Children in Revival

This the last article in a series that has lasted most of this year, in which we have been exploring the place of children in the life of the Church – including its sacramental life.  This isn’t merely an academic question.  Next year I will be asking the PCC to consider applying for a Bishop’s license that would allow us to become one of the growing number of Churches in the Diocese that allows children to receive communion should their parents wish them to.  Over the last few articles, I’ve been explaining from the Bible and from the history of the Church why I think that is something we should allow.  At the very least, I’m suggesting there are all kinds of spiritual, theological, pastoral and Biblical problems if we employ a blanket ban on children taking communion.  To refuse them access to something so close to the heart of Christian worship seems to suggest that children are incapable of responding authentically to Christ, or being in a full and meaningful relationship with Him.  If a child trusts in Christ, what is it about the fact that they are a child that means they shouldn’t enjoy, or indeed, don’t need to benefit from everything communion signifies?


A moment’s reflection on the Scriptures is enough to recall numerous passages that seem to imply children are fully capable of understanding who Christ is, and of responding to Him authentically.  Think of John the Baptist (in the womb!); or the children brought to Jesus to be blessed by Him (Mk.10:13-14); or those, who after the Temple is cleared, declare His praise, much to the irritation of the Pharisees (Matt.21:15-16)…  Perhaps less well known are the children who rejoice in Neh. 12:43; who are included in the sacred assembly and fast of Joel 2:16; those who are fed by Christ (after listening to His teaching?) in Matt.14:21 & 15:38.  Of course, the list could go on.  But my point is that there is nothing in the Bible that suggests children are incapable of recognising Christ and responding to Him as authentically as adults (and on occasion, even more so).  Indeed the evidence points in the other direction!  We should perhaps expect far more from our children and young people than we generally do.


This judgement is borne out across the history of the Church, most spectacularly perhaps during revivals.  Children are often among those who are most changed and challenged!  Two years before the Cambuslang Revival in 1742, James Robe discovered 16 children who were meeting in a nearby barn to pray.  He went on the following year to write:


From Sabbath the thirteenth to Sabbath the twentieth of February there were ten awakened … most of them under fourteen.  All this besides thirteen young boys who had associated themselves for prayer, without any desiring them [to do so] … there are at this time nearly seventy, if not above, as young as eight, most of whom meet in societies twice a week, and spend time in prayer, singing some part of a Psalm, reading the Scriptures and repeating their catechism…


In 1741, Whitefield recorded in his journals that many young children were found sitting on the pulpit steps where he preached.  The records from 1904 Welsh revival regularly note that children were full participants in the services of worship.  James Calder notes in his diary in 1765: ‘…I had the pleasure of meeting with a number of very young creatures (sic!) – boys and girls of about 5, 6 and 7 years old, carefully instructed and advanced in the knowledge of the principles of our holy religion’.


Similarly in 1800, Mr Slatterie of Dundee discovered:

There are some girls, from seven to ten years old who meet for singing, reading the Scriptures, and prayer one evening a week.  Also several boys … who associate for similar purposes, having one older member of the congregation preside over them.  Thus out of the mouths of babes and sucklings the Lord perfects His praise


In 1860, a newspaper correspondent included in an article for the press:


The writer has just learned that on last Saturday night when there was no public service, there were two juvenile prayer meetings, held by little children, when they sang hymns, read a portion of Scripture, and several engaged in prayer …[1]


One of the most famous of children testifying to a deeply authentic and life changing faith is the legendary Countess of Huntingdon, who traces her conversion to the age of 9 after witnessing the burial of a child her own age.


None of this is directly about receiving communion of course.  But all I am saying is that it is clearly possible for children to know and respond to Christ in a profoundly authentic way.  So, even if we were to grant this as a requirement for receiving Communion, there would still be no reason in principle to prevent children from coming to the table.[2]  Indeed, there may be good grounds to receive them there, given the depth of discipleship and devotion to Christ children can enjoy.  Confidence that the Holy Spirit can achieve such deep and lasting effects in the hearts of our children should inspire and excite us in our involvement of them in the life of our Church.  We are not simply tolerating children in the covenant people of God.  Indeed, their involvement in every aspect of our life together as a family of believers (while at times meaning things might not be quite what we would personally like in a service) is underpinned by an expectation that the Lord will meet with them, as He meets with those of us who are older; that He will work in and through them, as He does with those of us who are older; that they can worship in Spirit and truth, as can those of us who are older.  It is often said they are the Church of tomorrow; in fact they are part of the Church of today.


