by Jonathan Petre
A ROW is developing in the Church in Britain over whether children should be confirmed before they reach their teens or when they are 17 or even 18.
National guidelines on the minimum age for confirmation are likely to be published this year, possibly after discussion at the bishops' Low Week meeting next month. But agreement might not be reached at this meeting as the bishops are known to be divided over the issue.
The general attitude favours the idea of confirming young people as late as possible, in order to allow them to make an informed commitment to their faith. But there are notable opponents to this idea, including Archbishop Maurice Couve de Murville of Birmingham who recommended in a recent pastoral letter that children should.be confirmed between 10 and 12 years old.
The Archbishop's argument is that it is wrong to give too much emphasis to confirmation as a "commitment" and delay the sacrament on these grounds. Instead, confirmation should be seen as conferring on a child the "capacity" to make a commitment in later life.
At present, each diocese sets its own guidelines, and there is a wide divergence across the country. In London, for example, Bishop Victor Guazzelli, Bishop in East London, favours a wide age range between about 14 and 17. Bishop Philip Harvey, Bishop in North London, is thought to favour a minimum age of 14.
In contrast, pupils at the London Oratory school in south west London, which is run by the Oratorian Fathers, are confirmed before they reach their teens. This practice is also encouraged in the Birmingham Archdiocese, under both the present and previous Archbishops.
Controversy over the issue last emerged in 1978 when Bishop David Konstant drew up new guidelines for the Westminster diocese.
The document recommended administering the sacrament to young people at 14 plus or 18 plus rather than children under 11. If similar proposals were acdepted on a national basis, Catholic practice would be brought more into line with the Anglican Church, which prefers to confirm young people when they have left school and can make a decision to receive the sacrament themselves.
Archbishop Couve de Murville The Westminster guidelines represented a departure from tradition as confirmation of the very young was widespread in the early Church and is still practiced by the Eastern Church. Objectors said that these guidelines disregarded this tradition in favour of coming into line with the Anglican Church. Archbishop Couve de Murville told the Catholic Herald this week that he believed confirmation should be administered before the child experienced the psychological and emotional turmoil of adolescence.
"Adolescence in many children is a troubled time when relations with adults becomes difficult, when a child is often at odds with its parents and when it starts a fairly long search of its own identity," the Archbishop wrote in his pastoral last year. "The child needs to have received the gifts of the Spirit before that search begins, not while the turmoil is going on.
"Confirmation is not primarily a ceremony in which we commit ourselves to God. It is a sacrament by which we receive the gifts from God which include the capacity to commit ourselves to him."
Proponents of late confirmation argue that it makes pastoral sense, from both a catechetical and a liturgical viewpoint, to defer the sacrament until the young person is old enough to make an informed and fully conscious judgement.
The bishops are required under the new Code of Canon Law either to accept the Code or to produce an alternative approved by a two-thirds majority and ratified by Rome.
Draft guidelines have been drawn up by the Departments of Christian Life and Worship and for Christian Doctrine and Formation. Bishop David Konstant, chairman of the doctrinal department, told the Catholic Herald this week that the bishops would definitely he making some decision on the minimum age for confirmation, but agreement might not be reached at the Low Week meeting.