When the words “controversy” and “the Episcopal Church” are combined, they almost inevitably lead to the topic of human sexuality. While this is understandable, it obscures the fact that there are other, less headline-grabbing debates going on within our beloved church. One that keeps popping up among my friends, particularly those with young children, is the issue of infant communion. Having served in a number of different parishes now, it is striking to me how wildly different our practices can be when it comes to admitting young children to the Eucharist.
When I was a Presbyterian, this debate was waged under the rubric of “paedocommunion.” To make their case, proponents relied on scriptural exegesis and a particular brand of covenant theology. The opponents’ strategy, while not entirely devoid of biblical argument, was to affirm the authority of the Westminster standards. The Westminster Larger Catechism §177, for example, states that “[T]he Lord’s Supper is to be administered … only to such as are of years and ability to examine themselves.” This particular dispute actually reflected a deeper division between those who aligned themselves with a movement called the “Federal Vision” and those who identified with “Classical Reformed Theology.” While I was somewhat hesitant to identify with the former camp, I was persuaded by their arguments for admitting baptized children to the table. The gist of their reasoning was that the logic of infant baptism entails infant communion. We don’t require a certain degree of “cognitive ability” or intellectual consent for baptism, and there is no good reason why we should do so for communion. So went the argument.
What’s interesting to me is that this isn’t an esoteric topic that’s only of interest to theologians. It’s as practical as it gets. I can recall a sincere parishioner raising the question on more than one occasion in adult education classes: “So, why do we baptize babies, yet we don’t let children receive communion?” As an Episcopal priest, I have received the question numerous times in adult enquirers’ classes as well. Many parishioners have never thought about the issue of infant communion, but when they are presented the logic of infant baptism, this is often one of the first questions that comes to their minds.
Of course, the Anglican context of this debate is different in important respects from the Presbyterian context. Most importantly, Anglicans practice confirmation, which historically has been tied to (or at least loosely connected to) the reception of the Eucharist. In many Episcopal churches, it has been the custom to postpone reception of the Eucharist until after confirmation, which, until recently, most often occurred in the early teen years. Growing sensitivity to the fact that many children desired to receive communion led some churches to revise their practices. Some simply pushed confirmation to an early age, while others allowed children (around seven or eight years old) to receive communion while still waiting to be confirmed until they became teenagers.
One might be tempted to think that the practice of confirmation should provide a fruitful point of comparison with Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Sadly, this is not the case, at least not on the question of infant communion. In the Catholic Church, reception of the Eucharist is no longer tied to confirmation. The most current Code of Canon Law allows for reception before confirmation (which is most common in practice), but still requires that children “have sufficient knowledge and careful preparation” before their first communion (CIC 913 §1). It defines, somewhat ambiguously, age seven as the time that children have “the use of reason” (CIC 11), although apparently leaving it to the discretion of parents and priests to determine whether children have attained the use of reason at a later age (or perhaps even an earlier age; see CIC 913 §2). The practice of the Eastern Church is considerably different: infants receive the sacrament of confirmation immediately following the rite of baptism (well, sort of). This has never been the practice in the Anglican tradition, nor do we have a well-defined concept of the “age of reason,” as Roman Catholics do. It seems that we Anglican are on our own to figure this one out.
Even if one were to ignore the actual practices of Anglicans on the ground and simply look to our formularies, nothing is conclusive. The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion are silent on the issue of age or cognitive ability as a prerequisite for communion. Current canons in the Episcopal Church state, “No unbaptized person shall be eligible to receive Holy Communion in this Church” (I.17.7),but this is merely a negative provision. Elsewhere the canons state, “[C]ommunicants sixteen years of age and over are to be considered adult communicants” (I.17.2b), but this only clarifies who is to be considered an adult communicant for the purposes of record-keeping. The Catechism of the Episcopal Church teaches, “It is required [when we come to the Eucharist] that we should examine our lives, repent of our sins, and be in love and charity with all people” (BCP, 860), but there is no suggestion that this implies a certain age or maturity level, and I have never seen it cited as such. It appears, then, that the question of infant communion is left to the prudential judgment of the Church, at least in the United States.
The canonical issues are rather different (and more complicated) in the Church of England. The general canon (B 15A) permits communion only to the confirmed. However, an exception was made relatively recently in the “Admission of baptized children to Holy Communion Regulations 2006.” It is currently unclear to me how many diocesan bishops (and parishes) have taken advantage of the new regulations, which prevents a further exploration of the issue.
The Church’s prudential judgment should of course include an examination of Scripture, as well as deploying whatever theological tools we have at our disposal. But it is difficult to see how even these resources can lead to a decisive conclusion. St. Paul tells us that we ought to examine ourselves and that “any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself” (1 Cor. 11:18-29, RSV). The interpretation of this passage has been long debated, but it is far from clear that it necessarily rules out infant communion. On the other hand, supporters of the practice might point to Jesus’ words, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 19:14). But one cannot read too much into this text, given that Jesus was not speaking directly about the Eucharist.
Rather than throwing our hands up in the air or simply clinging to the “tradition” (which is in fact a rather recent, Anglo-American phenomenon) of requiring confirmation before communion, I believe there other pressing considerations that need to be made. We need to take into account, for example, that church attendance is in rapid decline and that young people are increasingly leaving the church. I don’t want to be alarmist or reactionary. I’m not suggesting that our ecclesial practices should be determined solely by pragmatic considerations. Nor am I suggesting that there is any direct correlation between early admittance to the Eucharist and patterns in church attendance. But I do think we should stop and consider the possible implications of our current practices, especially those that are not clearly settled by Scripture or tradition.
I worry about the danger of possibly sending a message to our children that they are less than fully Christian. They, too, have been baptized as “Christ’s own forever.” Moreover, telling them that they must wait until they can “understand” the Eucharist misleadingly suggests that we adults do “understand” this sacred mystery. I worry that we have overly intellectualized the Sacrament.
Conversely, allowing baptized children to receive the Sacrament enables them to participate in the life of the Church in its fullness. Their earliest memories will always include the nourishment they have received from Christ’s body and blood. In fact, this should serve as an important reminder to the rest of us that the Eucharist is emphatically not a mere intellectual exercise. Every time I administer Christ’s body to one of our little ones at church, I am reminded of Christ’s words, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:2).
Infant communion is not a panacea or an instant fix. It needs to be coupled with robust engagement in the Church’s worship. Sending children away for the majority of the service and then sending them back in to receive communion is not ideal. And, of course, infant communion should not do away with catechesis in sacramental theology (otherwise we’d have the same problem with infant baptism). In a very helpful article on this subject in First Things, Anna Nussbaum Keating asks,
Is infant communion so different from infant baptism? We already teach children who have previously been baptized what their baptism means, and yet, baptism is a gift freely given. It is not dependent on one’s intelligence or comprehension. Formal instruction occurs after the sacrament has been experienced.
And I would add that, for churches that are intent on incorporating children into worship, it is much, much easier to do so when we can explain to them that they, too, are welcome at Christ’s altar.
The bottom line is that I have simply never encountered a good argument for requiring children to wait to be admitted to the Eucharist. Christians throughout history and across traditions have, admittedly, varied in their practices on this matter. It is not similar to, say, communion of the unbaptized, which would constitute a clear break from tradition. For Anglicans to admit baptized children to the altar is hardly an innovation. But I would suggest that it is a very good idea.
The featured image is “Komunio” by Philipp Schumacher in the Katholisches Religionsbüchlein für die unteren Klassen der Volksschule (1920). It is in the public domain.