[1] Examples taken from Children in Revival, Harry Sprang & Revival, a people saturated with God, Brian H Edwards. 

[2] See previous articles where I have suggested that personal faith is not immediately necessary for a child to validly receive the sacrament, rather that as in baptism, children receive the sacrament on the basis of the Church’s covenantal relationship with God in Christ.  A sacrament is more about what God is saying to us than what we are saying to God.  As the old puritan divine, Stephen Charnock put it: ‘in a sacrifice something is offered to God; in a sacrament, something is exhibited to us’. Through a sacrament the Holy Spirit speaks to our hearts and teaches us of Christ, and so faith is cultivated.

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I Corinthians Ch11 v27-29

I finished last week’s article by noting the concern that we might be putting our children in spiritual danger if we allow them to participate in communion before they are ready (i.e. understand what it means).  In some Church circles, this doesn’t only affect children, but those of any age who might not meet the perceived criteria for Communion: moral or intellectual.  This has led to a practise known as ‘fencing the table’, which in varying degrees of intensity erects ‘safeguards’ to prevent people taking communion who are deemed ‘unworthy’ in some way.  There may be a short talk outlining the dangers of taking communion in an unworthy way, and warning people not to participate unless they are sure they are in good standing with the Lord.  In its most extreme form, it has required an interview with a minister before access to the table is granted.  While to my mind this represents an inversion of communion (which is precisely about what God is saying to the unworthy, rather than what the worthy are saying to God), the passage it is based on is found in I Corinthians.


Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord.  A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks the cup.  For anyone who eats and drinks without recognising the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgements on himself…

I Cor.11:27-29


Personally, I am not convinced that this is a passage that can or should be used to bar children from the table.  Although I am aware that this article falls short of an exhaustive exegesis of the passage, a few comments, shaped by the immediate question we are discussing (children and communion), are in order:  Firstly, Paul is not addressing children.[1]  If this passage is about excluding anyone from communion, its first reference would be to adults who are behaving in a way that excludes others from the fellowship of the Church (11:17-22)!  It is worth underlining the fact that the issue is not ‘ignorance’, but rather a disunity within the Church that subverts everything communion signifies.  The ‘body of the Lord’ that is not recognised in the act of communion (v.29) is the Church, not the bread (notice lack of reference to blood/wine).  Paul is concerned about behaviour that undermines the fellowship of the Church, not about a lack of theological understanding.  And his call to ‘examine’ ourselves is not a call to spiritual or moral introspection, but is rather a contrast to being examined or judged by the Lord (see v.32-33) in terms of whether we are behaving in a way that undermines the unity of the body of Christ.    Finally, Paul’s application in the light of this concern is not: ‘don’t take communion’.  He doesn’t seem to anticipate any exclusion from communion (which would be a form of excommunication) – not even a short term break until he is able to visit and give further instruction or guidance (v.33-34).   It is rather to keep taking it, but to repent and take it in a context of unity and love (v.33).   In short, this passage has little to say to this issue of children taking or not taking communion.


It always intrigues me when people who have their children baptised then don’t let them have communion on the basis that they don’t understand what it means.  There are always three questions I want to ask.  The first is whether our children understand baptism?  If not, was that a reason not to baptise them?[2]  Secondly: why is it that there are children as old as six or seven who still don’t understand what Communion is about?  Why haven’t they been taught by their parents?  Thirdly, where does the idea come from that we have to have a full intellectual grasp of all that a sacrament means before we can enjoy it?  Should we apply this criterion to adults? …and who gets to decide who qualifies?  We all take communion without fully understanding its meaning or significance.  We might grasp parts of it, but isn’t this the point: it’s meant for those of us who don’t get it – and for those of us who fail to live even in the light of the bits that we do get… those of us who experientially, intellectually and morally fall short of everything signified in this act of worship.  And it is precisely by participating that we grow in our understanding, appreciation and response to the Gospel it embodies.


