You can see why over 50% of confirmation candidates are now adults. It will be an unusual child (and thank God there are some) that will be ready, as Deborah and Katharine now are, to answer:

“Here I stand.”

May Deborah and Katharine know the richness of God’s blessing on them as tonight they are confirmed with God’s Holy Spirit. Amen.