I recently had the opportunity to interview Bishop Barry Beisner of the Diocese of Northern California about confirmation. Part 1 of our transcribed conversation talks primarily about his experience of confirmation before becoming a bishop. Part 2 and Part 3 will cover his experiences of confirming as a bishop and his hopes for confirmation for the church as a whole.
I wanted to talk to you today in particular because I’ve done a lot of thinking about confirmation for myself, but I’ve never heard about it from the perspective of the person who does the confirming. Especially, I’m very interested to hear, since you’ve been on both sides of confirmation about how your perspective has changed, going through these different roles yourself.
So first I wanted to ask you what was your own confirmation like?
My own confirmation came at the time that I was becoming an Episcopalian. It was kind of a whirlwind period. I was graduating from college, becoming an Episcopalian, getting involved in a parish, and beginning a conversation about going to seminary. All of that happened in fairly short order. And so confirmation…I had no idea what it was, except that it was something that had to happen as part of the ordination process. It was a canonical requirement; it was something that the rector of my new parish in my new church told me had to happen and I took it on faith. It was a visiting bishop; it someone from outside the diocese. There was no connection with him whatsoever before or after, never had a word with him one way or the other outside…well, at all! He did the talking in the service. Not profound or personal. But not unimpressive either. I mean, I didn’t take it lightly.
Did you have classes in preparation? Or was it just you showed up to get that done.
It was just something that had to be done. They got me done as part of getting me lined up.
Get those ducks in a row.
All right, so you were confirmed, and then you went on to seminary and became a priest. And as a priest, what was your part in confirmation at that point?
I served in more than one place, but I really became very energized about the adult catechumenate about the same time that I became rector in Davis. That was in ’89. We instituted that catechumenate. I came to a parish that hadn’t quite made the change from doing private baptisms. And so there was a lot of education that had to happen across the spectrum about baptism, about confirmation. Bringing in the adult catechumenate was part of that. Moving from confirmation as a puberty rite to, as the prayer book definition, a mature affirmation of baptism.
So a lot of work there. Some folks got upset along the way. There was a difficult moment when, just a couple of years into that, having thought we’d made some progress, someone came to me and asked if dear uncle so-and-so, the retired bishop of such-and-such couldn’t come in and use the church for the private baptism of their son. So I even had other bishops undermining my credibility when it came to my attempts to reorient people on this. For many of them, it really was completely alien, this idea that it had anything to do with baptism, and that baptism had anything to do with life. It was new.
It took time and it was a struggle, but it did catch on. And it contributed to a real time of renewal and spiritual growth and deepening, and that was a great blessing.
It sounds like you not only had to do any baptismal preparation or training, but you had to, as you said, reorient – retrain the entire community about what this meant.
As I had been reoriented. For some years before that, I was kind of going along with that program as an assistant in a large Midwestern church, someone in charge of the youth group there and elsewhere. It was being done in the usual way. Again, it was more of a puberty rite. As someone who had some responsibility preparing young people for confirmation, you hoped for some significant faith commitment to be an aspect of that. In those earlier years for me, or for the clergy and congregations I was serving, it wasn’t tied to any more profound understanding of baptism than was prevailing at the time.
So that the liturgical movement that gave us the gift of the recovery of baptism, along with moving the Eucharist into a more central place, that was a catalyst for some real transformation in my ministry.
Can you tell me what you mean by a puberty rite and how is that different from what you hope to see in confirmation?
Again, the prayer book definition of confirmation is that confirmation is a mature affirmation of baptism. That’s the essence. That’s what it is. We were using it as something that young people were expected to do, often it was a response to heavy parental or grandparental expectations. They would get at the time of preparation, generally it would happen around age 13, something like that. Very often it was their graduation from the church.
Since then, I try to make it clear and I need to do some more emphasis on this, for me, the definition of mature doesn’t have to do with chronological age so much. So I still confirm 13-year-olds if they know what they’re doing. Or more likely I’ll take the clergy presenter’s word for it that they know what they’re doing, but I do ask. Sometimes I’ll ask the candidates themselves. Well, I always make a point of asking…I try to meet with candidates. I try to ask them why they’re choosing to do this particular thing at this particular time. And sometimes some very young people have some wonderfully spiritually mature responses and not because they’ve been coached. I mean, clearly they are people of faith and this is a faith commitment. And it’s not about chronological age. One test of maturity for me is that it’s self-motivated, that there’s some self-differentiated there. They’re not only not doing it because grandma wants them to, but if grandma told them not to, they might find a way to do it anyway.
And I even have on occasion said to some younger candidates who I wondered about, “You have my permission not to do this.” When I’m meeting with them apart from their parents, “You have my permission and you will have my support if that’s what you choose to do.”
Has anyone taken you up on that?
Not yet. Not yet. Although there have been a couple of situations where people were making up their mind up to the last minute and some have chosen yes and some have chosen no. And that’s fine. And again I try to speak in support of that.
So I think we need some kind of a puberty rite or rite of passage or rite to adulthood. I just think we’re mistaken in making confirmation into that. Just like we need some kind of rite of membership in our congregations, but too often we use confirmation that way too. When I ask candidates about why this why now, very often the answer is in terms of, “Well, I just love St. Swithin’s. It’s such a great church. I’ve come in here and I feel so welcome and it’s time for me to belong.”