Which leaves one question for the Anglicans amongst us: is there a place for Confirmation?  Confirmation has long endured the stigma of being without a foundation in Scripture, and thus a rite in search of a theology.  There is often a reticence to attribute too much significance to its role as a rite of passage, with many people simply not bothering.  But it may become the means by which a young person consciously and publicly makes the faith their own.  There is a place for an ‘adult’ profession of faith, but from within the Church.


The idea that children shouldn’t take communion is often predicated the assumption that children are somehow not capable of authentic spiritual understanding and experience.  In our next article (the last in this series) I will show that this is an assumption that is in fact very dubious indeed.  Of course we know from Scripture children can at times demonstrate a greater capacity to respond to Jesus than adults. But, in addition to such considerations, we will hear the testimony of the Church throughout the years.


[1] And it is interesting to think about what he would say if he were.  Would he draw on Deut.1:32-40, where the ‘little ones’ are explicitly not caught up in the full judgement of the adults in the congregation?

[2] See previous articles about baptism.  Sacraments are God’s visible words of commitment to us, rather than our words of commitment to Him.  Both baptism and communion articulate the promise of His covenant, which as we have seen is to be participated in by believers and their children.  Sacraments are administered on the basis of the parents faith. 

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The Middle Ages

So why did the Church stop giving communion to her children?  Remember that Augustine taught that Christians couldn’t really be saved unless they took communion?  Although many people argued against him, the idea of sacraments as necessary to salvation never really went away.  As the mediaeval Church became more corrupt, and frankly politically powerful, the idea of grace being linked so exclusively to sacraments became very useful.  Their thinking went like this:  You need the sacraments to be saved; the Church has the sacraments; do what we say, or we’ll not let you have them, and you won’t be saved. This changed a lot of the thinking about sacraments and about who should / shouldn’t be allowed them.  They became more a weapon of fear, than a means of grace, and soon you had to be good enough in the eyes of the Church before the Church would let you enjoy the grace entrusted to her.  They weren’t called the Dark Ages for nothing!


The turning point seems to have been the 4th Lateran Council in 1215, which introduced the idea of ‘years of discretion’, and 20 years later, we read that children had to be 7 before they were allowed to take communion.  There were a number of councils that addressed this issue during the 13th century, and there was some confusion.  Some ordered that priests gave children ‘blessed common bread’ rather than ‘hosts’ (though others only allowed this on Easter Day).  Some argued that the reason that children shouldn’t be allowed to receive communion is that they can’t retain solid food (The idea that seven year olds can’t keep down solid food seems a little disingenuous, but maybe things have changed since then).


St. Thomas Aquinas (died 1274) seems to have put the final nail in the coffin.  Thomas was possibly the most influential theologian in the Middle Ages, and he was frankly, a little bit confused about what the Bible teaches on a number of fairly significant issues … including sacraments.  He acknowledges that the Greek Orthodox Church still gave communion to children, but rejoices that he is part of the Roman Catholic Church, who have since changed their ways, and come to understand the importance of ‘reason’.  He writes: ‘The Eucharist ought not to be given to children, who lack the use of reason and cannot distinguish between physical and spiritual food… but it can be given to children … at about ten or eleven, if they show signs of discretion and devotion’.  He acknowledged that baptised children had a right to communion, but only in the same way as they had a right to an inheritance, which they might not take possession of immediately.  Aquinas is concerned that the ‘mystery’ of communion could be undermined, not least by wine being spilt by clumsy children.  By this time the idea of transubstantiation is well and truly built into the Church’s thinking (also codified at 4th Lateran Council), and it seems you had to be able to understand that it really was the body and blood of Jesus, (and be suitably terrified by the prospect) before you were allowed to take it.   


