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An Anglican dad's attempts to guide an agnostic teenager towards confirmation

Theo Hobson - The Tablet - Sun, Jul 15th 2018

An Anglican dad's attempts to guide an agnostic teenager towards confirmation

Sacraments and rites

My status as an Anglican Christian has just been tested. This test was on the cards. With grim inevitability, my son became a teenager. Could his mother and I persuade him to get confirmed? What would happen when the irresistible force of our religious parenting met the immovable object of our 14-year-old agnostic?

In fact, we were a bit agnostic about whether it mattered, and why. Maybe his avowed agnosticism should be respected. Maybe trying to pressure him would backfire, and make a committed atheist of him. Why pressure him to get confirmed out of familial duty? And yet something told us that it did matter, that he should be encouraged – however sinister putting him under any sort of pressure might look to our brave, free-thinking atheist friends.

He wouldn’t be easy to persuade, we knew that. He is a cool dude: sassy, urbane, sceptical. He often expresses his natural ebullience through declaiming rap songs. But he’s also clever, thoughtful, respectful – and he’s been moderately exposed to religion all his life. So we thought we were in with a chance.

Think of it, we said, as a mark of respect for the tradition that has partly formed you. Doffing your cap to it, as my wife put it. You might not currently feel you believe, but belief is an ambiguous thing: lots of modern Christians sort of half-believe. They start off half-believing by being exposed to the tradition, affirming it as a form of culture. Maybe they feel a vague cultural duty to it. And over the years the actual content of the religion gets under their skin. People start off going through the motions, then find themselves gradually moved into something like belief.

You can probably imagine how the conversation went. “But if I don’t feel I believe in this religion, then it wouldn’t be authentic, would it?” Ah, authenticity. That mixed blessing. Couldn’t he see it as more of a cultural than a religious thing? Like many Jewish families seem to regard bah-mitzvahs? The average Jewish kid is showing respect for a tradition that has been passed on for centuries, not worrying whether he honestly believes God exists or not.

Anyway, Anglicans – or at least common or garden Anglicans like me – don’t over-value authenticity, in terms of a personal decision made for or against the Gospel in the depths of one’s heart, once and for all. We tend to see faith as messier, muddier: it involves one’s cultural context; it’s in dialogue with other frameworks (liberalism, rationalism, the arts). It’s not black and white. Its truth can’t be summed up in neat terms; it’s mysterious.

Of course I was not without sympathy for my son’s perspective. He has not been exposed recently to any Christian culture that engages him, excites him. When I was his age, I belonged to the school’s Christian Union, which was great fun and full of friends and older boys I admired. It’s hard to imagine a parish church supplying anything like that, though I suppose evangelical churches do with their summer camps. At our local church, there is no one much like him, so it’s not surprising he hardly ever goes.

Despite this, I was hoping he would agree that Anglicanism was an important part of who we are as a family, and deserving of this mark of respect. I was getting a little exasperated. Just jump through this hoop will you, however meaningless it feels? But of course that line prompted him to take the high ground of free-thinking principle. In a foolish moment we half-joked that we’d bribe him to do it. He leapt on to his high horse, boasting of the sacred purity of his conscience.

What a stupid idea Confirmation is, I began to feel. In practice, the average teenager from a Christian or semi-Christian family is likely to see religion as dull, irrelevant, embarrassing. If you ask them to make a decisive act of commitment, you are almost asking for a decisive act of rejection. It might be better to evade the issue and hope for a gradual growth in sympathy for Christianity.

Maybe a teenager should be prodded to look away from the computer screen and made to focus – just for a moment – on religion. And best, perhaps, for he or she to be shown that religion is not a vague background cultural thing but something intense, strange, other. What you don’t want from a teenager is a cheery but slightly dismissive: “Oh come on then, let’s keep Mum and Dad happy and jump through the hoop.”

A date was set, but he insisted on keeping his options open. As high noon approached, I wrote him an email on the subject. This made me feel like George Eliot’s father: the two of them corresponded lengthily on her loss of faith while they both lived under the same roof. Very English.

I tried the “This is who we are” line, and the “Belief is a grey area” line. He agreed to meet the vicar. He also agreed to read an accessible book by a very liberal Anglican (not me). His position seemed to be softening. Or was he just playing for time? After he had the chat with the vicar, he announced that they had made a “mutual decision”. It had been decided that he “wasn’t ready” for confirmation. Hmmm.

I took him out for a pizza. I expected that my same arguments would meet the same resistance, so I intended to accept his decision and to say something conciliatory about hop­ing that he at least felt partly sympathetic to religion rather than totally cut off from it. Instead, he almost instantly agreed to go through with it. Who knew that giving him pizza was the key?

The deed is done. But my victory has a slightly uneasy taste. Confirmation feels a bit of a mess, full of the ghosts of Christianity past. Maybe there should be a sort of non-Confirmation rite, in which the teenager is affirmed as a “seeker” – someone who acknowledges that they have been influenced by Christianity, and are intrigued by it, but who has yet to work out his or her relationship to it. There’s an obvious name for their position: “To be confirmed”.

Theo Hobson is a theologian, journalist and teacher. His latest book is God Created Humanism (Tablet Bookshop 020 7799 4064, price £8.99).

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