Again one writes in the fog in terms of planning! The final days of March take us into Holy Week; by the time next month’s letter appears it will be Easter Day itself. Yet, for the second year running, it looks as though our corporate celebration of Easter may be quite different from what used to be considered normal, and may possibly not involve shared public worship at all.
Amid all the endeavours of parishes and clergy to keep Lent, Holy Week and Easter in imaginative and creative ways, not least online, it may seem somewhat self-indulgent to mention specifically the matter of Confirmations – but perhaps a few words on the matter may be of practical assistance to many families. At the moment I have four confirmations from last year, already postponed twice, waiting to happen. The candidates have already been duly prepared. I shall so my best to attend to these occasions whenever restrictions lift somewhat and in such manner as may be permitted at that time.
Usually between the Sunday after Easter Day and early July there would be a great flurry of Confirmations – all big and joyful occasions with crowded churches and major associated family gatherings. Obviously, none of this is going to happen this year – we are likely (once services in churches resume) to remain restricted to small socially distanced events for quite some time and, moreover, clergy need to have sufficient time for the due preparation of candidates- something that in most places takes perhaps three months or so. As with other aspects of education, it may be possible to do a certain amount of confirmation preparation through remote online learning, but this may not address every aspect of what is required.
CLOSE OF THE YEAR – IF RESTRICTIONS PERMIT
The long and the short of it is (and it is best to be clear about this) that the majority of Confirmations will take place towards the close of the year, perhaps between the October half term period and shortly before Christmas. In saying even this, I may be proved naive . . . But perhaps is it best at least to state an intention. I would ask for the understanding and patience of people in dealing with very unusual circumstances. It will not be possible to have Confirmations in all the locations where people might otherwise desire them, nor indeed necessarily at the previously customary times of the day or the week, but it is my definite intention (if public health requirements permit) to ensure that everyone who desires to be confirmed in 2021 is provided with an opportunity for this to happen by the end of the calendar year. It is obvious that much will depend on the wider vaccination situation and what is going on in the schools. But please bear with me – I know that this means individuals may not receive confirmation at exactly the age that they might have intended to do so, or at the precise stage in their general education which they might otherwise have thought appropriate, but if nothing else this pandemic has been the midwife of virtues such as patience and flexibility and a capacity to think outside the proverbial box.
WHAT AM I DOING FOR LENT?
I once had a bishop who never failed to ask me at this time of year, somewhat disarmingly – “what are you doing for Lent?”. I was never quite sure whether he was interrogating me in the personal or the parochial context or both. It is often hard to be enthusiastic about what some nevertheless call the “sweet feast of Lent”, not least in this particular year when we have endured so many deprivations as it is. I’ve already mentioned the online ingenuity that we continue to witness in many parishes, which no doubt will have a particular Lenten emphasis … I’ve experienced the return of greater time for personal reading, facilitated by the efficient services of those who deliver books to the door… I’ve realised that our duty to strengthen the poor, manifested particularly by seasonal commitment to both the Bishops’ Appeal and local worthy causes, never goes away. But even as I write still in early February I am asking myself – “what am I /we doing for Lent?”
PERIOD OF PREPARATION
In trying to answer the question I come back to where it all started, and indeed also to the matter of Confirmation which has rather dominated this letter. Lent had its origins in the early church as a period of preparation for those who would be baptised at Easter, who would enter thereby into the experience of dying with Christ in order to rise with him. Indeed the whole Christian community joined in solidarity with those to be baptised or who would solemnly renew their baptismal vows in Confirmation, taking part in a process of study and renewal, the forty days of which would also remind them of the formative wilderness experience of Jesus, when he spent a similar period enduring temptation and determining what would be the real priorities of his life and teaching.
This particular Lent we are called, even in our own wilderness-like solitary situations, to align ourselves if only in some small way with the study and thought and self-questioning which would have characterised the atmosphere of Lent in its origins. In some manner we should seek to deepen our insights and commitment, and thus equip ourselves better to respond by Easter to the splendid challenge of the first letter of Peter – “be ready always to give an answer to everyone that asks you a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3.15). One day the clouds will part, and again we will meet people face to face in coffee shops and restaurants and indeed bars – as well as in churches. And at that moment, weary people, longing for some message of hope, may well be relieved that in ordinary conversation we have been renewed in our capacity ‘to gossip the Gospel’, to share a reasonable yet lively faith humbly but authentically. It is everyday warm good-humoured conversation which is the best medium for witness and evangelism that we know: at the end of the day it betters all great schemes and initiatives. If Lent this year helps us even a little to talk more naturally about God with our friends when eventually we leave the travails of this pandemic and normal conversation is restored, it will have been well worthwhile.
So perhaps use Lent to equip yourself better for what the Prayer Book simply calls, without any overtones of piety or spiritual arrogance, “godly conversation”.
Michael Cashel Ferns + Ossory