It took a while for the practise of giving communion to children to die out.  The Orthodox churches have maintained it throughout the centuries, and it had enjoyed periodic resurgences in the West, most notably during the Bohemian Revivals (14-15th century), and later under John Huss.  In 1524 a Bohemian synod in Prague reaffirmed (it had already been codified in 1418) that infants should take communion after baptism if parents requested it.  Other Reformers were less enthusiastic.  Zwingli and Calvin both acknowledged that the Church had historically given communion to children (Calvin citing Cyprian and Augustine), but both are clear they think this was inappropriate.    In fact, one Reformer, Bullinger, uses Augustine’s insistence that infants should take communion as an argument for why you can’t trust the early Church Fathers on everything!


On the continent, only Wolfgang Musculus (Augsburg, 1497-1563) challenged the consensus, though he had no wish to cause controversy.  In England Peter Martyr raised a tentative question mark over whether infants shouldn’t in fact be given communion.  In the end it seems he can’t quite decide.  Bishop Jewel (1522-71) likewise recognises that Cyprian and Augustine attested to infant communion, but he articulates – from a Protestant perspective – an argument that was becoming increasingly common: ‘…from the doctrine of St. Paul, the holy mysteries ought to be given unto none but only unto such as be able to understand the meaning thereof, to judge the Lord’s body and to declare his death’. (A similar line is taken by Calvin).  The Council of Augsburg in 1548 enshrined the idea of ‘years of discretion’ in Protestant thinking, a phrase that is often now acquainted with the idea of understanding what communion means, and self-examination.


So why did the church stop giving communion to her children?  It’s hard to say with confidence, but my own reading of history is that it was tied in with rise of Roman Catholic theology and the attitudes that went with them.  Why did the Reformers not, well, reform the practise?  I don’t know.  It seems trite to suggest it was because they were men of their times, but in all honesty, the only argument that seems to my mind to carry weight is the reference to I Cor.11:27-29.  We’ll look at this next week.

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The first 1200 years

What does history tell us about children taking communion?  I’m afraid the situation becomes pretty ambiguous, especially as we move through the centuries.  Rarely is the issue treated theologically in its own right, and usually it is dealt with only polemically.  For example, in the 16th Century, (Ana)Baptists use the question of children taking communion to embarrass the Reformers – who generally argued for baptising children, but also for withholding communion from them.  As we’ll see this was often (in part anyway) to avoid the suspicion that you needed to take communion in order to be saved.  The (Ana)Baptists charged them with sacramental inconsistency – perhaps with good grounds!


Direct evidence is pretty slight in the first four centuries.  In fact, scholars can only find 3 references, the first from 251 AD when Bishop Cyprian of Carthage talks about children receiving communion.  What does such lack of evidence for 2 centuries mean?  The argument from silence could (as always) go either way!  Either there is no mention of it because it didn’t happen; or there is no mention of it because it wasn’t contentious.  i.e. there was no controversy about children taking communion.


So what does Cyprian say?  Cyprian refers to some crazy stuff that happened during the persecution of the Roman Emperor Decius, who did his level best to annihilate the Church.  In order to avoid being victims in this persecution, many who called themselves Christians temporarily apostatized, and took part in pagan religious feasts and sacrifices.  Cyprian deals with the question of whether the infants who were carried in their parents’ arms, and so implicated in these feasts, were guilty of apostasy.  He answers they are not, and in one of his arguments he happens to mention that these children had already been communicated.  He also tells the story of a wet-nurse who had taken an infant to a pagan feast, and then when the persecution ended brought the same infant to receive communion.  When a persistent Deacon gave communion to the reluctant infant, the child screamed and vomited!  Cyprian feels this is a clincher: ‘In a profaned body and mouth, the Eucharist could not remain … This much about an infant not yet of an age to speak’.  I have no idea what to make of it!  The only thing we can say with certainty is that in 251 infants not yet of age to speak were taking communion.


Another reference to infants and communion is more tragic.  It is on the tomb of a child dating somewhere around 337, who died at the age of 18 months and 22 days, but whose parents believed was a Christian and who had received communion (though thereference to communion , spoken of as ‘the customary rites’ is not straightforward).


