Stuart Murray Williams
Churches are often uncertain about how to decide whether children should be welcome to participate in communion.
They feel the tension between wanting to be inclusive and welcoming, especially to those who are growing up in their community and yet wanting to ensure that communion is a special meeting place for those who are committed to Jesus Christ and each other.
What follows is offered, not as an answer to this question, but as a framework for discussion, highlighting some of the key issues that churches need to consider.
1. The place of children in the church community:
(a) Are children regarded as full members of the community until they decide otherwise or as potential members of the community until they decide to become full members?
(b) What will exclusion from communion communicate to children – that they are not really accepted in the community, or that this is something deeply meaningful that they can aspire to participate in, an incentive to faith and growth?
(c) What will inclusion in communion communicate to children – that they are fully part of the community, or that they have no need to exercise personal faith or commitment?
(d) If we exclude children from communion, what other ways can we find to assure them that they are fully part of the church community?
(e) What level of faith development do we expect of children? What understanding do they (or others) need to receive communion?
2. The place of communion in the life of the church:
(a) Communion was originally part of a full meal in a domestic setting, as was Passover, from which the Last Supper forms the link to communion. If we went back to this way of celebrating communion, might this affect our thinking about the participation of children?
(b) In the Passover meal, children were not only recipients but active participants. If we choose to include children, should they be passive or active participants? If we exclude children, with what can we replace the powerful symbolism and story-telling at the heart of communion?
(c) Is communion in the church for committed disciples, who commit themselves afresh through this ceremony to follow Jesus, love each other and lay down their lives for their friends, inviting admonition from others? Should it be preceded by heart-searching and foot-washing?
(d) Or is the communion table a place of invitation to all, a sign of God’s generous and unconstrained hospitality, an evangelistic moment, which we dare not restrict in any way?
(e) Or do we need two different forms of communion – one entirely open, another for committed members only? Some churches practise this.
3. The decision-making process:
(a) Is the participation of children in communion something that the church should decide about? Should we have an agreed position on this?
(b) Or is the participation of children to be left to their parents, who know them and their level of faith and understanding?
(c) Or should the decision rest with each child? What about children who are not part of church families?
(d) Does it matter if some children participate but not all, or if some parents encourage this and others discourage it? Can we cope with this freedom or do we need a common policy? How do we integrate different views and experiences?
4. The relationship between baptism and communion:
(a) Baptism very clearly indicates commitment to Christ and to the church and, in the Baptist tradition, has been reserved for those able to make this commitment. How can we maintain this high view of baptism if communion is open to all?
(b) Many Baptist churches have an open table policy that does not require this of adults, conscious of different traditions in a more ecumenically sensitive age. Should we impose a different requirement on children?
(c) Might communion sometimes precede baptism, rather than baptism always preceding communion? Should baptism, rather than communion, be the transition point from child to adult?
(d) If we want churches that are strong at the core but open at the edges (where belonging can precede believing), can communion open to all be a significant step on the journey that leads to baptism? Or should communion be for the baptised and committed core?
5. The table-fellowship in the New Testament:
(a) There are lots of meals in the New Testament, especially in the Gospels. Which of these will be our model for communion?
(b) Will we pattern our practice on the intimate meals Jesus enjoyed with his disciples?
(c) Or will we pattern our practice of communion on the inclusive, indiscriminate meals Jesus enjoyed with ‘sinners’, tax collectors and those who thought he was mad or bad?