Monday, June 07, 2010

Communion and Confirmation

It is now very much the Summer season here in Hong Kong.  We get many visitors to Christ Church from all over the world and they often ask me how I like living in Hong Kong.  There is no problem answering.  Hong Kong is my home and the place I believe I am called to work and minister.  If, however, I was to be asked the one thing I find hardest to cope with living here, without hesitation I would reply: the heat and humidity of the Summer.  It really does get hot and even a short walk outdoors leaves you dripping wet!  Fortunately, nowadays, we have air-conditioning!  I have no idea how the British who came here in the days before air-conditioning coped, especially when I see pictures of them in very formal dress.

Yesterday, I was preaching on Communion and Confirmation.  It was Corpus Christi last Thursday and we are planning a Confirmation service for the Autumn.  One of the biggest issues for me before officially becoming an Anglican was the issue of infant baptism.  For years I struggled with the question of whether it was legitimate to baptize babies or not.  So much baptismal theology simply doesn't work when applied to infants.  In the end, I decided that historically the Church had baptised babies and that it shouldn't be an issue to keep me from being ordained an Anglican priest.

As I have wrestled with the issue in the years since ordination, while I have come to believe that it is valid to baptize babies, Biblically valid, paradoxically, I still don't think that what the Bible says about baptism can be applied to the baptism of infants.  To put it simply: adult baptism is not the same as infant baptism.  I don't think there can be any getting away from the fact that in the New Testament baptism is a choice made by the person being baptized, something that by definition isn't true when a baby is baptized.

It is to get over this that Churches such as my own have a Service of Confirmation when a person previously baptized can confirm for themselves the vows made on their behalf at baptism and when the Church can confirm God's acceptance of them.  The practical, pastoral problem here for me is that I can't persuade people to come to Confirmation.

To an extent this is a problem of our own making.  It used to be the case in Anglicanism that we would only admit to Communion those who had been confirmed.  There was then some incentive to be confirmed, although it is also true that we never saw many of those who were confirmed after they had been confirmed.  It was treated as a passing out parade.  Anyway, we decided as Anglicans, rightly in my opinion, that baptism was sufficient in order to receive Communion and so we now encourage anyone who has been baptized, whatever their age, to be receive Communion.

This means that many simply don't feel the need to go through Confirmation.  They confirm their faith each week by being part of the worshipping community and taking Communion.  The question then is, does it matter if people don't get confirmed?  It certainly matters to some in my Church who still think that Communion should only be given to the confirmed.  However, as I point out to them, that is now no longer an option. It also matters to Bishops for whom confirmation is one way of underlining their authority given that it is the Bishop who must confirm.  The actual answer, however, is, I think, yes and no!

Yes, it matters precisely because, as I said at the beginning of this post, infant baptism is not Biblical baptism.  It is perfectly valid on its own terms, but, in the New Testament, Christian faith requires a commitment - a public commitment at that.  Confirmation, then, provides a means to make up for what is lacking in infant baptism.  Indeed, it could be argued that Confirmation is New Testament baptism without the water.

But no, there is nothing to say that this is the only means for making the public commitment that the New Testament requires.  If a person has made a decisive decision to turn to Christ in faith and repentance and is open about that in their life and witness, it is very hard to see why Confirmation should be a requirement.  Of course, this doesn't mean it can't be encouraged by the Church as a way of demonstrating that commitment liturgically.

It does mean that it is quite difficult to persuade people to join the Confirmation Service we are planning in the Autumn!

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