It is only in the work of Augustine – 5th century Bishop in North Africa – that references to Infant communion become more explicit.  Commenting on John 6:53, Augustine writes:


The Lord says – not indeed concerning the sacrament of baptism, but concerning the sacrament of his own holy Table to which none but the baptised have a right to approach: ‘Except you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you shall have no life in you’.  Will any man be so bold as to say that this statement has no relation to infants, and that they can have life in Him without partaking of His body and blood ..?[1]


After Augustine in the 5th century, references to infants receiving communion become much more common.  The spectacularly named Bishop Fulgentius of Ruspe (Tunisia, died 523) for example, was asked about a child who is baptised, but who dies before receiving communion.  He replied that while communion was not essential for salvation, nevertheless, ‘there is no room for anyone to doubt that each of the faithful is made a partaker of the body and blood of the Lord when he is made a member of the body of Christ in baptism…’.  The English church historian, the Venerable Bede (died 735) cites him as authoritative.  In 675, the Council of Toledo declared that no censure should be passed on infants who were unable to retain the bread and wine.[2] In Britain, the practise seemingly remained normative.  Elfric of York (died 1051) ordered his priests to ‘give eucharist to children when they are baptised’, and in Ireland around 1070 Bishop Domnald wrote to clarify whether the English and continental churches gave communion to infants because they believed children couldn’t be saved without receiving this sacrament.  Lanfranc, the then ArchBishop of Canterbury denied this to be the case (i.e.children could be saved without taking communion), but did say that it was necessary for Christians of every age to strengthen themselves by partaking in the Body and Blood of Christ.  But it all changed in the 13th Century, as we’ll see next week!


[1] Two observations on this quote.  First, much of the later discussion of whether infants should take communion focuses on the question of whether children can be saved without taking communion.  Clearly they can, but that doesn’t answer the question of whether they should be invited to participate in the sacrament of communion.  Secondly, there were in Augustine’s time those who were beginning to argue that children shouldn’t be allowed communion, following the teachings of (hands down) the most notorious of heretics, Pelagius.  Pelagius basically argued that as you earned the right to be a Christian, so you earned the right to take communion by your performance in following Christ’s example of how to live.  An idea the Church may never have quite shaken off.

[2] The question of what to do with very small children who couldn’t handle solid food remained a perennial part of the discussion.  Common practise by the 12th century seems to have been that very young infants received only the wine, sucked from a finger, and if possible, bread soaked in water.  As soon as they were old enough to eat solids, they were expected to receive communion.

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Communion and Discipleship

We saw last time how the Bible expects children to be included in the covenant meal.  But what does it mean for anyone to take part in a sacrament?  The discussion surrounding the conditions under which a sacrament accomplishes all that it represents spans both centuries and denominations.  The Church of England has historically taught that ‘…in such only as worthily receive [the sacraments] they have a wholesome effect or operations’ (Article 25).[1]  This has a number of significant consequences.  The once Bishop of Woolwich, Colin Buchanan, points out that we are, for example, wrong to assume that every baptism (and by extension, every act of Holy Communion) celebrated in an Anglican Church is either authentic or effective – even though the liturgy we use assumes it is.  This might seem an obvious point to make.  But it might just be worth making explicit that this is the Church’s teaching... 


OK – so not every baptised person (whether adult or child) turns out to be a Christian.  That’s a tragic observation, but hardly an earth shattering one.   But we’re focussing on those baptisms that are authentic, that are ‘worthily received’ (and we’ve previously spent a number of articles exploring what that might mean).  In those baptisms, a number of things are represented.  The candidate is claimed for Christ’s possession (‘Christ claims you for His own…); it is the candidate is who is charged to ‘fight valiantly as a disciple of Christ against sin, the world and the devil’, and to ‘remain faithful to Christ till the end of your life’; and it is the candidate for whom we pray: ‘May Almighty God deliver you from the powers of darkness, restore in you the image of His glory and lead you in the light and obedience of Christ’.  This is all powerful stuff, and only the most reductionist of sacramental theology would claim that these realities have no connection with the waters of baptism ‘worthily received’.[2]  My point is this: if we baptise children, and then withhold communion from them, we exhort the one being baptised to walk a path of profound and costly discipleship as they grow up in Christ – and then we deny them one of the critical God-given means by which that calling is fulfilled.


