Visit our new site at

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Ask the Matriarch - Communion Dilemma

Ministering to children can be one of the most sacred and tender aspect of our calling, but it can also be fraught with complicated issues, as we seek to do what is both developmentally appropriate and theologically sensitive. Our question this week comes from a colleague torn over how to minister appropriately to a child at the communion table. 

I have always had a strong bias toward open communion/open table, both as a UCC pastor and now as an Episcopal priest.  I have no interest in checking out someone's baptismal status before welcoming him/her to the table to be fed.  So, I'm a bit surprised to confront this particular dilemma.  A member of my  parish cares for two young boys and brings them to our Wednesday morning Eucharist.  They come to the table with her, and I lay my hands on them for a blessing.

The older boy is a bit over 4 years old.  I know that he is not baptized and that his parents do not attend church.  I do not know his parents, but they know he is being brought to church, and the caretaker has told me that they are not interested in church or having him baptized.  He has always been very quiet in worship and most reverent when he comes for the blessing.  Last Wednesday, he came forward, looked up at me with big eyes, and held his hands out in the perfect gesture for receiving the bread.  I put my hands on his head and gave him a blessing.  Later, he asked the caretaker why he wasn't able to have the bread.

I am torn.  Though perfectly willing to engage in intentional canonical disobedience on this issue, I'm feeling that with a young child, I might be crossing some boundary by serving him.  On the other hand, I truly believe that young children can have a purer, more profound understanding of the sacrament than some of us who are supposedly at the "age of reason."  It seems that this could be a significant moment for him.  What to do?

Thank you--I look forward to your wisdom.

RevRed responds:

      As I ponder this dilemna I come from the UMC tradition.  I speak from both my experience and my heart's leaning on this  topic.  A sacrament for UMC's is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.  I believe that there are times that we get too caught up in the outward sign and lose the significance of the inner reality of the heart and soul. This can be true with children and it can also be true with those who are challenged by some kind of physical or mental condition. 

      This said, I would be about 99% sure to break the religious rules and respond to the faith the child or other person is expressing in this situation.  He may not get all the logistics and specific words but he seems to have a real sense of the community that is the Body of Christ gathered.  These are the recipients of this Holy Meal and Sacrament.  We come to our Lord's Table, not an UMC or Lutheran, or other denominational table. Depending on the setting and age, I sometimes modify what I say to the person using phrases like "Jesus is for you" or "Jesus loves you".  I believe this is what Jesus would do for does he not say, "Let the little children come to me." 
     Quite a number of years ago I had a young man in my congregation who was in his 30's with Down's Syndrome.  He spoke only with exagerated grunts and groans that many of us learned to understand.  He was the best greeter ever though his hugs were sometimes a bit too enthusiastic.  Everyone loved him and considered him an integral part of our congregation. I got lots of thumbs up and smiles as I preached each week.   One day his mother said something about how sad he still was that he could not be "confirmed".  I said,  WHAT?......of course he can be confirmed!  Sigh, somewhere along the way someone had deemed that he could not understand the specifics of membership so he could not become a full member of the congregation.  He was soon confirmed after a few meetings with me to put it all together. We all cried as he said I DO in is special language and later showed us all his membership certificate before taking it home to be put on his wall!
And Muthah+ offers: 
Dear fellow Episcopalian:
In our parish we are coming across many who are not baptized these days.  We practice 'radical hospitality' and proclaim that 'wherever you are on your journey of faith you are welcome at this Altar.' 

I am also Catholic enough to understand the ancient understanding of 'baptism by desire'--that the outward and visible signs may not have been acted out but the inward and spiritual grace is already there.  Go ahead and communicate him and if your bp. complains--explain to him about 'baptism of desire.' 

I do not want children to remember not being welcome at God's table.

Thank you so much, dear matriarchs. What wisdom do the rest of you have to offer? Please join us in the comments section to continue the conversation! And, as always, please send us your questions at askthematriarch[at]gmail[dot]com.


