Confirmation is sometimes called a rite in search of a theology. Why? Because there is no biblical or theological reason for it.
Confirmation, the celebration of the Holy Spirit within us, initially was celebrated at the same time as baptism in an era in which adult baptism was the norm. After it became common to practice infant baptism, probably about 300 years or so after Jesus, eventually it was recognised that the baptised infant had no real part to play, was not able to acknowledge what had happened and had never made a decision to follow Jesus. So, toward the Middle Ages the rite of confirmation came to fill this gap as the part of baptism-to-come-later, and was understood as the sacrament of maturity and an affirmation of baptism.
This got me thinking about two words that are used in the order of service: confirmation, the name of this rite, and affirmation, which is the label given to our responses. In fact, in Uniting in Worship, ‘confirmation’ is described as the affirmation of baptism.
‘Affirm’ means, to validate or state positively, to assert as valid and to express one’s dedication. ‘Confirm’ means to ratify, to strengthen, and to give assurance.
This helps to explain who does what in this rite. We humans are not ones doing any ‘confirming’ here. In creating this rite, the Church wanted to create a symbol of God’s confirmation of our place in God’s family and the realisation of the gifts of the Spirit that had been conferred upon us through our baptism; i.e. confirmation is a ratification, an assurance, by God of our place in the kingdom, and a strengthening by the Holy Spirit of our spiritual gifts.
Our response to this act of God is an affirmation; we assert our dedication to the kingdom into which Jesus guides us.
I once went online to search for a more contemporary liturgy to use. Usually, the internet is a good resource for such things, but I found nothing of use. Instead, I discovered that confirmation is a current subject for debate in the Church, and in some churches, people are talking about discarding it altogether.
The theological arguments for this are pretty sound, and if only theological arguments counted, I would jump on the band wagon and toss confirmation in the bin. But pastoral concerns demand a different response.
When I look at my own life in the church, the key to my continued participation, particularly when I found the church’s message to be primitive and of little relevance to my life, was the sense of belonging that had been cultivated in my early years by the members of a small town Methodist congregation.
Belonging is the foundational message of confirmation: it is saying to the candidate, on behalf of God and, most importantly on behalf of the church, not just “you are a member,” but “you belong.” This is the essential message of baptism, when one is initiated into the family of God, and it is confirmed in this ritual. You belong. You are never isolated, disconnected, alone, for you belong. Furthermore, it is not just the good part of you, the one that gets projected to the world, it is the whole you, spots and all, who belongs. God confirms it and the church affirms it. Confirmation says, now and always, you belong.