It is through Communion that we sacramentally receive the Spiritual resources (see footnote 2) necessary to live the life of Christian discipleship upon which we embark in baptism.  Just think of what is declared and prayed as we celebrate communion.  It is, for example, in the context of this meal that we feed on Christ (We thank you for feeding us with the body and blood of your Son, Jesus Christ…), and seek the ministry of the Holy Spirit as we offer ourselves in sacrificial service (send us out in the power of your Holy Spirit to live and work to your praise and glory).  It is here that we look for our growth in holiness, deepening intimacy with Christ, and draw on our future, New Creation hope, finding motivation to live here and now as we look forward to being welcomed at the feast in heaven.  It is here that we celebrate and keep our unity in and with the body of Christ.


Communion isn’t exclusively the means of securing these blessings.  There is at least one significant Christian denomination that doesn’t celebrate the sacraments at all.  Nevertheless, it is clearly a significant place where this empowerment for daily Christian discipleship can occur within the worshipping life of the Church.  To involve any person in the battle of the Christian life through baptism, and to then deny them the strengthening of communion is … well, inconsistent at best, and spiritually dangerous at worst.  Children face all the same battles and issues in learning to be faithful to Christ that adults do.  They know the same failures and confusion, the same insecurity and uncertainty.  And they need the same grace, and experience of the ministry of the Holy Spirit.  Their ability to articulate or perceive it might be more limited, but it is real nonetheless.


It seems to me that one of the most damaging mistakes that Churches (and Christians) can make is to think of Communion as something you need to qualify for.  As a pastor I find it tragic when Christians don’t feel they can take communion – usually because they are particularly aware of sin in their life and character.  To deny ourselves Communion at precisely the point where we so desperately need it is to cut ourselves off from a God-ordained means of experiencing precisely the grace we crave.  To deny others because we don’t think they qualify in some way, might be equally devastating.[3]


[1] It is not often recognised today that the Church of England drew heavily on John Calvin in drawing up its Articles of faith and doctrine.  In fact Archbishop Cranmer and Calvin wrote to each other discussing issues such as sacraments throughout 1540’s and early 50’s. see below.

[2] Similarly, only the most reductionist of sacramental theology finds no reality of experience reflected in the words of Communion.  There have been those who have held such a view.  Notably in the days of the Reformation, a guy called Zwingli held that all we do when we celebrate communion is remember Christ’s death.  For Zwingli it’s a bit like a looking at a photo – it might evoke powerful memories and perhaps even feelings, but having a photo does nothing to bring you closer to the person or scene it captures.  The Church of England (as in so much of her theology) followed a more classically Reformed and Calvinistic line, teaching that God confirms and seals the promise He makes in the sacrament (Inst.4:14.3).  They are a means through which the Holy Spirit works to achieve what they represent.  ‘If the Spirit is lacking, the sacraments can achieve nothing more in our minds than the splendour of the sun on blind eyes, or a voice sounding in deaf ears’.  If the Spirit is present however, they become charged with His power as He uses them ‘to set forth Christ to us, and in Him the treasures of heavenly grace’.  For Calvin (and Anglicanism after him) ‘worthily received’ demands both the presence of the Holy Spirit and faith in Christ – though not in a purely individualistic sense.  For the Reformers, faith (when thinking about the sacraments) was thought of as much more of a community event than we might tend to today. 

[3] Usually we don’t think children qualify because – as it is often put - they don’t understand what it is about.  I’ve already touched on this briefly, but will come back to it in a later article…

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Children are in the Covenant

In the question of whether children should be invited to join the family of God around the Table, we must, as in all other questions start with what the Bible teaches.  If there is something in the pages of Scripture that precludes it, the conversation is closed.  Only a Church with a pathological tendency towards self-destruction goes against what it knows the Bible to teach.  On the other hand, if we discover there is Biblical warrant for the admission of children to communion after baptism, then Church policy must be brought into line.  This tendency to on-going reformation in the light of Scripture is something built into Anglican self-understanding.  Article 6 of the Church holds that we must not be asked to believe anything that is contrary to Scripture: ‘Whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man (sic), that it should be believed as an article of the faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation’.


