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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