I was once asked to present a discussion paper to our Church Council on this subject. Here’s what I came up with:-
1. A Statement of the Case
The Anglican Church, in common with most other branches of the Christian church, supports the baptism of adult believers and their children.
When a child is brought by Christian parents to be baptised, the minister welcomes the child with the words,
“God has received you by baptism into his church.”
The congregation responds,
“We welcome you into the Lord’s family. 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.”
The baptised child is thus recognised as a real (if presumptive, provisional, or probationary) member of the church of Christ. We nurture this membership in a number of ways: we put the child under the sound of the Gospel; we put words of faith in its mouth in the songs we get it to sing; we encourage it to be present, and to play an active part in public worship. We treat the child as a Christian.
It follows that when we gather around the Lord’s Table, and the Lord’s people are invited to ‘draw near with faith’, a baptised child should be welcomed too. We should not say, “Your Christianity is not good enough. You’re not ready yet. You must wait until you can articulate your faith to our satisfaction; you must wait until you are confirmed.” We should not fob them off with a substitute blessing (or, worse still, a sweet) at the communion rail.
However, since communion before confirmation is ‘a departure from our inherited norm’, it requires special permission.
2. The Current Position in the Church of England
In 1997, the House of Bishops agreed a set of guidelines for ‘admitting baptised persons to Holy Communion before Confirmation’. In 2006 these were revised and published as Admission of Baptised Children to Holy Communion Regulations 2006.
Briefly, the regulations provide that children who have been baptised but not yet confirmed may be admitted to Holy Communion.
This is subject to the discretion of the bishop, who must satisfy himself that the parish concerned has made adequate provision for the preparation and continuing nurture in the Christian life, and will encourage any child so admitted to Holy Communion to seek confirmation at the appropriate time.
Application is made by the incumbent to the bishop, and must have the support of the parochial church council.
Permission can be revoked by the bishop at any time if the conditions are not being met, but without prejudice to those who have already been admitted.
The incumbent must be satisfied that the child is baptised and has the support of the parent.
The incumbent must maintain a register of all children admitted.
Any child who has been admitted to Holy Communion shall be so admitted in any parish, regardless of whether that parish has itself been granted permission to admit children.
Currently, about 10% of parishes have applied for and been granted permission. (The figure is about 20% in the Norwich Diocese).
3. Some Arguments For and Against
3.1 Arguments For
3.1.1 The place of children in Scripture
Passing over the general Scriptural teaching that children are loved by God and are a sign of his blessing towards parents, we note some specific examples of the place of children in God’s plan and purpose:-
- Isaac, Gen 21-22
- Samuel, 1 Sam 2:18ff. (‘Samuel grew in stature and in favour with the Lord and with men.’)
- John the Baptist, Luke 1:15, 41, 80. (‘filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth’)
- Jesus, Luke 2:21-52 (‘filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him.‘)
It might be doubted, however, whether these have any direct bearing on the question of admission to Holy Communion.
3.1.2 The specific teaching of Jesus
It might be argued that a refusal to admit children to Holy Communion has more in common with the fumbling and short-sighted disciples than with the loving and welcoming attitude of the Saviour:-
Mark 10:13-16 People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. 14 When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 15 I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” 16 And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them.
Again, it might be doubted whether this has have any direct bearing on the question of admission to Holy Communion.
3.1.3 Baptism and Holy Communion equivalent to Circumcision and Passover
It is suggested that baptism and communion are anticipated in the Old Testament by circumcision and the Passover. All those who received the covenant sign of circumcision were counted as members of the covenant people and were qualified to participate in the Passover. Indeed, the Passover was to be an opportunity for the father to teach his children. He was obliged to explain the meaning of the ceremony when his children asked (Ex 12:26f; 13:8, 14).
But it might be replied that the two sets of ordinances are not equivalent in every respect (an obvious example is that only males were circumcised), and that continuity in other respects cannot be taken for granted.
3.1.4 The unity of the Christian church
Ephesians 4:4-6 There is one body and one Spirit-just as you were called to one hope when you were called- one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
1 Corinthians 10:17 Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.
The unity of the local church, as taught in these and other passages, suggests that all members of the local church who are in good standing share in the meal together.
Children are addressed in the epistles as members of Christ’s church, Ephesians 6:1; Colossians 3:21 (although, again, it might be replied that in being so addressing them Paul cannot have been thinking of very young children).
At no point does Scripture say, with regard to receiving Holy Communion, “Except the children.”
3.1.5 The solidarity of the Christian family
Acts 2:46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts.
The breaking of bread recorded in Acts 2:46 and elsewhere took place in domestic, rather than ecclesiastical settings. Where infants and children were members of these households, we have no reason to think that they were excluded from these meals. Moreover, the New Testament speaks of the baptism of entire households (comprising parents, children and slaves). Recent experience has suggested that where Christian families take Holy Communion together, there can be spin-off benefits – they may be more likely to pray together at home.