We have seen in our articles on Baptism that at the heart of Biblical theology beats the truth that God relates to humanity through the structure of covenant.  God as it were, binds Himself to His people in a defined relationship of promise and commitment.  We have also seen that the covenant of grace cut with Abraham was (and remains) corporate in nature.  That covenant was confirmed through a rite of initiation (circumcision, later baptism) which opened to the initiated the right to participate fully in the privileges of that covenant.


In the New Testament, this framework is not destroyed, but fulfilled.  Christ is portrayed as the true Israel, the Seed of Abraham in whom all the nations of the earth find blessing.  Christ also fulfils the ‘shadow’ system of sacrifice and worship, and focusses the conditions of the covenant exclusively on Himself and His work.  But the covenant continues to function identically throughout the NT.  The Mediator is the same (Christ), the condition is the same (faith), and the blessings are the same (e.g. justification, regeneration and eternal life).  The NT Church recognises its deep continuity with the OT ‘congregation’ of Israel, and is superimposed on its patterns.


Given this covenantal unity, it is a short step to recognise that the sacraments instituted by Christ (baptism and communion) are the same in substance as the sacraments of the OT.  The Abrahamic rite of circumcision is carried through into the Mosaic covenant, as Israel are the seed of Abraham.  We have already seen how this is re-constituted in baptism, the two rites functioning in exactly the same capacity.


Of particular relevance to our considerations in this article is the realisation that once children were circumcised, they were incorporated into the life and worship of the people of God. 


As such, they were consistently granted both the privileges and responsibilities of participating fully in the religious life of Israel.  Thus children were present when the covenant was renewed (Dt. 29:10-13; Joel 2:16).  Children were also present during times of teaching, and in religious festivals.  Of particular note is their presence at and involvement in the Passover meal (Ex.12, esp.v.26).  The whole family ate the Passover, which is explicitly corporate in its orientation, encompassing (like circumcision) the entire family (Ex.12:3f).  Indeed, it was a first born son (who in many families would have been a young child) who was the primary beneficiary of the original Passover! 


Why is this significant?  Because it was the Passover that Christ re-cast and instituted as the meal of Holy Communion (Matt.26:26-27 / Mark 14:22-24; Lk 22:15, ‘I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you…’).  In the same way as circumcision, when fulfilled in Christ becomes baptism, so Passover, when fulfilled in Christ, becomes the rite that we now call Eucharist, Communion, the Lord’s Supper etc.  The meaning continues unchanged and unchanging, but the rite is altered to reflect it’s being fulfilled.  The lamb is replaced by the bread (body) and wine (blood) of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (Jn.1:29). As the Apostle Paul was to put it only a few years later: ‘Christ, our Passover Lamb, has been sacrificed…’ (I Cor.5:7).  No other lamb is to be slain, and lamb is no longer the sign of the covenant meal. The one to whom the Lamb pointed has been sacrificed and so it is now His body and blood we remember.  Passover is antecedent to Communion in the same way that circumcision is antecedent to baptism, and again, in the absence of any teaching to the contrary, we recognise that the dynamics of the sacrament remain unchanged.


What does this mean?  I submit that it means that in the same way as the whole family (including circumcised children) in the Old Covenant were included in the Passover meal, so baptised children in the New are included in their sacramental meal – communion.  As such children – having been initiated into the family of the Church - are nurtured within it, growing into an understanding of what they are doing, asking questions about what we do and why.  As in Deut.12 however, those questions are asked by children who participate, not by those who are on the outside looking in.  This follows from Scripture, and also from thinking consistently about the Bible’s teaching on the theological connectedness of Sacraments themselves – something we’ll look at more fully next time. There is an inseparable connection between the two sacraments, so that those who are baptised are obligated to partake of the Communion, and those who take the bread and wine are those who have been baptised.  Communion isn’t a superior sacrament, to be reserved only for those who are sufficiently advanced in the ways of Christ.  Indeed, it is precisely the opposite – it is the means by which we who are weak can be nurtured so that we might grow in the ways of Christ. 

