When the words “controversy” and “the Episcopal Church” are combined, they almost inevitably lead to the topic of human sexuality. While this is understandable, it obscures the fact that there are other, less headline-grabbing debates going on within our beloved church. One that keeps popping up among my friends, particularly those with young children, is the issue of infant communion. Having served in a number of different parishes now, it is striking to me how wildly different our practices can be when it comes to admitting young children to the Eucharist.

When I was a Presbyterian, this debate was waged under the rubric of “paedocommunion.” To make their case, proponents relied on scriptural exegesis and a particular brand of covenant theology. The opponents’ strategy, while not entirely devoid of biblical argument, was to affirm the authority of the Westminster standards. The Westminster Larger Catechism §177, for example, states that “[T]he Lord’s Supper is to be administered … only to such as are of years and ability to examine themselves.” This particular dispute actually reflected a deeper division between those who aligned themselves with a movement called the “Federal Vision” and those who identified with “Classical Reformed Theology.” While I was somewhat hesitant to identify with the former camp, I was persuaded by their arguments for admitting baptized children to the table. The gist of their reasoning was that the logic of infant baptism entails infant communion. We don’t require a certain degree of “cognitive ability” or intellectual consent for baptism, and there is no good reason why we should do so for communion. So went the argument.

What’s interesting to me is that this isn’t an esoteric topic that’s only of interest to theologians. It’s as practical as it gets. I can recall a sincere parishioner raising the question on more than one occasion in adult education classes: “So, why do we baptize babies, yet we don’t let children receive communion?” As an Episcopal priest, I have received the question numerous times in adult enquirers’ classes as well. Many parishioners have never thought about the issue of infant communion, but when they are presented the logic of infant baptism, this is often one of the first questions that comes to their minds.

Of course, the Anglican context of this debate is different in important respects from the Presbyterian context. Most importantly, Anglicans practice confirmation, which historically has been tied to (or at least loosely connected to) the reception of the Eucharist. In many Episcopal churches, it has been the custom to postpone reception of the Eucharist until after confirmation, which, until recently, most often occurred in the early teen years. Growing sensitivity to the fact that many children desired to receive communion led some churches to revise their practices. Some simply pushed confirmation to an early age, while others allowed children (around seven or eight years old) to receive communion while still waiting to be confirmed until they became teenagers.

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One might be tempted to think that the practice of confirmation should provide a fruitful point of comparison with Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Sadly, this is not the case, at least not on the question of infant communion. In the Catholic Church, reception of the Eucharist is no longer tied to confirmation. The most current Code of Canon Law allows for reception before confirmation (which is most common in practice), but still requires that children “have sufficient knowledge and careful preparation” before their first communion (CIC 913 §1). It defines, somewhat ambiguously, age seven as the time that children have “the use of reason” (CIC 11), although apparently leaving it to the discretion of parents and priests to determine whether children have attained the use of reason at a later age (or perhaps even an earlier age; see CIC 913 §2). The practice of the Eastern Church is considerably different: infants receive the sacrament of confirmation immediately following the rite of baptism (well, sort of). This has never been the practice in the Anglican tradition, nor do we have a well-defined concept of the “age of reason,” as Roman Catholics do. It seems that we Anglican are on our own to figure this one out.

Even if one were to ignore the actual practices of Anglicans on the ground and simply look to our formularies, nothing is conclusive. The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion are silent on the issue of age or cognitive ability as a prerequisite for communion. Current canons in the Episcopal Church state, “No unbaptized person shall be eligible to receive Holy Communion in this Church” (I.17.7),but this is merely a negative provision. Elsewhere the canons state, “[C]ommunicants sixteen years of age and over are to be considered adult communicants” (I.17.2b), but this only clarifies who is to be considered an adult communicant for the purposes of record-keeping. The Catechism of the Episcopal Church teaches, “It is required [when we come to the Eucharist] that we should examine our lives, repent of our sins, and be in love and charity with all people” (BCP, 860), but there is no suggestion that this implies a certain age or maturity level, and I have never seen it cited as such. It appears, then, that the question of infant communion is left to the prudential judgment of the Church, at least in the United States.

The canonical issues are rather different (and more complicated) in the Church of England. The general canon (B 15A) permits communion only to the confirmed. However, an exception was made relatively recently in the “Admission of baptized children to Holy Communion Regulations 2006.” It is currently unclear to me how many diocesan bishops (and parishes) have taken advantage of the new regulations, which prevents a further exploration of the issue.

