Tag Archives: Lord’s Supper

A Sacramental Double-Standard

Anna Nussbaum Keating wrote an article, Why Can’t My Son Receive the Eucharist, for First Things. In it she briefly rehearses the history of the practice of the Sacrament, and questions why her two-year-old son can’t take the Eucharist until he is 7.

Here is the link:

She raises a question I raised in my posts on Children and Communion, some of the first posts in this blog. Why do we, churches that require the one who receives the Eucharist, require the recipients to understand the sacrament of Communion, when we do not require the same of baptism?

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.

She ends with the hope that maybe things are ripe for a change in the Roman Catholic Church, a going back to the earlier practice of infant communion:

Perhaps now is the time to rediscover the practice of infant communion. Pope Francis has said that the Eucharist is “not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.” He has also written in his Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel that, “The joy of the Gospel is for all people: no one can be excluded. . . . Everyone can share in some way in the life of the Church; everyone can be part of the community, nor should the doors of the sacraments be closed for simply any reason.”

It does seem a double standard, doesn’t it.

(Thanks to Michael Bird’s post on the blog Euangelion for posting on this article – http://www.patheos.com/blogs/euangelion/2014/04/communion-for-children/)

3 Questions: Children and Communion, Pt 3

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.

Compel Them to Come — Children and Communion, Pt 2

So what light does the history of the church shed on the matter of children taking part in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper?

Being something much less than a research essay, allow me here to share my discoveries.  

The first thing I learned, which you all probably know, is that the Eastern Church allows, really makes, infants take communion.  After baptizing an infant, the priest then dips his finger in the cup of wine and sticks it in the baby’s mouth.  And they have always done this, with some variation of course.

3490226417_98e780c4c1And it seems the practice of giving babies and young children communion goes back to the early church.  The first mention of infant communion is in Cyprian, in the 3rd century.  We also read of it in the Apostolic Constitutions and in Augustine, both of the 4th century. (1)  The interesting thing about these references is that none of these writings are teaching or defending the practice; they are mentioning it in passing, suggesting that it was a widespread practice that needed no defense or urging.

No writer from the 1st or 2nd century specifically mentions the practice, so either it was a practice so foreign that it never entered into the writings of the time, or that it was not a disputed matter that merited any significant discussion.  Apparently, either no one or everyone practiced it.  One factor that may help to explain this silence is that the question of infants and children taking communion is only relevant when infant baptism is the norm, since one had to be baptized to take communion.  It seems, although it is beyond the scope of this post, that infant baptism only became widely practiced by the 3rd century, when we see the first mention of it by Tertullian, who is writing to actually challenge the accepted practice. (2)  Another factor is that before the 4th century there are no known writings specifically on the Eucharist.

These facts are corroborated by many historians of the church, and in other historical documents from other eras.  John Calvin calls it an “ancient practice” in his Institutes, and the Council of Trent, in 1562, uses the same words.  In more modern times, as Lee says, “it has commonly been the opinion of the church that infants and young children were welcome at the Lord’s Supper from the earliest days of the post-apostolic period.”(3)

The practice of giving communion to infants and small children in the Western church came to an end in the 13th century, when the Fourth Lateran Council, in 1215, established the doctrine of transubstantiation, the teaching that says the bread and wine are changed into the actual body and blood of Jesus during the Mass.  This heightening of the mystery of the sacrament led to the people no longer receiving the cup, but only the bread, lest they profaned the blood by spilling it.  Since it was the practice for infants to receive only the cup, not being able to chew and swallow the bread, this effectively ended their participation. Children could again take of the sacrament when they were 7-8 years of age. (3)

Girl receiving first Holy Communion, Sicily

Girl receiving first Holy Communion, Sicily (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

With the Reformation in the 16th century came an emphasis on personal faith and understanding.  Admission to the Lord’s Supper was pushed back generally to adolescence, when the child was considered able to understand the Supper and have a personal faith. (3)

Interestingly, the Eastern Church, which has never deviated from the celebration of infant and child communion, has neither developed a doctrine of transubstantiation nor had a Reformation.

Tomorrow I will draw some connections with this history and ministry today.


(1)  http://www.paedocommunion.com/articles/fathers_quotations.php
(2)  Roger Beckwith and Andrew Daunton-Fear,  “The Water and the Wine: A Contribution to the Debate on Children and Holy Communion”,  The Latimer Trust: London, 2005.
(3)  Tommy Lee, The History of Paedocommunion from the Early Church Until 1500, found at http://reformed.org/sacramentology/ (accessed on 10/9/13).  This was the most thorough treatment I was able to find.

Let the Little Children Come? Children and Communion, Pt 1

For the last few months, my leaders have been wrestling with the matter of children taking communion.  Basically, we are thinking of setting a minimum age for children to be able to participate in the Lord’s Supper.  We’re leaning this way for some practical reasons.

On a typical Sunday, children 6th grade and younger leave the service after about 20 minutes to go to Junior Church, which includes some worship and teaching which is more child-friendly.  On communion Sundays, though, they stay in the service the whole time so they can witness and participate in the sacrament.  According to the Book of Order of the PC(USA), children are allowed to take communion if they understand that it is more than snack time, and that something of great spiritual importance is happening.  At our church, for many years our practice has been to allow the parents to make that determination themselves.

So why are we thinking of changing things?

First, the children are disruptive.  They get antsy being in the whole service.  Many members mind the distraction during a more solemn moment such as the sacrament.  They’d be just as happy having them somewhere else.


Last Supper With the Street Children, by Joey Valasco
(These are actual children the painter knew. Click for the full post)

Second, the children seem to somewhat thoughtlessly take the sacrament.  Do they understand it, or are they just doing it?  We are not sure the parents are thinking about that, or that they are judging correctly.

Third, we don’t want the Lord’s Supper to be handled in a disrespectful way and we want to highlight it as the important act that it is.  This past year, in order to heighten the centrality of the Lord’s Supper in our worship life, we began to celebrate it every month, moving from ever other month.  Is the Sacrament’s importance upheld by restricting access to children, or by allowing access?

While the first reason is the most persuasive and sufficient reason for many in our church to not allow children to take communion, the leaders recognize that we need to think this matter through Biblically and theologically.  It is no small thing to determine who may or may not celebrate the Lord’s Supper.

So what does the History of the Church teach us about this matter?  How have Christians through the centuries regarded this question?  Have children participated in the Lord’s Supper or not?  What patterns can we discern?  The value of such an historical look at this kind of question is that is challenges the assumptions we unknowingly make.  An assumption that I have always made about this matter, and that I have seen churches I am familiar with make, is that only those who understand the sacrament can take it.  The only question in my mind was who made the determination of understanding and at what age was it thought to arrive.

I discovered that the practice of Christians years ago was quite different.

(Tomorrow, a look at that history)