Children and Communion

A proposed change in Church practice, by the Rector and PCC

The PCC has been giving very careful thought to a proposal to admit children to communion before they are confirmed. At its meeting before Christmas the PCC agreed in principle to proceed with the proposal provided it was explained to the congregation as a whole and was well received by them. The PCC would not go ahead if there were indications that a significant number of the congregation were strongly opposed. This article will try to set out the background to the proposal. On February 8th the sermon will take this as its subject and in next month’s magazine Eileen will look at the way we might implement such a policy at St Peter’s. There will also be contributions from two members of the PCC who were initially opposed to the idea but who have found that the more they thought it through the more it began to commend itself. That is no doubt what happens to most of us when faced with a new ideas. It takes time to absorb, to have our questions answered and our concerns safeguarded. This idea will be new to most of you and will seem at variance with your own upbringing and experience. In commending it to you the PCC hope that you will talk to them and air your views, your doubts and your questions.

What is the background to this proposal?

There has been debate in the Church of England on this matter for a number of years. In this diocese the Bishop gave permission for a number of parishes to admit children, properly prepared, to Holy Communion before the age of confirmation. The experiment has been running for a number of years and in such a way that no one would want to go back on it. Recently the House of Bishops of the Church of England produced their own guidelines on the matter giving permission for parishes to adopt a policy of admitting children to communion before confirmation with the Bishop’s permission. There was also a favourable debate in the General Synod. Bishop Patrick has indicated that he is in favour of such a policy and will grant permission to parishes who request it - provided they have observed the guidelines, consulted the PCC and congregation, and submitted a scheme giving details of how and when children and their parents will be approached, what preparation will take place and how much of the communion service children will be expected to attend.

Why is this being proposed?

The link between confirmation and the reception of communion has been weakened in the last fifty years. This is mainly because we are now in a missionary situation where many people come to church who have little or no background of faith. We are no longer, for the most part, processing little Christians through Sunday School to confirmation and communion. The evidence is that this did not, on the whole, result in practising adult believers as the majority dropped out fairly quickly after confirmation. This made a mockery of confirmation which became a sort of passing out parade in many cases. We find at St Peter’s that people join our worshipping community and take communion thinking it natural and appropriate, then as we get to know them we discover that they are not confirmed. In practice therefore for many new adult members communion seems to precede confirmation; as they will testify, this has not diminished the significance of either, but rather allowed their faith to grow and deepen.

Secondly the service of Holy Communion has become the central act of worship in the average parish. This was not always so. In my early years going to church meant going to Matins or Evensong and only the very holy, and usually elderly, attended Holy Communion at 8am or once a month after Matins when most of us had left, at 12noon. The "Parish and People" movement of the 1940s and 50s put the emphasis on "the Lord’s people at the Lord’s table on the Lord’s Day." As a result the Holy Communion has become less of a private devotion and more truly the place where we are most fully the Body of Christ. It is natural then to ask how far are the children, who are fully baptised members of the Body of Christ, being excluded from the community meal? Is their baptism incomplete in some way because of their age? Are they full members of the Body of Christ and should they be participants of his grace offered to the Body in communion?

Thirdly there is a new emphasis on baptism as the primary sacrament of initiation. Infant baptism is no longer the automatic rite of passage that it used to be. It now represents in most cases a real choice by parents. In ecumenical dialogue there has been a new appreciation of baptism as bringing a person into the community of faith, whatever their age, and through God’s grace given in baptism they each become sharers in the life of Christ. The "Welcome", which at St Peter’s we say as a congregation to a newly baptised child, emphasises this - We are members together of the Body of Christ; we are children of the same heavenly Father; we are inheritors together of the kingdom of God. We welcome you. A renewed appreciation of the significance of baptism again raises the question of the place of children at the Eucharist. If the Eucharist is the fellowship meal of the baptised are children being excluded? Baptism places the emphasis for participation in the Eucharist on belonging in the community of faith.

Other points
  1. The Anglican pattern is not that of the universal church. In the Roman Catholic Church children are admitted to communion at an early age (usually about 6 or 7 years) and confirmed slightly later. In the Orthodox Churches babies are baptised and confirmed by the laying on of hands at the same time and admitted to communion right away receiving the wine on a spoon. This emphasises the grace of baptism and the full membership of each baptised child.
  2. Anglicans in other parts of the Anglican Communion already admit children to communion and so some, who have moved to this country, are already receiving communion before confirmation.
  3. It is important that those who receive communion appreciate the importance and wonder of what they are sharing in, but "understanding" can be a difficult criterion to apply. We may ask which of us fully understands the meaning of the Eucharist. We know it is important and that it means a great deal to us, but we would often be hard pressed to put that into words. Sometimes children grasp the significance more easily than adults. As someone has pointed out, we would not want to exclude those with learning difficulties from receiving communion because their conceptual skills are not as ours.
  4. The proposal is not that all children of any age should receive, but that children come to a point of appreciation and readiness to share fully in the Eucharist. Experience of other churches is that this is around about the age of six or seven though for some it may be later.
  5. Some will ask about confirmation and whether this proposal does not undermine confirmation. The experience is that it does not. Indeed it makes more sense of confirmation as a preparation for adult discipleship. In churches where this has been the practice for an number of years they have found that the age of confirmation goes up from 11 - 12 to 16+ when a more adult profession can be made with confidence.

There is much to think and pray about in all of this. Please talk with the members of the PCC and the clergy about it. Thinking and praying about it will help us all to grow together into a deeper appreciation of the meaning of the sacraments we participate in, and of the grace of God which is so freely given to all of us, children and adults, whom Christ has embraced and saved.

Leslie Morley
St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 31st January 1998