The Church’s prudential judgment should of course include an examination of Scripture, as well as deploying whatever theological tools we have at our disposal. But it is difficult to see how even these resources can lead to a decisive conclusion. St. Paul tells us that we ought to examine ourselves and that “any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself” (1 Cor. 11:18-29, RSV). The interpretation of this passage has been long debated, but it is far from clear that it necessarily rules out infant communion. On the other hand, supporters of the practice might point to Jesus’ words, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 19:14). But one cannot read too much into this text, given that Jesus was not speaking directly about the Eucharist.

Rather than throwing our hands up in the air or simply clinging to the “tradition” (which is in fact a rather recent, Anglo-American phenomenon) of requiring confirmation before communion, I believe there other pressing considerations that need to be made. We need to take into account, for example, that church attendance is in rapid decline and that young people are increasingly leaving the church. I don’t want to be alarmist or reactionary. I’m not suggesting that our ecclesial practices should be determined solely by pragmatic considerations. Nor am I suggesting that there is any direct correlation between early admittance to the Eucharist and patterns in church attendance. But I do think we should stop and consider the possible implications of our current practices, especially those that are not clearly settled by Scripture or tradition.

I worry about the danger of possibly sending a message to our children that they are less than fully Christian. They, too, have been baptized as “Christ’s own forever.” Moreover, telling them that they must wait until they can “understand” the Eucharist misleadingly suggests that we adults do “understand” this sacred mystery. I worry that we have overly intellectualized the Sacrament.

Conversely, allowing baptized children to receive the Sacrament enables them to participate in the life of the Church in its fullness. Their earliest memories will always include the nourishment they have received from Christ’s body and blood. In fact, this should serve as an important reminder to the rest of us that the Eucharist is emphatically not a mere intellectual exercise. Every time I administer Christ’s body to one of our little ones at church, I am reminded of Christ’s words, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:2).

Infant communion is not a panacea or an instant fix. It needs to be coupled with robust engagement in the Church’s worship. Sending children away for the majority of the service and then sending them back in to receive communion is not ideal. And, of course, infant communion should not do away with catechesis in sacramental theology (otherwise we’d have the same problem with infant baptism). In a very helpful article on this subject in First Things, Anna Nussbaum Keating asks,

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.

And I would add that, for churches that are intent on incorporating children into worship, it is much, much easier to do so when we can explain to them that they, too, are welcome at Christ’s altar.

The bottom line is that I have simply never encountered a good argument for requiring children to wait to be admitted to the Eucharist. Christians throughout history and across traditions have, admittedly, varied in their practices on this matter. It is not similar to, say, communion of the unbaptized, which would constitute a clear break from tradition. For Anglicans to admit baptized children to the altar is hardly an innovation. But I would suggest that it is a very good idea.

The featured image is “Komunio” by Philipp Schumacher in the Katholisches Religionsbüchlein für die unteren Klassen der Volksschule (1920)It is in the public domain. 

About The Author

The Rev. Dr. Stewart Clem is visiting assistant professor of theology at Valparaiso University and assisting priest at St. Paul’s Church (Mishawaka, Indiana). A fellow of the Episcopal Church Foundation, he holds degrees in theology and philosophy from the University of Notre Dame, Duke University, and Oklahoma State University and was ordained to the priesthood in the Diocese of Oklahoma in 2013.

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Stewart, The issue you raise is very important to me because as you mention there is a similar instability surrounding the sacraments of initiation in my own church (the Catholic Church). For the great majority of Catholics, the sacraments of initiation have been administered out of order for the last long while. Within the Latin Church, many dioceses have begun to correct the sequence, administering confirmation along with communion at an early age, or administering the sacraments of initiation in their integrity for children who are going to be baptized after infancy. As you seem to frame it, the debate… Read more »

From what I understand, the historical order and timing of the sacraments have been (and are) deeply affected by practical considerations. Thus, in the 19th century, in the Roman Catholic Church, Rome generally wanted confirmation to precede first communion. The First Vatican Council was to take up the question. As Paul Turner has noted, regional church councils reversed the order for practical reasons. Most bluntly, the Diocese of Mende in 1863: “It is often good and useful not to admit children to confirmation immediately after first communion, in order to keep them longer in catechism class and thus to complete… Read more »

The first sentence in my second paragraph should read, “”As Paul Turner has noted, regional church councils reversed the order or changed the timing for practical reasons.”

