Following Corpus Christi, this sermon explores the Holy Communion and the issue of the admittance of children to the sacrament of the Eucharist Sermon preached by the Reverend Charles Royden June 1999.
The Thursday after Trinity, 10 days after Pentecost is known in the church as Corpus Christi. A 13c Belgian nun named Juliana had a recurring dream of a brilliant full moon coming down to earth but with a black spot. Christ interpreted it for her in that the moon represented the calendar year of the church with all of its wonderful festivals, but the black spot showed that there was something missing, an occasion to remember the institution by Christ of the Lord's Supper, Holy Communion or Eucharist. As fortune would have it, her friend the Bishop of Liege believed her vision and he subsequently became Pope Urban 4. Therefore in 1264 the feast of Corpus Christi was first celebrated with hymns and prayers written by Thomas Aquinas.
I included a small piece on the back of your notices last week about this and used the expression, 'we are what we eat.' Just as it is no good eating junk food, or else we will become physically ill, so it is unhelpful not to have our spiritual food if we wish to remain healthy. Alan and I at specific times of the year ask in the church notices for anybody who would like to have communion brought to them, those who are housebound. Some proposals are also being considered to involve members of the church to enable this to be a more regular practice. Not a substitute for church, that would not be possible, not for those who can physically get out of the house either, but for those people who have perhaps been members of the church who are stuck in bed or in residential care. This could be an important ministry, because we see the importance of this central meal.
Now I say that as a word of introduction, because I want us to think this morning about the 'Corpus Christi'—'the body of Christ' our spiritual food, in relation specifically to children. Nationally the face of Sunday Schools in our churches has changed dramatically over the last 15 years. There are undoubted problems in our churches across the country over the work which we have with children. There must be a recognition that children are not a part of our churches in the way that they should be. There may be children attending Sunday School but they do not feel a part of the whole church in the way that they should. They may feel a part of the 'Junior Church' but not of 'the church.' Family services, or All Age Worship which sought to include children more, has actually become an occasion for the children and their teachers to have a well earned Sunday off. There is a call for youth church councils to represent the views of young people, the concept of a church within a church is raised. And so the St Alban's Diocese as a part of the work of the new children's adviser, Andrew Pattman, has been looking at the idea of admitting children to communion. It is not that a change in this one area will suddenly change everything for the better. However is it right that at the one occasion in the life of the church when we receive an assurance of who we are and what Christ has done for us, children are denied full access. If we are what we eat, then is it any surprise that children who are denied the Corpus Christi do not feel a part of the church, the body of Christ.
Let's look at current practice—In the Methodist Church it is permissible for children to receive communion. In the Church of England it is at the discretion of the Diocesan Bishop and some Diocese do and some do not allow access for children to communion. It happens that the Dioceses on our borders do allow access. Interestingly once a child has been lawfully admitted they then cannot be refused. Hence a child from the Oxford or Ely Diocese who visits a parish in this Diocese would be entitled, where at present perhaps a cousin who they came to visit from this Diocese would not! Bizarre! It is worth reminding ourselves that we as an LEP have a latitude not permitted to ordinary Church of England churches, since it is lawful in the Methodist Church, it is lawful here too. Hence about six or seven years ago we decided at church council that we would admit all to communion without age restriction. Just an extension of our Equal Opportunities Policy—we are not ageist! This was helpful for families which could make their own minds up, it was helpful for adults who had not been confirmed, for they could know also that they were welcomed to the Lord's table. Currently our practice at St Marks is for children to return to the Communion Service at the administration, at Putnoe the children remain out until the end of the service. However at both churches there are occasions, such as during the summer months when we are together for communion. On these occasions we do welcome those children who wish to receive to do so. The only exception being when the parent coughs loudly or takes the bread off the child and puts it back, because obviously parent power is not to be challenged.
Incidentally around the world many Anglican churches do provide communion to children. I was quite cross that my brother Ross in the Scottish Episcopalian Church is able to do so, he is always telling me how wonderful the Scottish Episcopalians are. Even the Roman Catholic Church admits children for their first communion, before confirmation, at the age of about 6 or 7.
As I was reading the report I remembered that my own children don't take the bread and the wine and I asked them why, since they are allowed to do so. They said
- They were not allowed and
- They didn't like the wine.