  1. I am also in favor of going ahead and letting the child have communion. He ssems to understand the importance, in his own way.
    I feel that belief, baptism, and communion does not have to always be in that order. I look at it as a merry-go-round (simple, I know), but it is a circular thing and we can hop on any spot at any time. Thus some may go in "correct" order and others not, but all come to know Christ through the process.

  2. One of the more painful moments in my ministry was having my 3 y.o. nephew,mat communion after I had just baptized him, ask me if he could have the bread too; my sister and BIL had made very clear in advance they didn't want him too, and so I had to say simply that I would give him a special blessing. He just turned 27, and I still think about that with sadness.

    I have spent a lot of time thinking about open communion (I am an Episcopalian), and I long ago decided that when I stand before God, I would rather have to explain why I included people than why I excluded them. Harder when there's a child whose parents are not involved at all, but I think I'd be looking for a way to include this boy whose heart is clearly drawn to the grace of communion.

  3. I belong to an open table denomination (UCC), so I may not be the right person to respond, but I can recall having my hand pulled back from the Communion tray in my childhood church (Southern Baptist), and I know that's one of the reasons I would never turn anyone away from the Lord's Supper. It would feel like telling them Jesus did not welcome them. My own impression at the time was that I had verged on doing something damnable. That sense of condemnation should have no relationship to the joyful feast of the people of God.

  4. P.S. I was a child sitting in my home church, but with another family, when this happened. My family had been living away and attending in another denomination where they got the children out of the sanctuary before Communion, so I did not have a clear sense of what was happening, only the rudiments I had learned by listening to the pastor's "Invitation." This is to clarify that it wasn't a family member who stopped me. It was actually a child in the other family, who was appalled that I did not know better.

  5. I once knew a congregation that had an "open table"* understanding of communion, but also struggled with extending that understanding towards children. I once knew an elder of that congregation who expressed to the pastor that having noisy children in the room ruined the sacrament for her and that she would not be coming to worship on communion Sundays anymore,to which mean the pastor replied, "We'll miss you." True to her word, that congregant stayed away as long as noisy children were welcomed, and declined invitations by her pastor to talk about the matter.

    When confronted (and really, that is the best word to describe it) with questions about letting children celebrate communion based on the children's lack of understanding about "what is really happening", I usually gently challenge the confronter to explain their own understanding, but not before I admit that sometimes even I don't know "what is really happening", that nobody on this side of the veil really does. I approach the whole thing as mystery, and who does mystery better than children?

    *In the end, what "open table" really meant for many in this congregation was that they wanted their Catholic/Lutheran/Methodist spouses to be able to take communion without too much guilt.

  6. This is one reason I love having a "conversation with children" (we don't call it a children's sermon) every service. My congre. is PCUSA and we don't don't celebrate the sacrament every service. But when we do (monthly) I always remind the younger worshipers the bread and cup are special gifts to help us remember and feel close to Jesus.
    The disciples at the Last Supper are proof to me that it is neither the depth of one's wisdom nor strength of one's faith that qualifies a person for communion.

  7. Like Martha, I have a vivid memory of having my hands pushed down from the communicant's gesture (hands outstretched). My mother did this, and I was reaching out just as I was seeing her do. I had never taken Communion before.

    We were visiting a new church, which is probably why I was at the altar rail with her instead of elsewhere, and also why she did not know how I'd be received at that rail. I was 7, which at that time in the Episcopal Church generally was too early; we were supposed to wait for Confirmation.

    I cried on the way home, and said I didn't want to go back to that mean church, that did't want me to eat the Jesus bread. She talked with the rector, who said as long as I understood what Communion was, I was welcome. I'm so grateful for his generous heart.

  8. I struggle with this every Communion Sunday - my congregations just moved the communion age down to 5th grade (from 8th) several years ago and there was a lot of argument and there is still some resentment expressed over the decision. I would commune everyone if I could...instead I'm thinking about ways to offer gentle education on the subject.

