Through declining confirmation numbers, Tom Middleton looks at it means in to be called by God and ‘made his own’
The sacrament of confirmation is often seen as a rite of admission to the reception of holy communion but more generally as a rite related to a coming of age and maturing in the faith. In this way it gives a certain degree of choice to the individual in the initiation, opting to receive the sacrament in a way not possible with infant baptism. Practice has differed over time, of course, as well as between jurisdictions within the Universal Church. In the Church of England, it continues to be conferred by bishops.
Beyond the detail of its administration, confirmation presents an opportunity for the Church to demonstrate its pastoral care to the faithful and for services of confirmation to bring together families, church schools, and parish communities in a way which can be hard to match. This is particularly the case when there is a cohort of candidates in their teenage years, which tends to be the earliest age for this particular sacrament.
Being episcopal in character and nature in the Anglican context, it is thus the ideal occasion for a bishop to visit the parishes in his See, possibly annually but certainly at regular intervals, assuming a steady flow of candidates and opportunities.
The last two years of pandemic have of course been hugely challenging for all aspects of church life and vital rites of passage. Confirmation in no small part relies on church schools functioning normally or confirmation classes being able to be held or Sunday Masses being able to function to a standard schedule.
For that reason, the most recent year for church statistics for comparison purposes is 2019. The Church of England’s publication Statistics for Mission 2019 sets out that 13,400 people were confirmed in the Church of England in 2019. Most tellingly, the report sets out that, in the ten-year period since 2009, the number of confirmations had fallen from a level of 25,000 to one of 13,400. This represents a reduction of 46 per cent. (In reality it will be hard to regain even a 50% level in these post-pandemic times.)
The purpose of raising this falling away of around half the total number of confirmations over the course of a decade is not to be alarmist. The Church of England is fully aware of the existential challenge it faces and, while they may not be universally acclaimed, does have a set of strategies to combat the decline. Curves, as we know, can be flattened.
Highlighting the starkly downward trend in confirmations inevitably leads us to ask questions as to how it came about and what does it mean for the future. Can the Church of England still claim to be playing a meaningful role in national life? Amidst the clamour for relevance and modern forms of worship, has the sacramental life been neglected? Has the pandemic exacerbated that neglect? What is taught about the Faith, if anything, to young people? Do the small numbers of people with any exposure to church liturgy find the experience memorable and inspiring?
We know that there are no easy answers to these questions. We also know that simply giving up or saying ‘our focus is on-line services’ will not help. Be encouraged by the confirmation service in a Society parish in Manchester on these pages. It is heartening to see what can be achieved with a faithful parish priest and an openness to God’s love intervening in people’s lives.
We don’t have a crystal ball at New Directions, or even at Forward in Faith and The Society. None of us has a better idea where the Church’s decline will lead and where or when it will end. Perhaps there can be a phoenix from the ashes, and it can be in the form of a rediscovery of the richness of the Church’s liturgical heritage and the sacraments which are the transforming actions arising from that liturgy. For evidently it is where God acts and the Spirit moves amongst his people.