Children’s faces light up as I crouch down a bit to give them a communion wafer. They spread their fingers as wide as they possibly can to make sure they won’t drop it. They know that this piece of bread is not just any piece of bread. It is special. It is set apart and holy.
Parents often ask me when their children can receive communion. I love this question! It offers the opportunity to explain the history and theology of the Episcopal Church on this topic as well as to respond pastorally to the needs of the parents. Let me begin with a little bit of history and theology (not much, I promise) and then move to the pastoral element.
A (Little) History of Communion in the Episcopal Tradition
From the very first Book of Common Prayer in 1549 to our last edition in the Episcopal Church of 1928, an important rubric had existed at the end of the confirmation service: “And there shall none be admitted to the Holy Communion, until such time as he be confirmed, or be ready and desirous to be confirmed.” This rubric restricted communion to only those persons who had been confirmed. Most of the time, this rubric applied to children as the prevailing practice in most Episcopal churches was to have one’s child baptized as an infant and then at a “competent age” to receive instruction in the faith, be confirmed, and then, finally, receive Communion. This practice differed from the Roman Catholic practice of infant baptism, First Communion, and then Confirmation.
Full Initiation into Christ’s Body the Church
However, things changed in 1979. That rubric after Confirmation was eliminated, and a new rubric in the rite for Holy Baptism was added: “Holy Baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body the Church.” While a simple statement, this rubric radically changed things in the Episcopal Church. If someone is fully initiated into the Church by baptism, then nothing should prevent that person from receiving communion, even for the very young. Many faithful advocates for children’s communion worked hard to see these changes occur. They believed that children are full members of the Church and should be able to receive communion.
When Can My Child Receive Communion?
So, that’s a bit of the history and theology of communing children, but how do we respond pastorally when parents come to us with questions? I’ll share a few of my own strategies.
First, I find out the background of the parents. Did they grow up in the Episcopal Church or in a different Christian tradition? If they grew up in the Roman Catholic Church, for example, they may have a very different way of thinking about baptism, confirmation, and communion. I try to be mindful of those differences and the importance those differences may still have in their lives.
Second, I find out about their cultural background. For some cultures, First Communion is a very important rite of passage in the life of a child. Not only does it carry religious significance, it may also carry cultural significance. Knowing as much as I can about the background of the family with whom I am ministering is very helpful.
After I have heard their stories of faith and culture, I begin to gently teach them the history and theology of the Episcopal Church. This is a wonderful moment of Christian formation that might not happen in a classroom but could occur in the parish hall during coffee hour or in my office during a meeting. Once I have shared with them the history and theology of the Episcopal Church, I reassure them that this choice is always theirs to make. They are responsible for the formation of their children. If they would like their children to wait to receive communion, that is always their choice.
How Do I Know My Child Is Ready?
At this point, parents will often ask me how they can know that their child is ready to receive communion. After gently reminding them that their child may always receive communion after baptism (even if it just a drop of communion wine placed on the tongue of an infant), I usually talk about eagerness. I remind the parents that none of us truly understands the mysteries of the sacraments, and “knowing” may lead to a very long wait!
Instead, I suggest that they look for two things. First, does the child recognize on some level that what is happening here is different and special? This bread is not ordinary bread. It is special bread. They may not be able to verbalize it, but you can see it in their demeanor as they approach communion. Second, does the child want to receive? I think the desire to receive communion is powerful. Again, even if children cannot articulate that desire, they may express it with those outstretched hands and bright expression on their faces. I tell parents that that is when they are ready to receive communion.
What about First Communion?
Some parents, if they come from a Roman Catholic background and especially from certain cultures, may ask about First Communion. While I know of priestly colleagues who have a First Communion service, much like what one might see in a Roman Catholic Church, I think this is an unwise practice because it can confuse people on the theology of the Episcopal Church. I suggest to the parents that the child receive communion just as any other person receives communion. A special celebration at coffee hour, or at home, is more in keeping with our belief that baptism is full initiation, and no further liturgical or sacramental act need happen. After all, every Eucharist is meant to be a feast of celebration! That might allow those very important cultural and emotional elements to find a way to express themselves without confusing the theology of the Episcopal Church.
Communing children is one of my greatest joys as a priest! I truly wish every person could come to the Lord’s Table with the eagerness, innocence, and admiration that children bring with them. While we often think children need our instruction, the truth is that we have so very much to learn from them. May we never forget Christ’s command: “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”
Fr. Shawn Strout has been an Episcopal priest for over seven years, ministering in a number of different parish contexts. Currently, he serves at the Virginia Theological Seminary as Assistant to the Associate Dean of Chapel for Worship Planning and Program Implementation as he finishes his Ph.D. in liturgical studies/sacramental theology at the Catholic University of America. Fr. Shawn feels a special call to forming lay and ordained ministers in the church.