Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 22 May
22 May 2011 at 10:00 am
The Venerable Dr Jane Hedges, Canon in Residence
Two weeks ago 67 young people from local schools were Confirmed here in this Abbey and towards the end of June some of our own choristers, together with a group of adults who regularly worship here, will have hands laid on them by a Bishop as they are Confirmed.
Confirmation is one of the seven sacraments of the Church, the other six being Baptism, the Eucharist, Marriage, Confession, Anointing of the Sick and Ordination.
During this month of MAY in my sermons at Matins I am focussing on five of these seven. So far we’ve looked at marriage, confession and anointing and in the final sermon next week we shall look at ordination.
Today as we focus our attention on Confirmation I would like us to look at three things in particular: First, what actually happens at a Confirmation; second, what is its link with the two sacraments of Baptism and the receiving of Holy Communion? And third, why is it administered by a Bishop rather than a priest?
First then, in common with all the sacraments, Confirmation is about receiving God’s grace and being assured of his absolute and unconditional love for us. And in this particular sacrament this is conveyed by the outward and visible symbols of the bishop laying his hands on the head of each candidate with the words: Confirm, O Lord, your servant with your Holy Spirit.
Them anointing each of them with the oil of Chrism as he says the words: “The Lord has called you by name and made you his own”.
In common with the other sacraments a TWO WAY process is involved. In confirmation this takes the form of the candidates affirming their commitment to Christ and their faith in God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
So the Bishop will ask the candidates before he confirms them: Are you ready with your own mouth and from your own heart to affirm your faith in Jesus Christ? And they reply: I am. And in response to further questions they proclaim: I turn to Christ, I repent of my sins and I renounce evil.
Being confirmed is a very significant moment in the life of a young person or an adult; it is the moment they proclaim for themselves in a public setting that they want to open their lives to God’s Spirit and to be disciples of Jesus as members of his Church.
But what is the relationship of Confirmation to Baptism and is it necessary to be confirmed in order to receive the sacrament of Holy Communion?
Back in the early church most people who were baptised, were adults and so they affirmed their faith in Christ for themselves before they were immersed in water symbolising the washing away of their sins and rising up to a new life with Christ.
The ceremonies of baptism and then the laying on of hands in confirmation often came together, so it was all one initiation rite.
However, over time it became appropriate for whole households to be baptised as they became members of the Church, and infants unable to make a profession of faith for themselves had the promises made on their behalf by parents and godparents. It then became the practice to confirm them when they were old enough to make the promises for themselves, in later childhood or adolescence.
For many years this remained the usual pattern in the Church of England, so there will certainly be many people who are adult members today who were baptized when they were babies and confirmed some years later. It also became the practice of the Church of England to link the receiving of Holy Communion for the first time, with confirmation.
I still have my confirmation certificate which states:
Confirmed by the Bishop of Portsmouth at St John’s Locks Heath on Saturday 17th February 1968. First Communion Sunday 18th February 1968.
But is it necessary to be Confirmed in order to receive Holy Communion?
The simple answer to that question is no.
When we are baptized we become full members of the Church whatever age we are, and so technically we can receive Holy Communion from early childhood.
If you attend an Orthodox Liturgy you will witness babies in arms beings given communion. Likewise in the Roman Catholic Church it is the usual practice for children to receive communion from about the age of seven and then to be confirmed in early adulthood.
The Church of England has for a number of years been debating the question of children receiving communion before confirmation and in many Anglican parishes this is now the norm after children have received appropriate preparation.
Likewise for many years baptized Christians from other denominations who receive communion regularly in their own churches are welcome to receive communion in the Anglican Church, they do not have to be confirmed.
So although being confirmed will for many people be linked with the first time they receive communion, confirmation should not simply be seen as a gateway to communion, it has a wider meaning than this.
And this is where we need to go to that third question of why a bishop administers this sacrament rather than a priest.
At the heart of this sacrament, as all sacraments, is the giving of God’s power, his Holy Spirit. It is God who is giving this gift not the person performing the ceremony.
So the involvement of the Bishop is not in any way linked with Confirmation somehow being more sacred than the other sacraments. It is rather that the Bishop follows in the footsteps of the apostles, who laid hands on people when they prayed for them to receive special gifts and set them apart for a particular task.
Most importantly, the Bishop represents the universal church, reminding confirmation candidates that they are affirming their commitment to the life and mission of the whole church, extending right the way round the world, and not simply joining a local congregation.
From now on as full adult members of Christ’s body they are called to be his ambassadors in the world, to use their gifts to serve others, and to display the fruits of his spirit ~ love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity and gentleness in their daily lives.
Being a confirmed member of the Church then means standing up and being counted for what we believe in.
So whether we have been confirmed for many years, we are preparing for confirmation at the moment or it’s not something we’ve really thought about before; we might all ask ourselves this morning if we are really open to God’s Spirit coming into our lives to transform them and in turn to transform others.