Here is a paper to help us think through the options:
Theological and Historical Perspectives
A brief theological and historical paper by the Right Reverend Stephen Cottrell, Bishop of Reading
The aim of this brief paper is to lend theological support to the idea that, given suitable guidelines, children may be welcomed to the Holy Communion.
The baptism of infants began very probably in the time of the apostles, when whole households were baptised following the conversion of the head of the family (cf. Acts 15). It was a natural, inclusive development of the Jewish practice of circumcision (cf.Colossians 2:11 & 12). Infant baptism is universal by the time of Irenaeus (C180 AD) and explicitly ordered by Hippolytus at the beginning of the third century.
As for confirmation, evidence suggests that at the time of Augustine this rite was combined with baptism. This is, of course, the practice of the Orthodox Churches to this day. Nor did it completely disappear in the West. Queen Elizabeth I received both sacraments together as an infant. However, by the 16th century it was normal for the two rites to be administered separately, a situation perpetuated by the Reformers. Confirmation seems to have been regarded by Cranmer as a test of the believer’s understanding of the meaning of Communion. The rubric allows “those desirous of being confirmed” to receive communion, and Cranmer placed as much emphasis on instruction as he did confirmation; hence there is plenty of evidence to suggest that between the 16th and 19th centuries many people were admitted to communion after instruction but still before confirmation.
It was in the 19th century, and greatly influenced by the Oxford Movement, that confirmation again took on a more sacramental significance, such that it became linked to baptism as a further act of initiation. Consequently most Christians growing up in the 20th century believed that confirmation before communion somehow completed initiation and was an unchanging pattern that dated back to the early church. This brief historical tour shows a much wider variety of practice.
In the 20th century two further developments in our understanding of the church encouraged a review of our understanding of initiation and the Eucharist. First, was the introduction of the parish communion. More and more the Eucharist came to be the main Sunday morning service in the Church of England. Gradually the practice arose of bringing children to the altar rail for a blessing. This was no doubt prompted by the heartfelt desire to include children as part of the Christian family at one of its most solemn and joyous moments. But the head was also engaging in the issue.
The second development – or better termed a re-discovery – was of the centrality of baptism in the Christian life. Following the Lambeth Conference 1968, Anglican churches in New Zealand and North America began to admit unconfirmed children to the Holy Communion. In 1971 the Ely Commission on Christian Initiation recommended to General Synod
I. The Church should make explicit its recognition of baptism as the full and complete rite of Christian Initiation.
II. It should be permissible for the parish priest, at his discretion, to admit persons to communion (if they so desire) who have been baptised with water in the name of the Trinity.
General Synod chose not to adopt these recommendations, but that did nothing to stifle the growing debate.
In 1982 the much acclaimed document Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry was published by the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches at Lima. The Lima Document (para 14) was polite but firm when it suggested that:-
“Those churches which baptise children but refuse them a share in the Eucharist before such a rite (i.e. confirmation) may wish to ponder whether they have fully appreciated and accepted the consequence of baptism”.
The Knaresborough Report of 1985 Confirmation before Communion? proposed sweeping changes in the practice of admission to Communion, based on a thorough study of the theology and history of Christian initiation. The report rejects firmly what it calls “sectarian groups who operate a strictly controlled membership policy and who manage clearly the borders between the Church and the world”. Its recommendations were clear and specific.
a. that baptism with water, in the name of the Holy Trinity, is a complete sacrament of Initiation into the Body of Christ;
b. that confirmation is not a necessary prerequisite for the admission of persons to Holy Communion;
c. that it is desirable to permit the admission of baptised persons to Holy Communion, before Confirmation;
d. that if Confirmation remains in the Church of England at all it should accompany an adult profession of faith.
In 1996 a clear majority of bishops declared themselves in favour of further carefully monitored experiments in this area. In 1997 General Synod (GSMisc.488) gave its approval to the guidelines. At this time only three dioceses in the Church of England were admitting children to communion before confirmation – Peterborough, Southwark and Manchester. By the time this was reviewed in 2005 there were only four dioceses that were not, and across the Church of England 1,650 churches were now sharing Holy Communion with unconfirmed children. This review led to the new General Synod Regulations which came into force on the 15th June 2006 under paragraph (c) of Canon B15A and these are now fully incorporated into the procedures outlined in this diocesan document.
