A place at the table
A growing number of churches are engaging with the question of whether or not to offer Communion to children. The answer, says Jo Williams, should always be yes
The question of whether children should be admitted to the Eucharist has been lively in Britain for the last 40 years, complicated by the plethora of Christian practice over 2,000 years. Today, the practice is varied but the debate rages on. So how should we respond?
Most churches who offer children Communion insist on some degree of instruction or education before they receive the elements, and it has often been a concern that until children have the cognitive ability to understand and explain the meaning of the sacrament, their participation should be prohibited or discouraged. It has even been argued that allowing a child to take bread and wine without full understanding could be harmful to their long-term spiritual development.
My experience, however, is that children have an intrinsic spirituality, which must be encouraged to grow and develop just as language and cognitive skills do. In addition, children are active learners who learn best by participation and experience. Imitation of adults prepares them to participate in the full life of the faith community and experience real faith long before they are able to articulate what that means for them. In fact we cannot expect them to understand the Eucharist until they have experienced it. And even if their understanding of the sacraments is not fully developed, not theologically or doctrinally sound, the Gospel teaches that simple faith is both accepted and rewarded.
Paul’s warning in 1 Corinthians 11:27-29 to those who eat ‘unworthily’ is often interpreted as a warning against taking Communion without due thought and preparation. What does this mean? And what are the implications for children? Are we suggesting that we should protect children from the dangers of taking Communion ‘unworthily’ because they are too young to understand the consequences – in the same way that as a society we seek to protect them from activities and situations for which we believe they are unable to give informed consent? Or that, in their inability to understand the seriousness of what they are doing, they somehow devalue the sacrament? I find it difficult to justify either interpretation as a reason for routinely denying anyone Communion, especially children, who Jesus said we must be more like if we hope to enter the kingdom.
I believe we cannot divorce the events of the Last Supper from the wider context of Jesus’ life and ministry; part of an enfolding story in which meals have significance. Jesus uses meals to teach through words and action the theory and practice of the kingdom: generosity, inclusion, welcome and transformation.
There is an implicit relationship here between Communion and community, both words sharing the same route, koinonia. Communion is a two-way relationship of fellowship with each other, but also with God, which builds us into the body of Christ, a body in which all members are needed (Romans 12:4-5). What damage do we do to that relationship by excluding children from the sacrament which expresses this so closely?
On the other hand, a desire to be welcoming can lead us to engage in approaches that, on reflection, may not be helpful. I find the practice in many churches of offering children sweets or biscuits as a substitute to bread and wine dubious, because it carries the risk of becoming ‘pretend’ rather than actual Communion.
If the desire in offering children Communion is that they experience the sacrament and the opportunity of growing into Christ, then only the sacrament will do. Whilst I am convinced that God can cause us to encounter him through biscuits or sweets, in Communion we hold a shared symbolism. We are many but we are one because we all share in the one bread. Offering children biscuits instead of the bread of life means in effect, and with the best of intentions, offering them a stone instead of bread (Matt 7:9).
When we re-enact the Last Supper, we announce the good news, and therefore it is an evangelical act, which enables people to engage with Christ through seeing and touching – in the same way that preaching the Gospel engages our hearing. As such, Communion can be considered as a means by which those who do not yet have faith may come to know Christ, both by learning about him in the liturgy and experiencing him in the sacrament, in the same way that Zacchaeus experienced a meal with Jesus before his life was transformed. Radical welcome, both in the Gospel and in the 21st century, speaks to people. If we believe that faith is a gift of God, we should not feel threatened to welcome those who do not yet know what, if anything, they believe and should allow them to find their place at the table.
An open table reflects the theology of the body – that all who come receive equally without having to prove their right or merit to be there; it reflects the mission of the Church to proclaim the good news. The Eucharist is public worship, which is in danger of becoming a service from which the uninitiated are excluded. This is not just about receiving the elements, but about the ability to comprehend and participate in the service as a whole. In many churches the experience of the Eucharist is not only inaccessible, but is actively exclusive.
If we are to be one body then we need to do all we can to make our worship truly open and welcoming, without losing meaning. It must remain a place where we are constantly confronted by the presence of Christ – something that requires us to reflect constantly on both our doctrine and our practice, to ensure both live up to Christ’s example of radical welcome and radical challenge.
There is no one way to resolve the issues presented here. In order to be communal we need to be able to define who and what we are, and for this, human society children’s Communion needs structures and boundaries. But if the boundaries stop the flow of people in and out of our midst then we are failing in our mission to the world. All boundaries have limitations and all boundaries segregate. Jesus’ example is clear. Jesus – who did not condemn the sinner, who chose to eat with the outsider, who refused to relegate women to the kitchen to prepare food and who said: ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the Kingdom of God belongs’ (Mark 10:14-5) – invites us all to be part of an extravagant relationship of grace epitomised in the Eucharist, when our body, the body of the church and the body of Christ become one. We cannot be one when many are excluded, so we must choose carefully where we draw our lines, and make them fluid enough that God can act in us and through us.
Jo Williams served the United Reformed Church as Children’s Work Development Officer from 2006 till 2012. The URC published a booklet by Jo Williams in 2011, called ‘Children and Holy Communion’, which is free of charge and available to download here (in PDF format) or to order in printed form, from the URC store, here. The booklet is intended for churches and individuals wanting to explore the issues surrounding children and Communion.
This is article was published in the November 2011 edition of Reform