Hello everyone and welcome to this week’s video.
I’m in the conference room of the diocesan office. Meetings here are always somewhat intimidating as one is glowered at by one’s illustrious predecessors. By and large, they look rather sombre – long periods of episcopal ministry can do that to you, but at least Bishop Anthony’s portrait never ceases to cheer me up. Amongst the grumpiest portraits is that of Hensley Hanson. A controversial figure, only here for two years and whose election by the College of Canons wasn’t straightforward. This process still happens. It's usually a formality in a North Korean sort of way, in which the College is presented with one name that they vote for. I’m grateful my election was unanimous, but Hensley’s wasn’t, with some voting against due to his unorthodox views. He ended up well-liked and respected, although only here for two years before being translated to Durham. I suspect his grumpiness may be more to do with the fact that when he lived here he had the whole house (half is now the diocesan offices), there were no bathrooms and the kitchen wasn’t connected to the living quarters. Maybe it was painted in January when the thought of more cold food wouldn’t be welcome.
He had a reputation as an orator and left some memorable quotes. Having just come back from General Synod, his observation that ‘there was far too much organised talking in the church of England has particular resonance.’ His correspondence could be quite acid. One letter was written to an unfortunate cleric about confirmation. The Bishop had worked out the number of young people ‘coming of age’ in a particular parish, and this was compared very unfavourably with the number actually presented for confirmation. It concluded with an Edwardian rebuke and a request he pull his finger out!
Confirmation has in the past been a sort of passing out parade. When I was vicar I noted the confirmation register from 50 years ago usually included a page with most of the children from class 8c at the local prep school. I wouldn’t want to judge on the level of preparation or understanding of the rite, but even then, I would question whether all of them quite knew what they were doing or understood the implications. Confirmation is an active, personal owning of the promises made on our behalf when we were baptised as children. Presiding at these services is one of the greatest joys of being a Bishop. The candidates nearly always write me a testimonial prior to the event. These are powerful and moving stories of how faith has come alive for them. In our secular society, it's no surprise that these services are less frequent and have fewer candidates, but are all the more powerful as a result. At the service, the candidates restate the baptismal promises for themselves and are anointed with oil as a sign of the gift of the Holy Spirit. This is accompanied by the laying on of hands and prayers. I always invite the congregation to reflect on the promises and the affirmation of faith as a way of renewing their own commitment. The candidates publicly turn to Christ; repent of their sins and renounce evil. In the declaration of faith, they state their trust in the God who has revealed himself as a good father who made the world; in the son who reveals to us God’s glory and character and in dying for us makes it possible for us to be forgiven and restored to relationship with him; and in the Holy Spirit who makes the life of the resurrected Christ a lived experience rather than a theological theory. This is powerful stuff. It is passing from death to life, from darkness to light. It was lovely to be confirming on Advent Sunday, the Churches New Year. The liturgical year means every year in our worship we tell God’s story and reflect on our place in it.
Advent is a time when we anticipate Christ’s first coming and look forward with hope to his second. It has always been a season of reflection, so perhaps as we begin this Advent journey those confirmation promises and declarations could provide an opportunity for our own inward look. Turning to Christ is a constant pattern of living, not an initial promise we forget. Christian maturity is the slow process of submitting more and more of our lives to Christ’s direction. Paradoxically this dying to self has always been the Christian way to discover life in all its fullness, not the empty path of self-indulgence. And in a world that sees faith as essentially a private matter: a feeling with no basis in fact or even in spite of evidence to the contrary, the bold declarations of faith at confirmation and as we say the creed Sunday by Sunday are reminders of the spiritual reality in which we truly live and move and have our being. It is proclaiming this faith that frankly gets me out of bed in the morning and in which I rejoice, and all the more so as I see others begin that journey for themselves. May the commitment and energy of those who turn to Christ continue as our inspiration and encouragement.