Friday, July 07, 2006


A slow day at work (so far) allows me to reflect on some of the past few, very busy weeks -- filled with visitors, events, a family holiday, and lots of work. One of the momentous events of the summer was my daughter's confirmation of her Christian faith. This followed two years of "confirmation instruction," in which she was (supposedly) instructed in the basics of Lutheran doctrine and history.

It's an odd thing, I imagine, to have an arm-chair (and curmudgeonly, at that) theologian as a father. It must, too, be odd to have that same father as one of your "confirmation instructors." But Erika bore the cross with aplomb, seeming even to enjoy some of the interaction. And for my part, I tried not to interfere unduly or to be too nosey or critical. For example, as a part of prepartion for the rite of confirmation, each confirmand had to write an individual "faith statement" for reading during the liturgy. The understanding was that parents were to keep their hands off the composition, and I did. I didn't even see Erika's until after she had submitted it (I expect for both her benefit and mine). (It was quite good, actually -- witty, sincere, and, contrary to her father's wishes, not ponderously theological.)

Of moment for me in all of that was the relative meaninglessness of the exercise. What is the point of confirmation? (Now there's an ages-old question.) Why do we do it? Why do our youth submit to it (aside from their legal inability to refuse)?

Confirmation, in the words of Frank Senn (noted liturgical scholar and pastor), is a rite in search of a theology. It really doesn't do anything original. It's not the completion of baptism, as some of us were taught, because the baptismal rite does everything to initiate one into the Body of Christ. We are not half initiated by baptism. Witness that in our congregation, one is admitted to the Lord's table upon baptism, as full members of the Body of Christ. (That, of course, is an entirely different thing from admission to the voting membership. We haven't really faced that issue. Thus, for example, if a newly confirmed person wants to be counted among the quorum to vote on the congregation's budget, would we allow that? What about if there is a vote on property acquisition, which in most congregations and states requires the votes to be cast only by people who have reached their majority?)

As I (only begin to) understand matters: Confirmation has a long and uncertain history. Fundamentally, however, it was the bishop's (later, in Protestantism, the presbyter's or pastor's) conferring of the Holy Spirit, marked by "chrismation" -- i.e., by anointing the person with oil and invoking the blessings of the Holy Spirit. This would take place following the interrogations and "washing" of the individual catechumens at the Easter vigil. The bishop -- who in earliest times, was simply the pastor of the congregation -- did not participate in those washings. Deacons (male deacons in the case of men and female deacons in the case of women, because the candidates were likely naked when they were baptized) handled that part of the process. Following the washings, the candidates were dressed in white robes and led to the pastor for the completion of the rite -- the anointing with the Spirit.

The rite was separated from Baptism, in history, at that time when bishops started "overseeing" more than one congregation. He (yes: in those days, only "he") would travel around to the various congregations and "confirm" (i.e., complete) those baptisms that had occurred at the Easter vigils in the individual congregations. The lag, of course, between washings and anointing (or confirmation) was relatively short -- nothing similar to what it became. Apparently, at least in the Western Church, the issue of confirmation got all wrapped up with notions of personal appropriation of the grace of God, of rational acceptance of one's place in the Church, and similar concerns. And slowly the rite of baptism deteriorated.

Cut to the twentieth century. While I was yet in Seminary (in the late 70s), the Lutheran churches in the US began to re-think the whole complex of issues regarding the raising of children in the church. So we checked out the ancient sources and liturgies, we thought theologically, we integrated insights from psychology and sociology (not always a good thing, I've learned). And we began to re-think our received notions about the fullness or incompleteness of baptism, the nature of Christian education (there was some really fascinating stuff from a British catechist named Goldberg or Goldman), confirmation, first communion. And it got complex.

Confirmation was recognized for the vague thing it is, so the church (at least, the predecessor bodies of the ELCA) lost any unanimity in practice and theory (theology actually had little to do with it, frankly). It now often was seen as a ministry to the confirmands -- assuring them of the Church's/congregation's care for them. (How that could be manifest in special requirements that they undergo a kind of boot camp not required of adults or younger children was not answered.) It was recognized as a rite of passage, not necessarily theologically inspired, but culturally warranted. (There was little serious consideration of when it might be best to schedule such a thing -- or actually there was a lot of consideration, but no consensus.) The intellectual side of preparation for confirmation was discounted, but that left a void that was never, in most places, adequately filled.

And the confusion continues to this day.

At root, I would like to see an abandonment of confirmation -- at least for a generation -- in favor of closer attention to and major emphasis on education for Christian Lutherans of all ages. The educational level of the average Lutheran congregant is depressingly low, and we need to undertake a major effort to convince adults that they don't know what they don't know and that they need to learn it and to pass it on to their children. Further, that education needs to be in the fundamentals of the faith, not in the latests comings and goings of the local alderman or mayor or hunger project. (Those are, of course, important and should be a part of a rich education program. But I suspect most of our members know more about the current political bluster than they do about the importance of the formulation "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit," and that should change.

Having cut the Gordian knot, we can then examine the propriety of rites of passage vis-a-vis the growth in grace to which we are called by the Gospel. We might, I think, too, recognize that confirmation-like personal affirmation of faith might be called for a various points in a person's life. The liturgy books of the ELCA certainly provide for the "Reaffirmation of Baptism" -- under which title "confirmation" now is classified. But how about college kids who may have strayed from the faith and now wish to return or who, because of a good teacher or campus pastor, are brought to a new and existentially meaningful appreciation of the historic faith? Should we not provide for them (as the ELCA rites theoretically do) an occasion for the public affirmation or re-affirmation of their faith? (I'm not really hot on personal testimonies. But with the proper education and training, such things can be a meaningful part of even Lutheran conversation, it seems to me.)