I must now try and understand how I have given them conflicting messages about their ability to join in, even if its just with the bread and not the wine. Although please remember that many people do feel more comfortable simply dipping the tip of the wafer into the chalice, (intinction) either because they don't like the wine, or they feel better doing this if they have a heavy cold or just personal preference—and so children too could have intinction. Remember if you do wish to do this with the bread when it is given to you, it is only the tip of the wafer which goes into the wine, it absorbs the wine. No fingers must go in its not like dunking a digestive biscuit!
Well the vote at Synod yesterday very much supported the reports suggestions for admitting children to communion and I was exceedingly pleased. I was pleased for children, pleased because it vindicated what we have been doing in our church for so long already, pleased because once again the Methodist Church was ahead of the game. I was even more pleased because of what it says about faith itself. Some did say that the children cannot understand—well they cannot understand the Lord's Prayer either but we expect them to learn from saying it. We expect them to take part in church services and the communion, why should we deny the easy part—taking the bread and wine. In expecting children to understand there is some quite blatant adultism. Which adult really understands?
Wesley said that the bread and wine of communion was a 'converting ordinance'. In saying that, what he meant was, that by taking the bread and wine we were being spiritually nourished and encouraged into the faith. To use the analogy of the horse and cart, the bread and wine is the spiritual horse which brings along the cart of faith and understanding. In denying communion to children we have put the spiritual cart before the horse. Children are not nourished with the essentials of faith. But for each one of us we need to recognise that the gift of the body and blood of Christ is not something which we earn, or deserve or understand. It is a God given mystery, something which we enjoy without having to be able to fully comprehend.
For many years we have practised the idea that it was only when we were confirmed that we were allowed to have communion. So the bread and the wine were like a reward for having completed the course. Confirmation then sadly became for many people a 'passing out parade,' they got confirmed, felt they had achieved something and then they didn't have to come anymore. If going to church was like having driving lessons, once you had completed the test—the lessons were superfluous, so with church you didn't have to come anymore.
Our practice has been to play down the whole business of Confirmation Classes altogether, we don't call them that. If somebody wants to be confirmed and wants to know what to do I say 'great, come to church, if you want to do more join a homegroup, or offer to help with practical acts of service in the church, join the rotas etc.' Sure we run basics courses, and with the success of our Christian basics course recently in the chapel when we had 50 people each week we will continue to run them. But these are opportunities for us to think through the things which really matter, no matter how long we have been Christians. They are not proof that you know what you are about.
You might ask, well how does this affect confirmation. Well that still stands as a service in which we can officially as an adult make a public statement of our faith and membership of the church. But it is not a sacrament. It was interesting to hear a clergyman who was a speaker at Synod yesterday calling confirmation a sacrament, not according to the Canons Law of the Church of England it isn't! Yes it is sacramental, but so is a walk in the park, or eating your cornflakes. - and we say that children can't have the bread and the wine because we don't understand enough! In fact one clergyman at Synod even said that he disapproved of infant baptism. We really have got a cheek saying children have to learn more before being admitted to the communion, as if we adults were all of one mind!
No, confirmation is not something which Christ gave for the church to do. For those people who become confirmed it is great, for those people who have not done it or who do not want to do, then it has no bearing whatsoever for Holy Communion, your membership sign is baptism, if that is you are looking for one. Even the canon law of the Church of England does not insist as an adult you must be confirmed before you are admitted to communion, but you must be desirous of it. It is your baptism which enrols you in the church, Christ's army. Do we expect a child to first show some sign of grace before we administer to baptism? No, it is indiscriminate. So also the communion which is the means of grace should be equally indiscriminate, so that children grow up feeling it to be a natural part of life.
What if we have not been baptised? Well remember that it is a sign of God's forgiveness and grace, but the idea that baptism is essential to ensure acceptance by God is ridiculous. Is God a god who turns us away because we haven't been baptised? Are the benefits from the death of Christ so cheap and worthless that they depends upon us to do anything more than accept them? Once we start to admit children to communion we have acknowledged that grace is of God we cannot earn it. You are loved and welcomed to the Lord's Supper because he loves you, not because you are old enough, or understand enough. This is what the Gospel is all about.
Perhaps the bottom line is this, if you want any kind of entrance examination or qualification then its baptism. But actually there is only one thing which entitles any one of us to take bread and wine, the love of Christ. We cannot
- earn it
- deserve it
- or understand it