Throughout her recent pregnancy a mother at St Chrysostom’s received Holy Communion. Of course she was not alone in this. Pregnant women receive the blessed sacrament. Of course they do. As they do so surely we must argue, the child in their womb also receives. We couldn’t possibly say that the sacrament does not ‘reach’ the child – unless, of course, we say that we must understand what we are doing before we can receive.
However, if understanding what we are doing is a criterion for receiving Holy Communion it would oblige us to say that certain adults with limited cognitive ability, as well as infants, cannot receive. We would also be faced with the task of deciding who does understand and who doesn’t and having an agreed criterion for this. This would imply some test should be applied. The implication would be then that all who present themselves for Communion would satisfy the ‘requirements’ of the test, and that those ministering should take care that they do. Thankfully very few ministers of Communion ever check the propriety of adults who present themselves for Communion.
Traditionally in the Church of England, of course it would, at first, appear that there was a test – knowledge of the Church Catechism followed by Confirmation. However, even here it is not so clear. The Book of Common Prayer allows for those who are ready to be confirmed but cannot be to be admitted to receive Holy Communion. Presumably this permission was granted for cases when there is no available Confirmation service. Whatever, in the Book of Common Prayer it is clear Confirmation is not a requirement for receiving Holy Communion.
When the pregnant mother’s baby is born in usual church practice in the Church of England the infant ceases to be allowed to receive Holy Communion. Depending on the local church and the decisions of the diocesan bishop the child can be admitted to communion later, usually after some form of preparation (and so probably when of at least school age), or after Confirmation.
As early as the seventeenth century Anglican Bishops and theologians have puzzled over the issue. It seemed to most of them quite clear that the early church had permitted infant communion. The great Bishop Jeremy Taylor came to the compromising position that infant communion was lawful but not necessary, and so ‘the present practice of the church is to be our rule.’ Understandable perhaps, but not really very satisfactory.
By the late twentieth century changes were occurring. Some bold mothers took the matter into their own hands and gave their children, of whatever age, a piece of the consecrated host which they had received. The US Episcopal Church General Convention in 1988 specifically allowed Holy Communion (in the form of a few drops of wine) to be administered to babies at baptism. In 2006 the General Synod of the Church of England allowed for infant communion by allowing bishops to permit children to receive Holy Communion, and not specifying a minimum age. At least two bishops spoke favourably then of Communion for ‘babes in arms.’
Infant communion is becoming increasingly common as churches feel called by God to be inclusive and welcome all to share in the meal of God’s kingdom. In addition Christians have come to see more and more that experience of communion is more formative than instruction about it. Hopefully the Church of England will more and more encourage this particualr path of welcome and inclusion.
At St Chrysostom’s let’s move with joy to the position where the pregnant woman having received Communion with her unborn child can continue to share in the sacred meal with her baby when the baby is born, and ALL are welcome to receive the Blessed Sacrament.