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. In Part 2, he talks about how his role and perspective has changed as the bishop doing the confirming rather than being the priest doing the preparation. In Part 3 he shares some memorable confirmation moments.
So how did the perspective change, then, when you went from being a rector, being a priest, to being the bishop confirming people?
Well, one way it’s changed is that I’m not the one preparing and presenting. So I try to put my expectations forward and then I really rely on clergy and others who are doing the preparation to abide by those principles. And I think for the most part, they certainly do. I still encounter situations where it’s clear that there’s a parental expectation at work that’s pretty heavy, or again a misunderstanding, about confusing it with membership in that congregation.
And what are your expectations that you put forward?
Well, again, that it’s a mature commitment. Basically that people are helped to understand the promises they are asked to make. When I ask someone about their commitment to follow Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, I expect that they know what that means, that they can articulate that in some way for themselves and not just on this occasion. Or that those beautiful baptismal promises that are beautiful and big, that they’ve been helped to unpack those and reflect on what those might mean in their lives in context. So I try to be clear about that.
I will give the presenters and the candidates the benefit of the doubt, generally speaking. But I do that having had some personal time with them, some time to talk with them about what this is.
So you’ve handed over the preparation to someone else. And how else is it different? I think I interrupted you earlier.
For me as a bishop? Again, I’m in the end of the process, I’m not with them through the process so that’s enormously different in itself. This is not so much a difference of kind, but I’m still engaged with them in some way. I would be very engaged with them as a rector or an assistant priest. I would be involved with them in doing the classes and I would have relationships with those people that were part of the normal life of the church. I don’t typically have that as a bishop. Very often I’m meeting people for the first time. But my expectation is that we’re going to be together in ministry in this diocese in coming years. And so I look on this as an important moment in those personal relationships. Granted that there’s distance and a certain step removed usually.
But not always. Just last Sunday I was reaffirming someone who was very active in diocesan leadership, a lay person who I’ve worked with a lot, and came forward for reaffirmation because he was at a threshold in some of his commitments and at a place in his spiritual journey where that sort of public statement seemed to indicate.
Those are the main differences, I guess.
What have you learned about confirmation, either through your whole experiences or in this new perspective?
What have I learned about it. Well, I think again, maybe not everything that’s attached to it is a bad thing. You know, the fact that the bishop comes in to do it, to have a bishop laying on hands is kind of a physical reminder that we’re part of this larger thing, you know, larger than just the local congregation that they’re joining in their minds perhaps; that with and through their bishop they are part of a global communion also. The Episcopal Church, the Anglican Communion. There is that. So having the bishop come in from outside to do this as opposed to just a local rite brings that dimension with it, and I think that’s a wonderful thing. But that’s not confirmation. So it’s something that’s attached to confirmation that’s not a bad thing as long as we don’t confuse what’s going on. And again, maybe we need membership rites, rites of joining and belonging.
I tried that at St. Martin’s, actually, as rector there in Davis. We tried having, in addition to having baptism on the major feasts, confirmation when the bishop came, we tried also having a couple of times in the year regular dates for folks to make a public commitment to that parish. And that seemed to work reasonably well. Something like that.
But I don’t mind. It’s OK to have some things attached to the confirmation moment as long as we don’t think that’s what confirmation is.
Right. There is a lot of accretion on confirmation.
There sure is. And I also don’t mind to some extent requiring confirmation for office in the church. A lot of discussion about that at General Convention last summer, of course. I was on the ministry committee so initially the resolutions were assigned to us but at the last minute were switched. But we were gearing up for that discussion so we got a chance to have some conversation about that.
Yes, baptism is full membership. No question. And confirmation is mature affirmation of baptism. Certainly wouldn’t make confirmation a requirement for Eucharist. But for holding office…there, if someone hasn’t made a mature affirmation of faith, then why not? If someone hasn’t undertaken this belonging to the farthest extent that they can, why not? They may have very fine reasons, but it does raise a question about them being in a leadership role. Why would they want to be governing a church if they’re not fully committed in that way?
My worry is when you get people, “Well, we’ll get you confirmed so that you can serve on vestry” without that further understanding of confirmation, without that understanding that you are undertaking this because this is part of your spiritual formation.
It’s not actually required in this diocese for vestry. It’s required for some things. We’ve just done some restructuring and creating a new board of trustees, we’ve made a requirement. Again, we’re not talking about full life and participation in the church; we’re talking about a specific role of governance in the church.
It seems to me that, as bishop, as someone who talks to the candidates and says, “Tell me about why you’re doing this,” that does seem to mitigate any “We’ll just get you done” tendencies.