It would be weird if my 13-year-old daughter didn’t say she was an atheist. It’s what you say in our culture when you’re that age. To be honest it would creep me out a bit if she was all pious. But she is getting confirmed into the Anglican faith. This is a piece of hoop-jumping that her parents have decided to require of their children.
I went for coffee with the vicar to ask if my daughter could join the classes. I admitted that she was a bit reluctant. In fact, it was a mixed picture. Whenever I mentioned confirmation she professed her atheism, but when I didn’t mention it for a couple of weeks she asked when the classes were starting. She is not entirely averse to attention, even if it is directed at her eternal soul. Her church-going to date has been patchy. She quite liked Sunday school for a while, when there were some good craft activities and some younger children she could dominate. And she likes occasional guest appearances at her grandmother’s church in the country, where she’s as famous as Pollyanna.
The vicar, no fool, smiled at my sheepish admission that I had not raised St Thérèse of Lisieux. He said that one of his rich arty parishioners had recently paid his teenager to attend church.
That’s what gave me the idea. At first I was a little shocked that a vicar was half–recommending bribery. But then I took the long view and recalled what I had once learned of the conversion of the Anglo-Saxon kings, in which worldly motives played no small part. Why not? Bribing her would settle the matter, and seal her commitment. Otherwise she would perhaps be tempted to stage a little drama of teenage power-play, threatening each week to walk out. And that would be arguably worse for her soul than the acceptance of this bribe.
I won’t say what sum she is promised, but it is far less than was spent on her secular development over the summer, as an amateur rock-climber, tennis player and chorus girl.
The idea, of course, is to expose her to something that her parents consider beneficial. Attending church for five weeks or so will slightly deepen her acquaintance with Christian culture. Yes, she will encounter some boredom. But she will also be prodded to think about the world in a new way.
Religion is incomprehensible unless you have been exposed to it. To the outsider, it must all seem absurd. To the teenager studying RE, it must seem odd that atheism did not completely triumph circa 1900. But if you witness people worshipping, and join in, it’s all subtly different. You see that these words and gestures matter to people — people who seem decent and sane. You see that these stories are revered, but they are also puzzled over, and sometimes joked about too. You see that an assortment of awkward English people can come together, in an understated way, through singing hymns and speaking some set phrases together.
At first it seems a bit creepy, people uttering responses in the liturgy, as if we’re all pretending to be brainwashed. But then, perhaps, you get to quite like the calm poetry of ‘And also with you’ and so on.
And the business end of the liturgy at first seems like a lot of faff over some silver cups and napkins, and everyone pretending to find it all sombre and momentous. But then, gradually, you get a little taste for the group theatre of it.
Sure, it’s a bit too understated to rock a teenager’s world. I don’t expect her to be excitedly Instagramming the experience. But let her see something that doesn’t fit with all that. She might quite like the quiet otherness of it, even if she doesn’t admit it.
Some might say: fine, pay her to go to church for a few weeks if you want, but not to be confirmed. That should be entirely her decision, unclouded by bribery. It is bad for someone to profess faith without really meaning it.
Well, I’m not sure. In Anglicanism, teenage confirmation isn’t really a decisive testimony that one is saved; it is, in effect, a cultural gesture. The teenager is acknowledging that he or she is somewhat shaped by this tradition, and showing some respect for that shaping, without claiming that it is any sort of fixed identity. ‘I’ll go on thinking about it, from this base,’ they are saying.
Even this sort of gesture should be the teenager’s free decision, you might say. But the idea of total autonomy is an illusion. You can’t make up your own mind about religion unless religion has been a factor in the making of your mind.
If she gains a little bit more respect for this tradition, it will be the best money we have spent on her. Religion might be something she ignores for a decade or two, then finds she is glad to have access to. It does not hurt to have such options in our lonely culture. It does not hurt to know that vicars are almost invariably good sorts: trustworthy, thoughtful, open-minded. They might not like me publicising the fact they offer free therapy, as long as you can present your angst in terms of spiritual seeking. I hope that she does encounter such angst. It’s a strange thing to say, but it’s an odd part of raising, or trying to raise, Christians. One hopes that they will not find things too easy, fit in too nicely, if it means they don’t learn faith’s necessity.
I don’t expect her to come out of the classes a fervent believer. Real belief matures slowly, and co-exists with scepticism. She’ll go back to her rubbish TV shows and her gossiping and her thrift-store rummaging. But with a little seed sown in her.
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