However, it is not at all clear that the patterns of communal life recorded in the early chapters of Acts are normative for all time. And, in any case, while it is true that Scripture refers to the conversion of households, on more than one occasion baptism is explicitly linked with belief, as in,
Acts 16:31 “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved-you and your household.”
Acts 18:8 Crispus, the synagogue ruler, and his entire household believed in the Lord; and many of the Corinthians who heard him believed and were baptised.
3.1.6 The separation of baptism and confirmation an historical accident
The notion that baptism is for babies, confirmation is for teenagers, and that communion is for grown-ups, might be considered an historical accident. For a long time in many parts of the church, babies were baptised and then confirmed immediately, and would receive communion thereafter (this is still the case in the Eastern Church). It was only when some parts of the church insisted on confirmation being done by a bishop, and a bishop was not always available, that the two ceremonies started to be split, and then it became assumed that confirmation was a pre-requisite to communion.
In reply, it might be pointed that the history around this is disputed, and, in any case, the accidents of history are no safe guide to Christian belief and practice today.
3.2 Arguments against
3.2.1 Holy Communion requires understanding, and is therefore unsuitable for small children
In the New Testament, baptism itself is closely linked with repentance and faith:-
- Acts 2:38 – ‘Repent and be baptised.’
- Acts 19:4f – ‘On hearing this, they were baptised into the name of the Lord Jesus.’
- Ephesians 5:26 – ‘…cleansing her by the washing with water through the word.’
(See also Galatians 3:26f; Col 2:12f)
Hence, normal practice was to baptise immediately upon profession of faith (Acts 2:41; 8:12,16,36; 9:18; 10:47f; 16:33; 18:8; 19:5; 22:16). And if faith is so closely linked with baptism, it follows that it is also linked with holy communion, as is implied in the command to ‘remember’ and ‘examine oneself’ (1 Corinthians 11:23-30).
But some are reluctant to make this absolute. Children, they might suggest, should not be excluded from Holy Communion on the grounds that they cannot understand what is going on, because none of us fully understands what is going on. Moreover, if a certain level of understanding is essential, what about people with learning difficulty or dementia?
3.2.2 The danger of taking Holy Communion in an unworthy manner
1 Corinthians 11:27-30 Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognising the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself.
It might be argued from Paul’s teaching that Holy Communion cannot be suitable for young children, because they are not capable of self-examination..
However, it might be replied that the Paul’s concerns were about party-spirit and greed. The well-to-do were getting to the meal first and eating their fill and even getting drunk, while the poor people came along later and were left hungry. What they lacked was not head-knowledge, but love, humility, and sincerity – and do adult Christians have a monopoly on these qualities?
3.2.3 A threat to evangelical distinctives
The move towards the admission of children to Holy Communion might be seen as a threat to certain evangelical distinctives. Some of the debate has been carried on with scant regard to issues of conversion and regeneration. Some of the talk about ‘faith journeys’ is unhelpful in this regard. Also, we must be clear about the notion of ‘baptismal regeneration’.
If evangelicals support the admission of children to Holy Communion, it is important that they are clear about their reasons for doing so. However, it is not acceptable to resist change simply because we do not approve of some of the arguments or some of the possible implications. It is still less acceptable to resist change simply because we want to maintain our own distinctive identity.
3.3 Other factors
Some would argue in favour of admission of children to Holy Communion from:-
- the more central place that communion has in many local churches;
- a general commitment to inclusivity, and to the fuller participation by children in worship;
- an understanding of church membership as involving ‘belonging before believing’;
- new understandings of how faith develops, and how children learn by participation;
- ‘popular demand’ from parents and children;
- experiences of changing practices ecumenically and internationally.
4. Some practical issues
If Holy Trinity were to seek permission from the Bishop to admit children to Holy Communion, a number of practical questions would have to be considered:-
- What age? 7? (Note: a minimum age is not set by Norwich Diocese).
- What if it is deemed impracticable for a child to take one or other of the elements?
- What if the children are disruptive?
- What if a child wishes to receive communion, and has parental support, but the parents themselves are not in a position to offer spiritual nurture?
- What about unbaptised children of church members (e.g. those who have been brought for thanksgiving, rather than baptism)?
- What about visiting children, who may wish to copy their friends?
- What training resources and liturgy are available?
Which arguments for the admission of children to Holy Communion do you find most persuasive?
Which arguments against the admission of children to Holy Communion do you find most persuasive?
Would you want any other issues or arguments, either for or against, to be taken into account?
What, at the present time, would you wish the position of our Church Council to be?
6. Further Reading
Buchanan, C. (1985) Nurturing children in communion. Grove.
Lake, S (2006) Let the Children Come to Communion. SPCK
Mounstephen, P. (n.d.) Children and Communion – a Polemic
Norwich Diocesan Regulations (2007) The Admission of Children to Holy Communion Before Confirmation.
Reiss, P (1998) Children and Communion: a Practical Guide for Interested Churches. Grove
Davies J.G. (ed) (1986) A New Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship. SCM.