In the spirit of “Baptism is but Eucharist begun; Eucharist is but Baptism continued,” I believe a Christian baptized as an infant should not be able to remember his or her first communion. If intellectual assent is not required for baptism, it should not be required for communion–at least, not if one believes in the objective efficacy of the sacraments.

The question of confirmation makes this a more interesting question than I first assume (“of course children should receive communion”).

What if, instead of thinking of Confirmation as a requirement for Communion, we think of Communion as a requirement for Confirmation. Not a requirement in a logical or accounting sense, but in the same way good nutrition is necessary for any athlete. To be confirmed, the individual needs the nourishment that is provided in the sacrament.

Stewart, good thoughts here. To complicate matters a bit, at least the first Prayer Book makes reference to the “age of discretion” (or as it puts it, “the yeres of discrecion”) in the rubrics to the Confirmation service, which is defined only by the ability to say in English the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Decalogue.

The same Prayer Book also categorically denies admission to Holy Communion to anyone who is not first Confirmed; the 1662 BCP softened this by the addition of clause, “or be ready and desirous to be confirmed.”

Stewart Clem,

How does the theology of the Exhortation (pp. 316-7) play into the conversation about the appropriate communion age for baptized persons?

Stewart, I can’t quite tell if you are arguing for a change in the ’79 BCP or not. A few points. The prayer book shifted the theology of initiation, it seems to me, by having the bishop or priest pray the prayer of confirmation (confirm means ‘to strengthen’) and then marking with a Cross and with chrism oil if desired. Confirmation happens in the baptismal rite. The rite (not a sacrament, but a sacramental rite) carried over due to objections by the House of Bishops, which we still call confirmation, adds nothing to this, except to the extent it is… Read more »

Sorry, Stewart. I read all of the comments, too, and perhaps conflated the arguments. I did get that you favored infant communion. However, it seemed to me that the arguments given for it were mostly pragmatic (“it works!”). In Hauerwasian fashion, I worry about pragmatic arguments, and so wanted to ask you to consider the theological and ethical arguments, also. I think those generative commitments lead to the same conclusion. The ethical argument help us to see that. One other point: resourcement leads us to consider, as you did, what historic practices and their justifications were. But, the ethical concerns… Read more »

Stewart: I’ve always been confused about this myself, but I’ve never known where to go to think about it more carefully. I’m glad to have your (as always) clear treatment on the subject. I’ve noticed two things in my own experience at the rail (not offered as proof one way or the other, but I take them as interesting nonetheless): 1.) some of my sweetest interactions at the rail are with children. I don’t just mean that they are cuter than the adults (of course, they are), but that often they are the ones who seem to take communion most… Read more »

Stewart, your post has produced a great conversation. I agree completely with Craig’s central claim that we get into trouble when we accept “the prerequisite for full membership in the Church is a certain level of rationality and comprehension of a set of doctrinal claims.” With him and most of the commenters, it seems, I believe that we come to belong to the Church through the sacraments, which (objectively) incorporate the disciple into Jesus Christ. Despite that agreement, however, or maybe because of it, I can’t agree at all with Craig’s conclusion: “We get into difficult terrain if we accept… Read more »

Caleb, I welcome your qualification of my comment about difficult terrain. Certainly that only is logical if we carry on with the concept that confirmation “really does mean some kind of rational ratification of baptism.” Thanks for clarifying my point.

Let me attempt to be as direct as I was on my own Facebook page in the discussion of this post: In their ideal world, the compilers/framers/editors of BCP 1979 would have altogether eliminated Confirmation as a distinct liturgical occasion, adopting what they perceived to be ancient, and still continuing in the East, practice of a unified initiatory rite with segments–one segment involving water, and another involving chrismation and laying-on of hands in conjunction with an invocation of the Holy Spirit in and for and through the life of the baptizand. Of course, this would, in normal (if not normative)… Read more »

I am not sure I want to “just switch them.”

It doesn’t appear we have any consensus about what Confirmation *is* (and there appears to be dispute about the timing of Confirmation and Communion).

I must now reflect on my Lutheran roots and how those roots condition my thoughts on Confirmation, for I tend to think of Confirmation in “Protestant” categories; i.e. Confirmation is a public profession of faith, where I make the promises made at my baptism my own (no bishop needed!).