Confirmation dilemma (aka believing in the Church of Sweden)
As a confirmed Christian who has previously worn out several soapboxes vehemently protesting against the Church of Sweden’s practice of confirming non-believing teenagers, I do believe I may have changed my mind.
Shocked or confused? So was I.
It’s like this: all 8th graders (14-15 yr olds) who are registered members of the Church of Sweden, or whose parents are members of the Church of Sweden, automatically receive a bevy of invitations to attend a summer Confirmation camp prior to starting 9th grade. These camps are traditionally run by the numerous parishes throughout Sweden and are designed to prepare teens for Confirmation i.e. the religious ceremony during which Confirmation candidates affirm the faith into which they have been baptised and declare their intention to live a Christian life. Some of these camps are so popular that parents sign up their newborns, others need to mingle and market to fill their quota.
So far, so good.
Except nowadays Sweden is a secular state and according to a Eurobarometer poll in 2010, fewer than 20% of Swedes actually “believe there is a God”. Baptisms from one generation to the next have dropped from around 80% to just over 50% and the figures are still declining. This ought to suggest the Confirmation business is down on its uppers and in dire need of divine intervention. But not a bit of it.
In the face of a clash with atheist trends, the competing invitations contain some carefully crafted bait: come to our camp and while you’re here we’ll help you get your green card, pass your motor boat driver’s licence, teach you to sail or play tennis, ride, skate, ski or even send you on a little trip to Rome. And then, when we’re done with all the jollies, we’ll hold a pleasant service in a very pretty church with your family and friends on hand to give you gifts and celebrate your… umm… Confirmation. Alright, the invitations don’t actually include that last bit and they do mention making friends and having meaningful life discussions but was I cynical? Dang right, I was. Where was God in all of this? And why is this generation of non-believing parents still keen to stump up the fee to send their kids to Confirmation camp rather than a whatever-you-want-to-do camp?
So when invitations started arriving for my children, I rang our local parish secretariat to ask how much religion was included in their 2-week camp. Assuming I was an anti-religion atheist mother, a very amiable priest assured me that no more than 20 minutes a day would be dedicated to hardcore bible debates and that a great time would be had by all. I believed him on both accounts.
I expressed my disappointment in the Church of Sweden selling out their teachings and values to save their dwindling market. These camps were no different from, say, a sports camp or Scout camp. Did he honestly believe it was better to sell green cards to fill beds than stand up for what they truly believed in? Yes, he did. The alternative, he explained, would be no Confirmation camps at all as religion didn’t sell. No, he didn’t like it. But he accepted it as being the lesser of two evils, so to speak. Was I still cynical? Dang right, I was.
Last weekend I attended the confirmation of a delightful young teen. She’s funny and smart, kind and a pleasure to be around. But a believer? Not to my knowledge. Every pew was packed with excited relatives, friends and an assortment of flowers and packages. The church bells pealed as the procession of Confirmation candidates made their way down the aisle and approached the altar – some bearing candles, all bearing huge smiles. The priest bore a shawl made of cheerful art pieces illustrating bible themes that the kids had created during the camp.
We hummed our way through the hymns and mumbled the standard prayers before the congregation was asked to sit for a presentation by the campers.
Carefully arranging themselves into prearranged places, they then put their hearts and souls into acting out several typical teen scenarios which they had written themselves, each one carefully structured to give rise to a moral dilemma. And each time, they stopped to ask:
What would Jesus do?
One young man played Jesus. Standing proudly in the pulpit, he told them exactly what he would have done through bible quotes. It all made perfect sense. And It was obvious that all those taking part agreed with the fundamental human decency being preached.
At the end of the presentation, when the church was still silent as we digested the wonder of all we had just witnessed, the priest spoke softly to the candidates.
“I’m not expecting you all to live totally Christian lives,” she said. “But I hope and believe that every now and again you will stop to ask yourselves: what would Jesus do?”
And I believe it too. I believe that these fine young people learned a little more about caring, sharing, truth and honesty during the few precious hours at Confirmation camp when they weren’t learning to sail or play golf.
And as they knelt around the altar to receive the Priest’s hands on their heads, I reconsidered my stance on these camps, recalling the conversation I had had with the parish priest back home the previous year.
The Church of Sweden faces a religious dilemma and chooses to teach a little to many rather than a lot to very few. And I asked myself: given that same scenario on that Mount in Galilee –
What would Jesus do?