    My own daughter was ready to receive communion at about age 4, maybe 3. The church we were attending at the time the communion was only for confirmed members. I'll never forget trying to explain to her why her RC friend was able to take communion in 2nd grade and she still had to wait for six more years. She was so excited when we moved to a congregation that offered communion at 1st grade - she couldn't wait for the classes to begin! How can someone deny that kind of faith!

    I'm an open-table advocate and also lean toward thinking that if we believe Communion is a sacrament of grace in which God comes to us, who are we to limit to whom and how God chooses to come?

    1. I didn't quite finish the last thought - I'm talking about even the requirement that one be baptized to commune. Can't God bring faith through participation in the sacrament, if that's the way God has chosen to work in that individual? Does it always have to be baptism then communion? Can't communion lead to baptism?

  9. Yes, I'm all for an open table but my congregation is just getting used to the idea of all baptised (i.e. not confirmed) receiving the sacrament. They were pretty upset when I gave a 3 year old communion -- unfortunately her parents have now decided she's too young to receive. They can accept communion before confirmation, but not at such a young age.

    When told that children don't understand, I always rebut - do any of us? No one so far has been arrogant to say they do! It upsets me no end to see small children wanting to receive but their parents saying they are too young. Here we are allowed to give to anyone baptised, but although that resolution was passed 20 years ago, it is still not really accepted. We do have to have the parents' permission, though on occasion I have given communion in the parent's and asked the parent afterwards! I am determined to speak more about this, perhaps using some of the comments the rest of you have contributed.

    I don't think I'd dare give to an unbaptised child as I'd certainly be reported at once! However, we have very few unbaptised here as it is "routine" in the community. I get into enough hot water for baptising the babies of unwed parents and teen mothers and children of parents who don't come to church!

  10. In my current congregation, it's up to the parents as to when children receive communion--I regularly serve toddlers and preschoolers, including some whose parents carry them up to the table because they're still unsteady on their chubby little legs.
    As far as the table-for-the-baptized, that's what our (PCUSA) polity says. however I practice an open table--all who desire to participate are welcome. I am unwilling to say that the Spirit is absent from a person's desire, and though there's supposed to be an order of sacraments, I believe that it's possible for participation in communion to lead toward a deeper desire for christian life and community, and therefore baptism. I have served (and will continue to!) teens and adults that I know are not baptized, as well as children of all ages. At least one of those teens is now an active part of our community, and though she still isn't baptized it is something that she is at least able to talk about (unlike a few years ago, when any mention of baptism brought a complete shutdown). the Spirit is at work in her in ways we don't understand, just like we don't understand what goes on in the sacrament.

  11. The first part of your question--about giving communion to an unbaptized child is not difficult to me. The harder piece is giving it to him or her without his or her parents' permission or knowledge. That's where I would struggle.

  12. i am not a woman but i don't like to miss your blog!

    it is difficult for a minister, at times, to follow policy but also follow where the holy spirit will lead. what a great blog post today and fantastic responses!

  13. I have found some of the most meaningful exchanges around Communion are with children. A few weeks ago, I gave bread to a young boy (probably 4?). He smiled, and before he took it, he said, "Jesus loves me." I teared up.

    1. This boy gets it! Some adults forget it's the LORD'S table, and LOVE is what it's all about.

    2. Anonymous, I teared up reading this! Bless you! As I read these comments the words of Jesus keep going through my head: Let the children come to me for theirs is the kingdom of heaven!

  14. One of my lay ministry mentors put it this way: "If the kid is holding her hands up, she's ready to communicate." I think I would tend to err on the side of the inclusion and let the chips fall with any disapproving bystanders. (Our congregation is pretty laid back, so I'm not sure it would be an issue.) I also respect the idea of a "baptism of desire." Really, in my experience visitors tend not to be flocking to the altar to receive the Eucharist...if anything, we have to work hard to get them to pass through the line for a greeting/blessing.