Underlying this post is my sneaking suspicion that we have so psychologized the life of faith, that we need a major shaking to bring us back to reality. And what that means would make this post too long. (I have already indicated something about the psychologizing of sin, I think.) So I'll work on that and try to figure out what I mean.

In any event, we confirmed my daughter. She received some lovely gifts to mark the occasion -- among them an LBW from the congregation, the "magazine Bible" (that I tore my hair out about some time back and that she thinks is pretty cool) from the neighbors, a lovely prayerbook (Roman Catholic in origin, of course) and icon from her parents, and lots of things I don't remember. And I was once again reminded in a most graphic way of the importance, some times, of just grinning, gritting, and bearing discomfort.

Perhaps we both marked a transition. But I'm not going there.


Tom said...

i greatly disagree with the idea of confirmation in it's current state.

confirmation, no matter how much you try to candy-coat it, is nothing more than an opportunity for youth (actually children) to regurgitate "the church." how can one actually believe that a faith statement written by a youth accurately reflects their understanding of scripture and "the church." hell... my spirituality has been constantly changing for the last six years and it still is day by day. oh, and it's NOTHING of what i was taught by my parents or "the church."

but it's MINE. it's not what i think of as mine that is in actuality a reordering of words that were taught to me in the previous two years of classes.

confirmation should only occur when a person has hit their late twenties and have decided that their spiritual beliefs still match that of the spiritual community of which they are a part of. if it no longer matches they should leave that community immediately before they become jaded towards spirituality in general.

Jim said...

In 1957, when I was confirmed in the Episcopal church, in Lower Alabama, only confirmed people could take communion, and only confirmed boys were allowed to serve as acolytes.

Through the endless drills of Morning Prayer during which the entire Decalogue was read and the Apostles' Creed recited, I didn't need any help there -- and those two memory requirements were "the final exam."

As I look back, I think I can appreciate a touch point, a tangent between my life and a life in the Church. It was certainly a rite of passage and an important event in my young life.

Like most calendar-driven events, Confirmation shouldn't be expected to produce red rockets of emotion or even major changes in outlook. I certainly don't think that parents or parishes should require it, but insist that the confirmands request it, themselves.

*Heretic flag on*
I'm not even sure that Baptism should be a predeterminant for participation in the Eucharist. *Heretic flag off*

Rick Warren has made a lot of hay out of erecting some high barriers for membership in his business, but the "God" in the barriers or what lies beyond them is somewhat elusive.

You are eminently accurate in pointing up the need for a closer and more prolonged engagement among the church community and our youth. By focusing on doing church instead of being church, we have done a grave disservice to us all.

Anonymous said...

"I'm not even sure that Baptism should be a predeterminant for participation in the Eucharist. "

Would love to read some explanation of this here.


Jim said...

The institution of the Eucharist
19Then he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.’20He did the same with the cup after supper, and said, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood poured out for you. -- The New Jerusalem Bible. Includes Indexes., Lk 22:19. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1995, c1985.

9Go, therefore, make disciples of all nations; baptise them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,20and teach them to observe all the commands I gave you. And look, I am with you always; yes, to the end of time.’ -- The New Jerusalem Bible. Includes Indexes., Mt 28:19. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1995, c1985.


... and that, in his name, repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be preached to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. -- The New Jerusalem Bible. Includes Indexes., Lk 24:47. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1995, c1985.

I have chosen Luke's Institution as the most comprehensive of the three, and as to baptism offer Matthew's instruction to baptize contrasted with Luke's instruction to preach repentance. The Markan caution at 16:16 is unanimously thought to be a retrojection.

I pose the question as to whether a person may effectively repent of her/his sins without the Sacrament of Baptism; and regardless, whether Jesus' sacrifice may be remembered and faithully celebrated in the Eucharist.

And having gone that far, I wonder if the early fathers, in competition with the mystery cults, decided to raise the price of admission by insisting on lengthy instruction and high-liturgy for converts. Rick Warren has stumbled onto at least the first part of that formula and it seems to work for him, whether or not we agree with his theology.

Dwight said...

Tom, It may not surprise you that we differ in perspective on this somewhat. I think it is an important task of the "confirmation" process to enable kyds to appropriate the Church's take on life. To confess the creed, for example, is to hold oneself out as affirming a particular content to faith and "spirituality." It is important to initiate all of us into the ages-long meaning and conflict that that content conveys. So when my daughter asked, in all seriousness, whether she could just recite the Apostles' Creed, because that's what she believed, I was very pleased. But the goal of the exercise was to answer not "What do you believe?" but "What does this mean [to you]?" And I think the kyds indicated some good grasp of that.

But I think I indicated that I agree with part of what you say: I think the Church needs to be more diligent in providing for such opportunities at more points in people's lives. I, as have you, have evolved in my perspectives and in my understandings and in my living out of all that (= spirituality, in my lexicon). I could have legitimately proclaimed a new insight at numerous points in my life.

That's why I like Jim's image of "tangent." When the Great Tradition of the Church and my own experience touch in a meaningful way (and that's probably the most that most of us will be able to claim), it's a momentous event. It ought to be celebrated. (Having affirmed your thoughts, Jim, on confirmation, I will not take you on here or yet on the necessary relationship between baptism and eucharist. Suffice it to say for now that with my Church-as-counter-culture perspective, I think it imperative that we maintain the historic order. I haven't read Rick Warren: He scares me, frankly. But I doubt that he means things in the way I would mean them. Still ... . )