A Theological Perspective
So much for a bird’s eye view of history. But our theology must also be clear if our pastoral practice is to be true to Scripture as our inheritance of faith. For Christians the starting point of our understanding of God’s nature, and of his dealings with the world, is the person of Jesus, supremely in his incarnation, death and resurrection. The pivotal point of our understanding of Jesus (and this is clearly seen in all our Gospels) is His suffering and death. Those who seek to follow God by following Jesus must share in His death and resurrection if that discipleship is to have any meaning (cf.Matthew 16:24). Baptism is the effectual sign of our identification with Jesus in His death and resurrection (Romans 6:3 and 4). It speaks, not only of a new beginning, but also of a changed lifestyle (Romans 6:5 – 7).
We have already noted that the early church practised infant baptism from an early date. They believed, as does most of the church today, that this is not disproven by scripture. Rather it is the intention of the teaching of both Old and New Testaments. There is of course a strong element of New Testament teaching, which demands individual repentance and faith as necessary for a proper appreciation of all that is offered embryonically in baptism. No one would wish to deny that. The crucial question for us however is whether in the case of baptised children such a response is a prerequisite for admission to communion or whether it follows on naturally from it. Put slightly differently, do we have to ‘deserve’ communion by displaying a proper understanding and appreciation of it in advance, or can we receive it as a gift of God’s grace – just as we receive baptism? It is not unlike the debate on the related issue of inter-communion in our relationships with, say, the Roman Catholic Church. Should we regard the shared Eucharist as the goal of our pilgrimage, or may we not legitimately partake of it now as food to sustain us on our shared journey?
We believe that it is the grace of God, lavished freely upon us, that requires an inclusive approach to the issue of children and communion. Of course, as adult Christians we put a high priority on the use of our God-given intellect, and rightly so. But a grasp of all the theological subtleties can never be a prerequisite for receiving the grace of God. If, as is generally agreed, the Lord’s Supper is a means of receiving God’s grace, why should those who by baptism are within the covenant family be denied this blessing? Good pastoral practice suggests that children and young people who are already members of the church should be cherished and nurtured. We believe that an equally good theological case, derived from the nature of God in Christ, clinches the matter.
Slowly but surely this view is taking hold in the Church of England, and as it becomes accepted, many are understandably anxious about the future of confirmation itself. Will it wither away altogether? The introduction to Common Worship Initiation Services says that “Baptism is a reality whose meaning has to be discovered at each stage of a person’s life”. Therefore the reality of baptism that is Holy Communion, and fellowship around the Lord’s Table, is received at an age determined by the pastoral practice of each church, following the guidelines contained here. The reality of baptism which is about our own mature and considered turning to Christ is something that can be experienced and celebrated in confirmation.
More and more churches in this diocese are being encouraged to develop a place of nurture, where resources such as Alpha and Emmaus, can help adults explore and discover Christian faith. This approach to evangelism and nurture could easily be developed into something like an adult catechumenate, which in turn can lead to an adult profession of faith, either in confirmation, in a welcome to the Christian community, or in an affirmation of baptismal faith. Gradually confirmation will cease to be seen primarily as entry into communion, but as a mature readiness for “active service”. In other words, not the final chapter of church allegiance but the next chapter in committed discipleship.
To share communion with children as they journey towards this decision to live as disciples of Christ is to give them the spiritual nourishment they need, to honour our Lord’s command to let the children come to him, and to celebrate the truth that we are full members of God’s church not because of our age, position, or intellectual understanding of the faith, nor even our readiness to live as disciples, but because of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. This is freely lavished upon us in Baptism, nourished through Holy Communion, and lived out through the course of a lifetime - re-discovered and re-appropriated as we journey with Christ. “We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4. 19)