Sunday, 5 February 2017

Questions about Christian learning and initiation

A quiet uneventful solitary Saturday, with a long walk around Bute Park to the city centre, rather than driving to the coast. This past few days my hearing has been impaired both by catarrh and a build up of ear wax, which hasn't responded to treatment with a proper removal fluid. It's very unpleasant and saps enjoyment from normal activity of every kind.

This morning I went to St John's Canton to celebrate their Candlemas sung Eucharist and was taken aback by just how difficult it was to hold conversations with people, let alone take the service with ease. A setting of the Mass was used which I am not very familiar with. I could hardly hear the congregation singing my hearing was so impaired, and this made it impossible to give a lead with singing as I usually do.

Seven children, all around seven years old were admitted to Communion for the first time. Dominic, one of the students on Parish Placement has been working with the children in Sunday school over months past to prepare them, and he asked if he could give them their first Communion, and I readily agreed. From there, I went on to St German's for a repeat of the Eucharist and ceremonies of Candlemas. I remembered how this feast gave me one of my first experiences of Anglo Catholic rites and ceremonies when I was a chemistry student, in the church St Mary Tyndalls Park in Bristol, which closed forty years ago. It was a church on my route home from the lab, with an open door and people like Simeon and Anna there with a welcome smile for a stranger.

Later in the day, I started thinking about the admission of children to Communion before Confirmation, now increasingly commonplace, although it has met with mixed reception, within parishes and in Anglican churches across the world. In some Provinces like USA and Canada it has become the new 'normal', whereas in more traditional African and Asian Provinces, no matter what church leaders think or say, it's not been 'received' unanimously by church members.

Anglican tradition makes much of Confirmation as an expression of informed personal commitment, and has long made it a requirement of those receiving Communion although the Book of Common Prayer states that reception is for those who are Baptized and Confirmed, or ready and desirous of being Confirmed by the Bishop. In the age before railways and modern roads, when it was that much more difficult for bishops and laity to travel distances and gather for a Confirmation, it gave a degree of discretion to parish clergy about giving Communion to those considered to be ready, no matter what their age. 

For centuries the Roman church has admitted young children to Communion before Confirmation, as I have seen on several occasions on holiday or working in Spain, where First Communion is a big event, requiring a gathering of the clans for far and wide to recognise and support candidates. In some regions where the difficulties of travel remain a hindrance, senior Catholic clergy are licensed to confirm suitably instructed candidates. 

Catechism and Confirmation at the end of the process are duties of the local Pastor in Lutheran and Reformed church parochial life, and early admission to Communion before Confirmation has become part of their regular churchgoing life in recent decades. There's a good deal of variety among Christians in the way Christian initiation and learning connect to the life of discipleship for both children and adults. 

In Orthodox Churches, Baptism, Confirmation and admission to Communion are inseparable parts of Christian initiation, no matter what the age of the candidate, infant or adult. Understanding faith is a continuous process of growth, and no matter what formal catechetical process may be undertaken in Christian schools or parishes, the prayer, liturgy and iconography of the Church are the basis of all that needs to be learned, through belonging and participation. 

There are so many different approaches, but at the heart of the matter is the question of how to ensure people get to know and understand faith in God through Jesus Christ and engage in Christian life in a way that is appropriate to their maturity and ability, their context and need to grow. In many secular westernised countries, each strand of Christian tradition finds it is facing different challenges these days. Patterns of church attendance are more irregular as established community life gets disrupted by economic or social issues which force migration on settled people. Lack of nurturing continuity is a feature of common experience. 

When families are on the move, from one place to another in which their traditional community life is not replicated, it can be difficult for any child or adult to follow a course of Christian learning, let alone participate in regular worship, or fit into a routine parochial pattern of Christian initiation. This is quite apart from the competitive distraction of Sunday sports and other entertainment, which can undermine participation in church life altogether. It takes great determination as well as suitable opportunities for parents to see their children fully catechized and initiated. How is it possible to acknowledge this need and work to meet it?

Fifty years ago I met Orthodox Archbishop Anthony Bloom at a baptism in a house in Bristol, and in the course of conversation he said that one of the things he appreciated about Anglicanism was the devout seriousness with which people were prepared for and received Holy Communion. It took me a long time to realise he wasn't just talking about our prayers and devotions, or the quiet seriousness with which Anglicans tend to approach the Holy Table. This was about instruction and preparation for Confirmation, the effort made to lead people to informed and conscious commitment, as a means to fuller participation. It makes sense, though in reality it's more haphazard and less systematic a process than it appears. Assimilation of tradition through worship and preaching also play their part. How we learn and grow spiritually is a rich complex process. It's true regardless of religious origins and background.

The Church in Wales still regards Confirmation as an important sacramental expression of informed commitment to Christian discipleship, though I think it needs working on to establish what the right time and place in life for this should be. It has however, recently reaffirmed that Baptism is the sole requirement for admission to Communion, enabling adults from other Christian traditions as well as children to receive the hospitality of the Eucharist in its churches. This is a positive move in response to the need of a faithful people to find a welcome wherever they are, or decide to settle in this world of uprootedeness. 

Believing, belonging, participation are essential to the growth of individuals in Christian community. But what of the initiation that takes place through learning, catechesis? If you look back over the past couple of centuries you'll see lots of different kinds of initiative for children and adults. Despite immense effort made by teachers and pastors to reach out and meet the need, those who remain committed and active at the end of the process is but a small fraction of the numbers that have disengaged and fallen away. How can we nurture a sense that believing, belonging, participation in worship are an essential aspect of who we are and what we do with our lives today, as it ever was? Is there one answer to this question? Or many? I just don't know.

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