Theologies of Confirmation: an interview with Sharon Ely Pearson

Our interview today is with Sharon Ely Pearson, Editor and Christian Formation Specialist with Church Publishing Incorporated. She's also been thinking about and studying the rite of Confirmation longer and deeper than anyone else I know, someething that has led to her recent project, compiling and editing a collection of essays on Confirmation. Entitled Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Theologies of Confirmation for the 21st Century, it includes essays by clergy, Christian educators, youth leaders, and others -- including myself (I've posted an excerpt). It's now available, and you can order it here. The book also has a Facebook page where you can check out other excerpts and get in on the conversation. Also check out Sharon's blog,, a great resource for Christian Educators. 

Why did you decide to compile this collection of essays on confirmation?

I was in a cab on the way to the airport from [the Episcopal Church's] General Convention in Indianapolis in 2012 when I made a commitment to myself to do this book.

Every day during convention, at the crack of dawn with coffee in hand, I attended the Education Committee meetings in a subterranean hotel conference room. I listened to the bishops and deputies discuss, disagree, and debate a number of resolutions that had been given to them by “Dispatch” to deal with. One of the processes included holding hearings open to the ‘public’ – other bishops, deputies, and visitors of Convention. I had been on the Standing Commission on Lifelong Christian Education & Formation during the triennium (3 years) leading up to GC, so was familiar with many of the resolutions this committee was given to grapple with and bring before the House of Bishops and House of Deputies for passage (we on the Commission hoped). The hearings regarding the Episcopal Church’s canons that stated a person must be confirmed to hold office (i.e.: Vestry, deputy, commission) – and the proposal to simply remove the word “confirmation” from those canons – brought folks out of the woodwork at 7:00 a.m. (See (A041 – A044).) It was standing room only (which went into the hall) as individuals, myself included, testified (evenly pro and con) about the resolutions. It would seem many believed the resolutions were going to eliminate the Rite of Confirmation. Others stated that these canons went against our 1979 Book of Common Prayer ecclesiology that states baptism is full membership of the church. In the end, all the resolutions were forwarded back to committee for study during the next triennium.

So instead of Education & Formation, the Commission on Ministry Development was given the task. It was obvious to me that the Episcopal Church needed to have a conversation about what the role Confirmation was and should be in our Church. Resolutions about confirmation will be coming to the next General Convention. I’m not sure what they will be. I just wanted to provide a resource that would assist the Church in opening up dialogue and having a conversation BEFORE 7:00 a.m. in a small room in Salt Lake City in July 2015 [where the next General Convention will be held].

I know these essays include a range of perspectives from youth leaders to bishops. Was there an equally wide range in perspectives on the role of confirmation? And were there any ways in which everyone agreed?

I wanted a wide variety of voices in this book to share the range of perspectives that were stated during those early morning hearings. So I contacted a number of the people who had given testimony at the hearings – pro and con. I also contacted a number of young people (and their leaders), but sadly, none of them ever sent me their responses. In my invitation to each contributor I asked (to prime the pump):

  • What is your “theology of confirmation”?
  • What do you believe the role (or place) of confirmation should be in the life of the Episcopal Church today?
  • How can the church make confirmation more meaningful for one’s lifelong journey of faith as opposed to a rite of passage for teenagers?
  • How should youth be prepared for Confirmation?
  • How should adults be prepared for Confirmation, Reception or Reaffirmation?

Much to my surprise, there were more similarities than differences in the essays. Bishops, theologians, liturgical scholars, and educators each spoke of the confusion surrounding the practice of confirmation as well as what preparation was needed. Each recognized that we are full members of the Church by virtue of our baptism. Each felt the Rite of Confirmation had a place in the life of the Church. There were different perspectives about what age one should/could be confirmed as well as what type of preparation was needed.

Many told stories of their own confirmation or that of a young person that had a profound impact on them. Many listed particular practices and studies confirmands should participate in. However, everyone felt there needed to be more conversation across all levels of the Episcopal Church about what confirmation actually means – with bishops, clergy, leaders, and especially parents and youth. And all felt we the Church needed to focus more on helping individuals – youth and adults – proclaim his or her faith in Jesus Christ as part of their lifelong faith formation journey.

confirmation conversationWhat surprised you as you compiled and edited this collection? What did you learn?

What surprised me was that those who testified against the resolutions at General Convention did not have that much difference of opinion than those who urged the passage of the resolutions. They just wanted to highlight the importance of confirmation – reaffirming one’s baptismal promises – as an important part of one’s faith journey. What didn’t surprise me was the diversity of responses as to what should be “taught” in preparation. Those processes ran the gamut of didactic learning to experiential practices.