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Keeping the peace

The Church of England lays the borders of the Church where ‘the pure Word of God is preached, and the sacraments duly administered’ (Article 19).  Largely because of this I have confined our discussion of the place of children in the Church to these two areas – teaching and preaching the Word of God, and their relationship to the sacramental life of the Church.  I have sought to do this in as non-polemical a way as possible, especially on issues where I know there are deeply held convictions. 


Nevertheless, as a pastor of an Anglican Church I have been suggesting that children in our midst should find themselves securely within the borders of the Body of Christ.  They should enjoy (as should we all) the benefits of the pure Word of God preached, and of the sacraments duly administered.  This is not to say that everything in a Church should be childish, or even directed towards children.  Neither is it to say that concerns relating to ‘children’ should have greater currency in decisions than those relating to others.  And, as I’ve sought to stress throughout, it is not seeking to alienate those who disagree what I have been writing.  It is simply to take the lead in wrestling with what it means for us as a Church to find children and young people in our midst. 


I suspect that in outlining our responsibilities to children with regard to the pure Word of God preached, there is little disagreement.  Most of us would recognise these, and we are indebted to those who support parents and families, by giving their time Sunday by Sunday to ensure this is done in Sunday Groups.  We recognise the tremendous value of the work they do and pray with them as they seek, by God’s grace and through the power of the Holy Spirit, to lay the foundations for a lifetime of Christian discipleship in those they teach. 


The question of sacraments however, tends to be more vexed.  The Church has much less of a common mind on the relationship between children and baptism / communion.  I have long since concluded three things in relation to baptism: I believe the Bible mandates us to baptise the children of families in the Church.  I recognise as a simple matter of observation that there are godly people who study the Bible and come to different conclusions.  I am committed to not allowing something that should be a focus of unity (Eph.4:1-6) to divide the body of Christ.  Hence what I hope will be St. John’s posture of generosity, baptising children where that is requested, or dedicating them with a view to baptism later in life.


I begin our consideration of children and communion with that same openness to those who disagree with me (or with whom I disagree) … but with a sense of trepidation nonetheless.  Should children in our Church be allowed (or even encouraged) to take communion?  It is guaranteed that there will be a diversity of strongly held opinion.  I believe they should – though I am aware that I am a minority voice in my convictions, at least as far as the contemporary western Church is concerned. For the sake of completeness I should probably add that while baptism is the sacrament of initiation, communion is the sacrament of (can I put it like this?) preservation and continuation.  So we should really say that baptism is a pre-requisite for taking communion, at least for the sake of sacramental coherence.[1] 


It is very much a live debate, with people on both sides invoking strong rhetoric to drive home their points.  One author arguing in favour of children taking communion claims it is tantamount to spiritual abuse of children to deprive them of the bread and wine.  The other side of the debate accuses such proponents of betraying the Bible’s teaching, and the Protestant heritage of the Church of England, undoing the Reformation and spiritually endangering children by allowing them to take communion before they really understand what they are doing. I’ll come back to this in a later article, hopefully with a more moderate and conciliatory tone!


Over the next few weeks, I am going to argue (again, as constructively and non-polemically as possible) that children should be allowed at the Lord’s Table.  Is it worth saying again that I am not imposing this, still less demanding agreement?  You have my support as your pastor whatever you decide / have decided with respect to confirmation / baptism before they join the rest of the Church in communion.  I will continue to pray with them, and with any others who come to the table, but who don’t wish to take the bread and wine.  As with baptism, I have long recognised that godly people who study the Bible have come to different conclusions.


Communion, like baptism is a celebration of the peace and unity we enjoy in Christ.  As we say every time we break bread: Though we are many, we are one body, for we all share in the one bread.  It would be a tragic irony to make this a point of disunity and division.  


[1] Have a chat with me if you haven’t ever been baptised.  Since the days of Jesus it has functioned as the means by which we are welcomed into the life of the Church, and enjoy the benefits (including communion).

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