  15. As an Episcopal priest and life-long Episcopalian, I am admittedly on the fence about communion before baptism; I have no problem with children receiving as soon as they are baptize and I communicate infants by dipping my pinkie into the wine and touching it to their lips if they are too young to receive the bread.

    What I do wonder about in this situation, however, is boundary issues with the parents. If they know he is coming to church would they permit him to be baptized even if they are "not interested?" Would they care if he received communion?

    ]When my daughters were in late elementary/early middle school they attended a Southern Baptist church b/c in the small FL town where we were living, that's what all the kids did, and their dad attended a Baptist church too. Even though they were both baptized as infants, they were "re-baptized" in the Baptist church, without anyone consulting me, and I was really upset by that. So perhaps I am overly sensitive to that point, and certainly it's not completely the same b/c my kids were older.]

    So I guess I would want to at least attempt to have a talk with the parents; if that is not possible and there is no possible way to have the child baptized then I would probably err on the side of giving him communion. And even as I write that I'm not completely comfortable with it...again, not because of the child but because of the parental issues.

  16. As a Christian family we celebrate Passover in the Messianic style - ending with Communion, as Jesus did and remembering Him as He asked us to do. Passover is a very family-orientated "When your children ask ...." activity. I therefore have no problem at all in taking our 4 year old to the Communion rail. Depending on who is serving, sometimes the grape-juice is offered and sometimes a special blessing. But let the little ones come!

  17. I generally say anyone who is capable of putting their hands out to receive the bread understands enough about Communion to partake. So I've communed pretty much everyone who is old enough to eat solids and put out their hand. I have also, knowingly, communed people (at this time, only adults) who I knew were not baptized. How am I to know if God is having them eat their way to the font, rather than be washed to the table? As for his parents, on the one hand, I would perhaps have a conversation with the woman who is bringing him to church, but make sure all he ever hears from you is welcome, acceptance, and God's love. You are what he will remember of church- that and the welcome (or not).

  18. All, thank you for your good conversation here. I'm sorry I haven't been back to contribute to it - the last few days have been wall-to-wall chaos for me. I also missed one of our matriarch responses to this question, so I include it here:
    You're right. This is a significant moment for this little boy. He wants to feel included at the table. He wants to share in the meal. Whether he understands what sharing in the meal is all about is unclear. As a pastor, this is a teaching opportunity for you. I would definitely talk to him about what is happening and what it means. What you do after that is the tricky bit.

    If you commune this child, do you place your member's relationship with her employer at risk? What might the fallout be for you or the congregation? I would have a frank conversation with your member and let them help to inform your decision. Canonical disobedience is one thing, but putting other people in the position of having to defend that disobedience is another.


  19. My denomination (ELCA) has a nice document called the Use of the Means of Grace that lays out our baptismal and eucharistic practices. Helpful to me and relevant to this conversation is Principle 37. Here is a link to the full document.

    Principle 37: Admission to the Sacrament is by invitation of the Lord, presented through the Church to those who are baptized.

    Application 37C: Baptized children begin to commune on a regular basis at a time determined through mututal conversation that includes the pastor, the child, and the parents or sponsors involved, within the accepted practices of the congregation. Ordinarily this beginning will occur only when children can eat and drink and can start to respond to the gift of Christ in the Supper.

    Application 37E: In all cases, participation on Holy Communion is accompanied by catechesis appropriate to the age of the communicant. When infants and young children are communed, the parents and sponsors receive instruction and the children are taught throughout their development.

    Application 37G: When an unbaptized person comes to the table seeking Christ's presence and is inadvertently communed, neither that person nor the ministers of Communion need be ashamed. Rather Christ's gift of love and mercy is praised. That person is invited to learn the faith of the Church, be baptized, and thereafter faithfully receive Holy Communion.


You don't want to comment here; instead, come visit our new blog, We'll see you there!

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.