One of my learnings included a fuller understanding the role sacraments play in the Latino community. Anthony Guillén, Missioner for Latino/Hispanic Ministries for The Episcopal Church and Tom Callard, Missioner for Hispanic Ministries in the Diocese of Western Massachusetts write, “Sacraments, especially baptism and confirmation along with the rite of first communion, are as much about family and the extended family of godparents and sponsors as they are about church and faith. They are intrinsically tied together and play a huge role in Latino culture.”  As more and more Latinos and Hispanics come to The Episcopal Church, their essay is full of wisdom that every congregation could learn from, no matter the cultural background of its members.

I know this is written from an Episcopal Church perspective, but in what ways do you think this will also provide insight for other denominations that offer confirmation?

The first section of the book provides a historical overview of the rites of initiation beginning with the Early Church in which all denominations have in common. It wasn't until the Reformation that a variety of understandings and practices began to emerge. Also, making an adult commitment to follow Christ transcends one’s denomination. In the United States today, youth do not have a true rite of passage as many other cultures around the world. So for the past several generations, confirmation has become that rite of passage, certainly not what the rite was originally intended to be. In the Early Church, baptism was all there was, and what we might call “confirmation” today was part of that ritual of bathing and blessing. Most denominations are faced with the same frustration as many in the Episcopal Church are: Confirmation is an obligation one “does” when a teenager and it is often seen as graduation from church, let alone any continuing education or formation. I believe our Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran, and Congregationalist brothers and sisters (and maybe even our Roman Catholic friends) will find something that resonates with them within these pages.

Tell us a little bit about your own confirmation. Looking back at it, what would you change about that, if you could?

Ah – I share my story whenever I make a presentation about confirmation. And it is something I encourage everyone to do. I think it helps you understand why you believe what you believe about the role of confirmation in the life of an individual.

I’m a baby-boomer, so grew up in an Episcopal Church filled with children and youth. Growing up with the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, I could not receive Holy Communion until I was confirmed. (I also rarely went to a worship service because children were relegated to the basement and Children’s Chapel.) So when I (and my twenty-five classmates) turned twelve, it was time to be confirmed. I don’t remember the classes at all. I remember of few of the participants, but not many, because most of them disappeared after the Sunday celebration of cake  (following the scary old guy pushing his hands down on my head). We had to memorized The Apostles’ Creed, The Ten Commandments, and My Bounden Duty. I recall waiting outside the room as each of us were called in to the rector’s office one-by-one (there were no such things as “safe church practices) to quickly spit out the facts. I had no idea what they actually meant or what they had to do with my coming-of-age life. However, it was a big deal for me. My parents took me out for dinner at lunchtime (something we never did), and I received my own prayer book and four charms for my silver charm bracelet – symbols of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. I still have that bracelet (and prayer book).

Looking back, I wish I had had the chance to unpack what I was required to memorize. I wish I had been able to attend worship services. I wish I had been given something to DO after I was confirmed besides receive communion on Christmas and Easter when we were able to be in church. I wish I had gotten to know my priest and the lady who helped teach the class. I wish I (and two others) were not the only ones in our class who had continued to come to church afterwards. I AM grateful that I continued to participate in church and that there was a youth group for me to join – although I didn’t go until I was in high school). It was in youth group that I learned to explore my beliefs and try on roles to discover my gifts. Youth group (and summer camp) were the formational periods of my life.

hope for confirmationIf you could change one thing about the way we do confirmation in the church today, what would it be?

My hope would be for our congregations to become catechetical communities that took seriously the renewal of our baptismal promises – for youth and adults. That confirmation classes were not classes, per se, but multigenerational opportunities for experiential learning of discipleship. That being in the 8th grade didn’t mean you came back to church for classes, only to disappear later. That those “enrolled” in confirmation or the catechumenate are already regular in attendance. That parents are required to participate in a conversation (or something!) before they determine their child “needs to be done.” But I guess that’s more that one change, isn’t it?

Finally, why do you think confirmation is still important for the church today? (Assuming that you do, of course.)

One of my favorite quotes is from John Westerhoff:  “Children will never have faith unless there is a community of faith for them to live in and be influenced by.” (Will Our Children Have Faith? Morehouse, 2012)

Personally, I’m not sure confirmation is important for the church today. I do believe we need an appropriate rite of passage for young people to take its place and that confirmation (aka reaffirmation) should occur over and over again. I believe it is important that a bishop comes in contact with every member of the church – but it shouldn’t always be just for confirmation. One of the roles confirmation should play is connecting the individual to the larger Church, and that’s one of the roles a bishop can play. Until our churches provide appropriate and experiential ways for young people to engage, explore, and live out their faith in the context of the congregation as well as in the surrounding community, I don’t think we should be confirming teenagers. We should be inviting adults (and older youth) to reaffirm their Baptismal Covenant.