The Proper Age for a Declaration of Faith

As noted in a previous post, I have been discovering “treasures” buried in my personal “archives” (aka boxes in a storage unit) of Christian education materials. This posting comes from the September-October 1963 issue of Religious Education, an official publication of the Religious Education Association (REA) which continues in existence today. The particular issue was edited by Randolph C. Miller, once the Professor of Christian Education at the Divinity School of Yale University. He was a prolific author on his own in his day. The particular issue that I have is Volume LVIII, Number 5 that has a focus on the title of this post.

Much of the tension (beyond age) of when confirmation should occur was often related to when one could participate in Holy Eucharist. For many Christians during this time period, confirmation was seen as a “completion” of baptism and confirmation followed catechetical instruction the preceded one’s “first communion.” Today, in the Episcopal and Lutheran traditions, baptism is full initiation into Christ’s Body. This “symposium” of articles struggles with when the best “age” is for one to be confirmed.

The introduction states:

Increasingly the question is being asked about the proper age for a declaration of faith. Whether it is confirmation, believer’s baptism, profession of faith, or Bar Mitzvah, the problem of intelligent loyalty lies behind these inquiries. Is a person capable of making such as decision at the age of seven, or ten, or twelve, or fifteen, or eighteen? The answer one makes to this question depends on his view of the rite, ordinance, or sacrament and its implications. It is also determined by his interpretation of the psychology of growing up. Cultural expectations may play a part as well.

A few quotes to ruminate upon, again noting that this was written in 1963 (and is full of masculine language).

From Edric Weld, National Council, Protestant Episcopal Church, New York City: Since 1925, Episcopal bishops have asked a second question of all whom they confirm: “Do you promise to follow Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour?” A lord gives commands which must be obeyed; a saviour saves. Another large group of Episcopal clergy emphasize this second promise. At what age can the concept “my saviour” begin to have meaning? At what age does strong personal loyalty first develop, so that the verb “follow” can have real meaning? He also quotes from a 1960 survey of Episcopal clergy: The Sophomore-Junior age in High School repudiates much of former social mores, and along with that “babystuff” goes confirmation since that was part of the era. Confirmation should be intelligent, knowledgable and consecrated commitment, not something that Jr-Hi kids do. Sixteen is the age when the adolescent is profoundly seeking to discover who he is. If Christian doctrine questions can be co-related, then confirmation has real meaning. (page 412-13)

Sister Anne Catherine, D.S.J., Sister Formation Conference of St. Louis, Missouri writes: A new and gratifying note now sounding is for a yearly renewal of the Christian’s confirmation commitment to be held publicly in church with an approved liturgy. This would be comparable to the renewal of baptismal promises pronounces since 1955 as part of the Vigil service on the night preceding Easter, and it would revitalize the worshippers’ loyalty and keep them alert to the powers they enjoy as result of their confirmation. For still further emphasis, customs now prevailing in homes and some schools of marking the anniversary of a Christian’s baptism might be the model for similar custom celebrating outside of the church walls the anniversary of one’s confirmation. (page 416)

Judah Pilch, Director, the National Curriculum Research Institute, New York City offers: In modern times the true character of Bar Mitzvah has been obliterated. Bar Mitzvah has become a social function. It is not longer an indication of one’s determination to continue religious studies, but a dramatization of the notion that the individual has finished his religious education. While in the days of old a child of 13 had acquired a well-rounded religious education, in our days the young life on a starvation diet, religiously speaking. They obtain a smattering of knowledge of the basic concepts of their faith. Very few indeed, upon reaching the age of 13, are knowledgeable young Jews, committed to further study. They are neither versed in the doctrines of their religious heritage nor are they ready to consecrate their lives to religious-oriented and belief-centered conduct. (page 418)

From the Curriculum and Research Office of the Unitarian Universalist Association on Boston, Dorothy T. Spoerl writes: In primitive cultures the problem is more simple. If one has not undergone the puberty rites, one is a child; if one has been initiated, he is an adult. The initiation into the culture includes such knowledge as is necessary for adult action, and is not for one aspect of the culture alone. When initiated one is an adult, fully integrated into the political, legal, social, and religious privileges and responsibilities of the group. Psychologically this has real advantages not available to our adolescents. One knows where he stands, what is expected of him, what he may do, and what it is his responsibility to accomplish. There are no ambivalences. (page 420)

Matthew J. O’Connell, S.J. of Woodstock College, Woodstock, Maryland states: Today the Christian stands increasingly in the midst of a non-Christian world, increasingly needs to be made sharply aware both of his commitment to Christian witness and to the fact that this witness will be the work in him of the sacramentally given Spirit. The present practice, therefore, of confirming at the time when the child is beginning the passage to adulthood (and adulthood is the natural analogue to and basis for the full carrying out of Christian witness), can readily be justified, even it it means inverting the order of initiation and putting Eucharistic communion before confirmation. (page 423)

W. Kent Gilbert, the Executive Secretary, Board of Parish Education, Lutheran Church of America, Philadelphia offers: Faith is a gift from God, and only God can confirm a person in his faith. The present tendency for confirmation rites in Europe and America to cluster around age thirteen or fourteen is in part the result of earlier views of when a boy reached manhood. Public school in Germany ended for the mast majority at about this age. This was the point at which a boy was expected to go to work. Confirmation was to some extent “a rite of passage” from childhood into early adult responsibilities. With the lengthening of adolescence in our western society, however, this particular rationale for a young person’s assuming a more responsible status in the church no longer has the same significance. (page 435)

Has your church’s understanding of the age one is to be confirmed changed over the years? What has been the reason for change, if any? Was it theological, developmental, or cultural?

What age do you believe is most effective for one to make a declaration of faith and/or be confirmed?

To learn more of the history of the rite of confirmation as well as how your church might engage in conversation about confirmation, I suggest my book Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Theologies of Confirmation for the 21st Century.

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