So what do we make of all this?
History doesn’t decide ministry. To decide what we will do about our children and communion in our church we don’t just poll history and go with what has been done most. To decide our policy, we need to turn to Scripture and approach it theologically. But history does inform ministry; considering how a question has been answered in the past helps us answer it today. It can also raise other questions for us that are not arising in our own time and context. As a Protestant, I am suspicious of tradition. It is not an authority on par with Scripture, but seeing how Christians have sought to live out the teachings of Scripture helps me to figure out how to do that now.
So what questions is this history asking me?
1) If you are a supporter of infant baptism, why would you reject infant communion?
Until the 13th century, infant communion immediately followed infant baptism. They were seen as one piece. If one was baptized then one also partook of the sacrament. If I support one, why not the other? My tradition asserts that if the child understands the significance of the Lord’s Supper they can take it. Yet one can be baptized without understanding it. And we know infants are not participating knowingly in their baptism. Why not let them unknowingly participate in the Lord’s Supper? There is a Biblical argument to be made, based on 1 Corinthians 15, where we are told we must eat “discerning the body”, but some have suggested that is not ironclad. Perhaps I hold a double standard when it comes to sacraments. One option would be to deny both sacraments to infants and children until they are more aware of the meanings, as some traditions do. Another would be to offer both to infants as the Greek Church does. Perhaps my tradition is being selective and fails to give a basis for it. Think it through further.
2) Is your protectiveness of the Lord’s Supper consistent with your view of the Sacrament?
As we saw, the practice of infant and child communion ended as the belief in transubstantiation rose in importance, which led to a desire to prevent the elements from being handled with disrespect or casualness. If we deny children the Lord’s Supper because they will in some way profane the sacrament, are we not doing the same thing? Yet, my own tradition does not believe in transubstantiation, but insists on the common-ness of the elements and that they do not change. This seems like it may be a contradiction between our theology and our practice.
3) Is your assumption that a person must understand the Sacrament before partaking of it too individualistic?
The idea that the individual had to understand the sacrament to take part in it rose to greatest prominence with the Protestant Reformers, who emphasized the individual’s own relationship to God, and the importance of personal faith. Until that time, the individual’s participation in the community of faith seemed to be the greater emphasis, and communion, especially for all the baptized regardless of age, embodied that emphasis. It strikes me that my own tradition’s emphasis on understanding may be an overemphasis on the individual at the expense of our sense of connection to the community.
So while a look at the history has not answered my original question in any certain terms, it has given me much to think about and to talk to my leaders about, questions that had not come up before. I am, however, leaning toward including younger children more, but I do want to wrestle more with Scripture, especially 1 Corinthians 15.
What about you? What does the history suggest to you about how we handle the participation of children in the Lord’s Supper is our churches today? I’d welcome your comments and thoughts.