Children and Communion

Earlier this week I saw a tweet which got me thinking (and replying multiple times). “Baptised children receiving communion – where do you stand on that issue?” asked Mary Hawes (@revmaryhawes). As anyone who knows me at all will know, the short answer is “very much in favour”, but on reading the question several reactions sprung to mind at once, and I tweeted them. I was surprised by the strength of my own feelings on the matter. Here I’m going to lay out in a bit more detail what I meant by each.

[For non-Anglicans, wondering what on earth I’m on about, a very quick overview: Since 2006 individual parishes have been able to choose to allow baptised children to start receiving communion before they are confirmed. About 15% of parishes have chosen to do this so far. The church where I am Children’s Minister is one of them.]

These are the responses I instinctively gave on Twitter, and a bit of an explanation of each:

“Baptised children receiving communion – where do you stand on that issue?”

“Frustrated that it isn’t more widespread and better understood” This is a fairly recent, and fairly big, change to the church’s practice, and represents a major shift in how children are treated and perceived, away from “Christians of the future” to be educated and “retained”, and towards seeing them (rightly) as full members of the body of Christ, with all that that entails. So why isn’t anyone talking about it? Why are we talking endlessly about some big issues in the church’s very slow progress towards inclusivity, but not this one?

And why have so few churches started admitting children to communion? 15% – that’s really not many. Is it that the rest are opposed to it? I don’t think so, or not entirely. I think it’s often just that it hasn’t even crossed their radar. Or if it has, a decision has been put off in favour of more “important” (for which, read “urgent”) matters. Because this is important, really important. It’s about how some of the most marginalised members of society (because children are marginalised) are recognised and valued as members of the body of Christ. It’s also about how we, the church, carry out some of Jesus’ clearest instructions to us (of which more later). So let’s start talking about it.

“And angry that people set the bar higher for children than adults (“but they don’t understand properly” etc)” When people express doubt, uncertainty, or even outright opposition, to the idea of children being admitted to communion, the most common thing I hear is “but they won’t fully understand what’s happening in the eucharist”. My response? Well, no, they won’t. Nor do I. Do you? That’s why we call it a mystery.

Sacraments are not (thankfully!) reliant on any of us fully understanding what is going on. They are signs and outworkings of God’s grace and, just as we understand God imperfectly, we will always understand the sacraments imperfectly. Just as our understanding of God changes and matures and grows, so will our understanding of the sacraments. But let’s not wait for perfect understanding, or we’ll be waiting an awfully long time!

Incidentally, I think many children have a much greater understanding of the eucharist than many adults. Children inherently “get” the sacramental because they are less inclined to try to fit everything into neat boxes of understanding, and more ready to enter wholeheartedly into mystery.

“And disheartened by lack of resources appropriate to Anglo-Catholic context (have developed my own)” Oh yes, the resources. Because once a church has decided to admit children to communion, we have to decide what sort of preparation is appropriate. When I came to do this, I could find nothing I liked which expressed a sacramental understanding which was appropriate for our, broadly Anglo-Catholic, context. There was a lot of “we do this to remember Jesus”, but no acknowledgement that there might be something else going on here, something bigger, something mysterious, something transformational… And so I created my own resources, which is perhaps a subject for another post.

“Denying children communion = putting barrier between them and Jesus. Pretty sure he had something to say about that…” And this is the heart of it. There are lots of things Jesus isn’t at all clear about (and wouldn’t it be helpful if he was!) but the place of children in God’s kingdom isn’t one of them. Nor is the fate of those who, intentionally or otherwise, put barriers between children and Jesus.

“Let the little children come to me and do not stop them.” Luke 18.16

“Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 18.3

“If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.” Mark 9

This is serious stuff. Welcome children. Become like children. Do not cause these children to stumble. It couldn’t be clearer that Jesus wants and loves and values children, and that he sees them as believers, as heirs to the kingdom, and as examples of discipleship for the rest of us to follow. We would do well to remember that before we start trying to decide whether we should “allow” them to receive communion.

Because in the end, it is not ours to allow or disallow. It is Christ’s body and blood, given for all, that we might enter his kingdom. And it’s quite clear that Jesus includes children in that. So who are we to tell children this isn’t for them?

If a child reaches out their hands in faith to receive the body and blood of Christ, and we tell them “no”, what is that if not a stumbling-block? Woe to us who think we know better than Jesus who should and should not be invited to his banquet. Woe to us who think age is more important than faith, or that there are limits on receiving God’s sacramental grace. Woe to us who think we have more important things to do than welcoming these little ones to God’s table.

I would be very interested to hear other people’s experience of admitting children to communion (or not admitting them). Please feel free to comment below.

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5 thoughts on “Children and Communion

  1. I totally agree with you. However where I have an issue, is with churches calling themselves Christian such as Exclusive Brethren now PBCC (Plymouth Brethren Christian Church), whereby partaking of communion is encouraged as babies and this furthermore means the group then forcibly hold that baby as it grows up, to their particular and indeed peculiar doctrines and strict membership in what they deem as THE Assembly of God, “fellowship” and THE position (the only right one among all others). Sadly this leads to being severely punished by loss of their entire family, house, job, finances, friends and church, should they ever exercise their freedom to change their religion once they are old enough to make up their own minds as to what they have been forcibly beholden to, (a right freely given in Article 18 in the International Charter of Human Rights). This led to a petition by concerned public about the groups abuses of Human Rights.

    I note that further, that the prescribed freedom of thought, conscience and religion, implies choice in the first place. For a church like this, or indeed any church to enforce membership in this controlling way on innocent children, is not at all what I believe Christ had in mind, when He said, “suffer the little children to come to Me.” There has not been any allowance for freedom to change one’s religion in this group for over 50 years now, and although they have recently been forced to accept that they need to change their doctrines and practices (in a very public case with the Charity Commission), we are yet to see any implementation of these changes. Along with this, there is also no freedom of thought or conscience in the group. There is only an “Assembly conscience” and if you do not prescribe to this, you are will experience “shrinking” or shunning, until you change your mind and agree with the PBCC church beliefs and practices, or eventually if you continue to hold a different view, you will be put out of the church by being deemed to be no longer “in fellowship” with the leader, or Minister of the Lord in the Recovery.

    It is in cases like this that I have an issue with communion being given to baptized children as members of A church, as instead of THE church. If they were considered part of the ONE “Body of Christ” as the Bible clearly tells us, instead or being coerced and controlled by a group that can really only be considered to be a cult, I would have no issue. Membership into the fullness of Christ’s Body by way of baptism and/or communion is only useful if it allows and encourages the continued freedom which Christ and also Paul spoke about us having in Him and for which Jesus died to give us, and which is upheld by the International Charter of Human Rights, as referenced above. I don’t know if this makes any sense or not, but it is something I feel very strongly about.

    • The Orthodox commune babies: it is the culmination of their baptism and continues until they are considered needful of confession before communion, like all adult orthodox. However, it is an inclusive right given by baptism into the one holy catholic and apostolic church and not an exclusive sect. On the other hand as the Brethren clearly don’t believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, its just bread and wine… 🙂

  2. I do tend to agree with the point about admittance being to the whole church – it can be needlessly awkward for families who move to a parish where children aren’t properly accepted. It should be the norm that children are admitted – anyone who has ever had the privilege of distributing communion to children will testify to how deep, honest and moving it is. I have learned much from the experience about being really open to transformation by the sacrament.

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