This is a question that came in a few months ago but that is perhaps most apt to answer now, given that the General Convention of the Episcopal Church will be taking up the question of Communion without Baptism this July.
My family is now starting to attend an Anglican church. My wife communes with me, but I don’t know where she is at with believing/understanding the Real Presence. The church also allows children to receive Communion and one of my sons received the bread this past Sunday. I know that none of us can fully “understand” it – but I just wonder if baptized Christians who believe in Christ as their Savior (like my wife) are eating and drinking judgment on themselves for not believing in the Real Presence.
Know Your Catechism, Kids
Many churches practice what is called “fencing the table” or “closed communion,” meaning that only members of the given church body can receive communion. In large measure, this was also the practice of classical Anglicanism. In fact, it predates the Reformation. Archbishop of Canterbury John Peckham decreed in 1281 that no one should receive the sacrament of Holy Communion without first being confirmed. The Reformers continued this practice, enshrining it in the rubric at the end of the Confirmation service in the prayer book that “there shall none be admitted to the holy communion; until suche tyme as he can saye the Catechisme and be confirmed.” The original rubric in 1549 had only required Confirmation itself, but the revised rubric in 1552 and 1559 also required the recitation of the Catechism to make the point that the reason Confirmation was necessary was not because Confirmation somehow magically completed Baptism, as would later be asserted in the nineteenth century, but because Confirmation was a mark that indicated that a person had come to a mature faith. A person who has been through Confirmation has learned and assented to the Church’s teaching about the Christian faith, including the teaching about Communion itself, and so he or she is equipped to actually receive in faith.
Changes to Confirmation
In 1662, the Confirmation service was revised so that the Catechism, previously included within the service in its entirety, was separated out and replaced with a few simple questions. Though confirmands were still expected to know the Catechism, they were no longer required to recite it in its entirety in church. As it stands today, the rubric at the end of the Confirmation liturgy reads, “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.” In 1972, this lead the General Synod of the Church of England to authorize a variety of situations in which people who have not been confirmed might receive, including those visiting Anglican churches from other Christian denominations. In 2006, the list was further expanded to include, in some dioceses, children who had not yet been confirmed.
Faith Does Not Live in Our Minds
This shifting practice in the Church of England is not dissimilar to the shifting practice in the Episcopal Church in the United States. The 1979 Book of Common Prayer allowed for the first time for Communion to be given to all Baptized Christians of any denominational background, regardless of their age. Certainly this represents a break with the Reformation tradition and practice, but it also recaptures something of the early Church where Baptism and first Holy Communion were administered at the same time, even to infants. The early Church took the sacraments very seriously, but they also understood that the locus of faith for the Christian is not the intellect.
Holy Baptism gives us the grace that leads to true faith and true repentance, but who is to say that a six-year-old has less faith and less repentance than a sixteen-year-old or a sixty-year-old? These are gifts from God, not ideas that we memorize or attitudes that we conjure up in ourselves. This does not excuse the Church from the practice of good catechesis. In fact, the best criticism that can be made of what the Episcopal Church has done is to note the way in which the classic Catechism has been sidelined (which is a topic worthy of its own post). Nevertheless, if we are going to take seriously what Scripture and the Fathers say to us about Baptism, we have no really compelling reason not to give Holy Communion to children. And once that rubicon has been crossed, it becomes very difficult to argue that people who visit from other churches must have a perfect understanding of the Real Presence before they can come to the table.
Discerning the Body
That said, Paul cautions us in 1 Corinthians 11:26-30:
For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.
If we are to discern the Body when we come to the Eucharist, are we not putting people in danger by allowing them to receive if they do not believe in the Real Presence? In a certain sense, perhaps, we are, but this could be applied equally to the members of our own churches whose minds and hearts are not known at all times to the pastor. It is significant here that Paul’s admonition is given not to priests to examine their parishioners but to the parishioners themselves. Priests are certainly called to shepherd their people, and there are times when that shepherding means telling someone not to receive until he or she has come to faith or has abandoned a particularly wicked practice. Still, each Christian is also called to make inquiry of themselves and to only come forward when prepared. It is significant that in the Episcopal Church we invite all Baptized Christians and not merely all people who happen to have been baptized. If you do not believe in Jesus Christ, if you have rejected the faith, then you should not come forward, which is exactly what the prayer book Exhortation calls upon us to say. It is as simple as that.
Furthermore, in allowing that anyone who is a baptized Christian may receive, we assume a common understanding of what it means to be a Christian. As Anglicans have received the faith, part of that understanding is the role and place of the sacraments. This is perhaps where the modern practice is at its most dangerous, given how weak catechesis is around these issues. We do not have a good way of explaining what we mean by a Christian in the soundbyte moment before the Eucharistic prayer begins. It takes only a moment to say “Only confirmed members of the Episcopal Church may receive” or “All baptized Christians may receive.” It takes significantly more time to say, “All baptized Christians may receive, and by a Christian we mean someone who has come to have faith in the Trinitarian God of the Bible and the saving work of Jesus Christ; and that same Jesus has told us that we truly receive His Body and Blood in this sacrament and that it is more than just a sign; and if you don’t believe that, you may want to ask yourself what else He has said that you aren’t willing to accept.”
However, a person who comes forward to receive Communion who truly has faith in Christ is not in a tremendous amount of danger unless he or she has explicitly, willfully, and consistently rejected the teaching of Our Lord about the sacraments to the point that it would be of no consequence to step on the consecrated bread or toss the wine in a ditch. Remember, the issue for Paul was not just that the Corinthians did not fully grasp the doctrine of the Real Presence, but that the Corinthians were treating the Lord’s Supper as if it were just like any other meal, acting like drunken idiots, pretending the whole thing was of no more importance than a frat party. Paul’s concern was that if people did not understand that Christ was truly present, they would continue not to take the Supper seriously and would continue to blaspheme, sparking the Lord’s wrath against them. While it is better to receive with a proper understanding than without, most Christians, even with a defective eucharistic theology, are in little danger of dismissing the whole thing as meaningless.
Communion Without Baptism
It is helpful to remember these admonitions of Paul in light of the ongoing controversy over Communion without Baptism. While there may be good and bad arguments about whether or not to confirm a person before giving him or her Communion, the only grounding upon which to give Communion to the unbaptized is if we do not take Paul’s words all that seriously. A person who has not been baptized is in no position to make any kind of discernment about Christ, one way or another, even in their hearts, and so it becomes a kind of blasphemy to commune them, not because we are any better than they are but because we are clearly worse since we have been catechized and yet take the sacrament with so little seriousness.