A very old Church joke goes like this:
An archdeacon is called to a church to examine a serious problem with the building. When they arrive they find that the bell tower is full of bats which (because of protection laws) cannot be removed from the space. Not missing a pace the Archdeacon says the solution is readily at hand, all that is needed is for them to get the bishop over.
'What on earth can the bishop do to get rid of the bats?' asks the Vicar.
'He'll come over and confirm them and once that's done, you'll never see most of them again!'
Now, as funny as it is, the reality behind this clerical humour has been seen and felt by many clergy over the years; the reason being that we don't understand what confirmation is about and this misunderstanding is costing the Church dearly+!
Controversial words I know, but this is what I honestly feel and here's why:
I recently encountered some congregations, each with few children, each with very different attitudes. In all of them there were children who had expressed a desire to take communion and the differences in attitude of the church (here 'church' means the people in charge and these were not necessarily the clergy or wardens) resulted in:
i. 'You're only 'n' - come back when you're 'n+x'
(let's make n=10 and x=4; arbitrary values randomly chosen for the purpose of this exercise)
There were three distinct thoughts behind this (and I know because I asked).
The first was that confirmation is a rite of passage - marking the transition from child to adult (like bar/bat mitzvah in the Jewish faith).
The second was that confirmation made the recipient of that rite a 'member' and 'n', 'Was just too young, for at that age they are tomorrow's church!'
The final bit of thinking was that confirmation is akin to a graduation ceremony and marks something very special because it's about having reached the end of a journey.
ii. 'Let's get together and talk about it'
So they met with the child and discussed what they knew and understood about God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit), The cross, resurrection, new life in Jesus, Pentecost, Church, church and being a disciple (without any of the technical words). What they were doing was exactly what the good old catechism classes of days gone by never did (well mine didn't - it was a bored cleric reading a dogeared SPCK Catechism booklet to a bunch of equally bored and disinterested fifteen years old)! The child was engaged with and a dialogue, and an understanding of their position and thinking gained, and the imparting of great understanding made.
iii. 'Of course, let's do it!'
Now this was a risky approach because the 'Yes' had been issued before a full understanding of the place the child was in was made theirs. The thinking behind this was that the child was known and the view of the family (active and engaged church members) was sought before the encounter where they were properly asked (simple really - the desire was voiced and the response was, 'Great, let's talk later/after the service/sometime soon*' (and the parent were then asked their views before returning to them).
My response to the above scenarios is this:
The first is, in my view (and it might be wrong) pure and unadulterated folly on many levels!
If a child of 'n' comes and is told to come back and 'n+x' then my experience is that by the time 'x' has passed you have lost them and even if they come for confirmation the danger is that it's become a rite of passage and what could have been the beginning of a journey is actually the 'sending off party' for someone who is effectively leaving!
The reality is that confirmation is the beginning of the faith journey, the taking upon ourselves the backpack of faith and the roadmap that leads us to the cross. I would rather see a child of 'n' confirmed and taken forward than put off and put off! This is a dicey path because it requires commitment, energy, engagement and some real conflict with some in the church who will trot out their 'tomorrow's Church' mantra and in so doing destroy today's Church!
This story ends with the child deciding that they didn't want to come back later and the reality is that their attendance is looking less likely as the parents have been told they don't enjoy coming with the result that, because they don't want to force them to come, probably means that the Sunday football or rugby team are likely to have a new member shortly!
The second is about engagement and taking the child seriously. This payed dividends in that the child answered some stuff well and was corrected, guided and after some few sessions together was confirmed. Youth Alpha and Emmaus courses were of use here and what has been seen is a young person on the lower slopes of discipleship fast approaching the steeper section and passing some of the older pew-warmers (which will be interesting to watch)!
The third engagement was quite exquisite in that it didn't put the child off but made space to canvass the parent so that they could respond in a positive and informed way in partnership with the parents. The child was engaged with in a way that involved the parents from the beginning and not only sought their views and permission but brought them into a place where their own faith might be challenged and enhanced bringing a real win-win-win result. The child was confirmed and the ongoing, shared, discipleship is being made real in this family because of it.
Confirmation is not an ending but the beginning of a discipleship journey (which is why we call upon the empowering of God's Holy Spirit as succour for the journey - Spiritual Kendal Mint Cake)
Confirmation is about us acknowledging membership of the Church and taking responsibility for the person being confirmed
Confirmation is not about becoming a member (we don't have members, we have parishioners and communicants)
Communion does not make us an adult - goodness me, have you seen how childish and inane many of those who have been confirmed are?
Confirmation is not about knowledge or age or anything but the desire to go forward and be fully part of the Church - it is Church and communicant taking mutual responsibility for the journey to the cross and is about accountability on the part of Church and believer. How can we expect the baptised to fulfil their baptismal calling if those of us who are called to be their pastors do not take our role seriously?
'Suffer the little children to come to me,' says the Boss.
Are we listening ?
+ And this is the whole Church because many of those who find themselves in other denominations and groupings beging life as Anglicans and is we don't give birth to them the others won't be winning them later ;-)
* delete as applicable