I was recently asked on Twitter whether I thought people need to be baptised before they receive communion. I was going into a meeting at the time, and an hour later I had more than 25 notifications from the small but interesting exchange that had followed.
It’s been buzzing around my head a lot recently, so I thought I’d throw together my tuppence-worth here.
Generally I would encourage people to wait for confirmation before receiving communion – or, otherwise, to make a special event of a first communion. I know that’s quite an unusual view across all traditions now, and I understand many of the reasons against it. I understand that it can alienate children, or adults who are exploring faith, that it incorrectly projects the image that some people are ‘ready’ for it (when in reality none of us are), and I’m acutely aware that merging confirmation and first communion can deaden the effect of both. So why would I encourage waiting? Mainly as a way to illustrate the mystery, the importance, the dignity and the privilege of communion. All liturgy is fragile – stretch it too far in any direction and the heart can be so easily lost. We can easily become hung up on liturgy, lectionaries and tradition – but, at the other end of the scale, we can also undersell God, chucking the baby out with the bathwater, if we play too much with a common piece of liturgy.
I don’t hold onto this ‘rule’ of waiting before confirmation too hard. It’s not an essential, it’s just something I’d personally encourage. Maybe if I spent a lot of time in a Church where young children receiving communion was a regular occurrence I might change. But if someone takes the bread but not the wine – because they’re very young and don’t like the idea of drinking wine – that seems a little worrying to me. It’s not that they’re not mature enough per se (as I have said, none of us are ready) – but ten years down the line I wonder how special communion will seem to them? More and more Anglicans perceive the Eucharistic Prayer, and the act of receiving the elements, as little more than a symbol of unity in Christ and each other. Real Presence, or even just the acknowledgement that something is actually going on at the altar, seems to be going out of fashion. I say again – liturgy is fragile, and mass is the most fragile of all. It must be preserved with dignity and reverence, or it could too easily become just another piece of worship. Take that too far and we lose the privilege of guarding the most sacred and powerful act we have – saying mass. We therefore surround it with acts and symbols, from vestments and incense to the altar linens and the washing of hands (depending on your tradition), in order to keep it alive. The act of waiting until I was 14 for confirmation/communion has stuck with me, and was important in forming my understanding of how important the Eucharist is. I recently spoke to someone who had just been confirmed. They had been receiving communion since they were a young child, but the parish priest suggested they abstain from the elements in the six month leadup to confirmation. They were rejoicing in that advice, saying it had made a deep impact on them.
To return to the original question, receiving communion before baptism, there I have even less room for manoeuvre. Part of baptism is entry into the family of the Church. If you haven’t yet made that commitment, or had it made on your behalf, it must surely damage the ability of a communicant to be part of the ‘one body’? Rather than being linked to each other communally each communicant would just happen to be eating and drinking the Body and Blood of Christ at the same time, in a hypothetical situation where none of the communicants have been baptised. It loses the deep significance of the baptised members of one body joining together to receive the Sacraments.
But, having said all this, I openly acknowledge that these are ‘human’ rules, and God’s ways are not our ways. Were someone to ask if they should receive communion before confirmation I would suggest they wait, explain why and encourage them to decide what’s right for them. Were someone to ask if they should receive communion before baptism I would strongly encourage them not to, explain why, and urge them to wait. But even then, it’s their choice. Were I a priest it would have to be an extremely exceptional situation before I refused someone a Sacrament. If someone is there, hands outstretch, ready to know God in any Sacrament I would never, ever, assume to tell them otherwise. Most Canon Laws, and other ecclesiastical rules, are merely human ways of keeping order. Without rules there would be chaos, but once we start claiming that they are God’s unchangeable rules we’ve usually overstepped the mark.
For a range of reasons I am staunchly against lay presidency at the Eucharist. I would never contemplate saying mass as a layperson – it would seem an impossibility, let alone grossly controversial. And I’d be very concerned about a priest presiding without wearing some form of robes. And yet, if the world were ending and I was trapped in a room with only bread, wine, Common Worship (or something similar), and a couple of willing communicants then yes – I would say mass. Ordained or not, robes or not. And yes I think Christ would probably be as present in that room as He is in any Eucharistic celebration.
I believe there are very few rules that God sets down for all eternity. Instead He guides us in the creation and management of our own human rules, suitable to our own situation and circumstances. These encourage order, and are all designed as a way of ultimately turning us towards Him. So do I think God will be furious with anyone receiving communion before baptism? No. Do I think He would prefer people to be baptised before they receive communion? Yes. But will there be occasions when He has lead someone to meet Him in communion before they are baptised? Yes.
Make of all that what you will. I’d be fascinated to hear any views or comments.