Holy Communion for Babies, or what it means to be Human

Canon 25 of the Scottish Episcopal Church begins ‘The sacrament of baptism is the full rite of initiation into the Church, and no further sacramental rite shall be required of any person seeking admission to holy communion’. The ‘further sacramental rite’ not required is confirmation, which has traditionally been required for admission to holy communion in Anglican Churches. This canon, first added in 1965 and last revised in 2005, is the end of an ecumenical process to admit members of Protestant Churches lacking episcopal confirmation to communion in Episcopal Churches. It also had the effect, perhaps an unintended effect, of allowing baptised young children and babies to receive holy communion. It is this that I will discuss here.

Lucas Cranach, ‘Let the little children come to me’

First, some personal experience. Our daughter was baptised on 18 October 2020 at the age of ten months and has received holy communion regularly since then on the grounds of canon 25 and the early Christian tradition preserved in the Eastern Churches. During lockdown I continued celebrating the eucharist with my immediate family and that has given space to reflect on this practice and discuss it. Last year, in between the lockdowns when we had a couple of infant baptisms, I told the congregation that infant communion was allowed in our Church and this caused a certain amount of disquiet. In my previous benefice the parishes agreed a similar policy, which had the support of the local Bishop even though it rather stretched the law of the Church of England, and infant communion again caused some similar murmuring. Every such controversy is a teaching opportunity and one can ask: is this policy right, what does it mean and is it practical?

In practical terms it works, our daughter receives the sacrament reverently. Now she can walk she comes up to the communion rail at the right time, says ‘amen’, and receives the Body of Christ. This works because she feels at home in Church and at the sacred liturgy, sees her parents receiving holy communion, and is familiar with the things of the faith – she recognises Jesus, whom she calls ‘Jeeez’, on crucifixes and she makes the sign of the cross, or rather taps her chest when she hears ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’. We make sure she has no snacks just before communion and if she spat out the sacrament, we would pause reception for a while. In as far as one can see into a baby or toddler’s mind, this is a special eating connected with ‘Jeeez’, given by ‘Da’ in special clothes in a special place, and is different from eating something from a tub of chopped cucumber. My wife and I weren’t sure how this would work but it does and there is certainly nothing special about our daughter apart from the fact she has become familiar with church and liturgy.    

It is thus practical, but is it right and what does it mean? Firstly it is traditional, the Orthodox Churches of the East have always communicated baptised infants, often giving just the consecrated wine to babies who are not ready for solids, and the evidence suggests that this was universal in the Church of the first Christian millennium. It is however a departure from the usual practice of the Churches of the West. For Anglicans the first reception of holy communion generally followed confirmation in one’s early teens, thus keeping the traditional order of the ‘sacraments of initiation’: baptism, confirmation/chrismation and holy communion. Although it would appear that the Churches of the West gave communion to newly baptised infants until the twelfth century, the custom grew up of giving first holy communion at some time between the ages of 10 and 14. In 1910, however, appealing to the earlier tradition, the decree ‘Quam singulari’ of Pope St Pius X taught that children may receive holy communion when they reach the age of reason (generally about 7 years old) and can distinguish between the sacrament and ordinary bread. This has remained the Roman Catholic custom, in the words of the 1983 Code of Canon Law (canon 913.1), “The administration of the most holy eucharist to children requires that they have sufficient knowledge and careful preparation so that they understand the mystery of Christ according to their capacity and are able to receive the body of Christ with faith and devotion.”

The two requirements of understanding the mystery of Christ according to one’s capacity and being able to receive the body of Christ reverently make sense. Receiving holy communion is a human act and the experience of our family and others is that a baby or toddler can make a reverent communion in their own way. The idea that the reception of holy communion should follow the possession of ‘sufficient knowledge’ or the attainment of reason is, however, problematic. The practice of the Eastern Churches and Early Church should cause us to question this, but the insights of contemporary ‘disability theology’ also shed new light on this question.

What is a human person? We instinctively think of a fit, rational and intellectually active adult with all their senses and faculties intact. A baby, an old person with dementia, a person with physical or mental disabilities is instinctively seen as less than this, deserving compassion but a departure from the normal, or at least a person with unactuated potential; they are each a person with something lacking. What happens, though, if we question this? Each case is different, but what if we take the person with learning difficulties, perhaps with Down Syndrome, as a normative example of a human person? Are they deficient or are they just an individual example of the great diversity of ways to be human? The latter is the only option if we do not wish to say that people with learning difficulties are less than human, which has terrible consequences for the way they may be treated.

The Adoration of the Christ Child by a follower of Jan Joest, c.1510 – possibly the first depiction of people with Down Syndrome

For the Christian, although Jesus Christ is not strictly a human person, he is truly and fully human (he is the second person of the Holy Trinity and so the ‘who’ of Jesus is the Son of God – there is not a human Jesus and a divine Christ). Was he less human in the womb of Mary, in the manger, or ‘disabled’ by the nails of the cross, than when he was walking around the Judaean countryside and talking with friends and enemies? I can think of no grounds for saying this and the great works of salvation, incarnation and redemption, were done in precisely those times when his humanity might appear to be deficient. This should challenge our ideas of what it means to be human. Perhaps the baby or the disabled person should be taken as ‘normal’ for humanity, certainly no less normative than anyone else?

This has implications for admission to holy communion in Western Churches – Roman Catholic, Anglican or Protestant – whether they set the gateway at an ‘age of reason’ or the ability to make a ‘personal commitment to Jesus’. To refuse to baptise children until they can choose for themselves is a part of this problem. The policy of refusing sacraments to people unless they have a certain intellectual ability would seem to affirm a view of humanity which puts too much emphasis on reason and to place a human restriction on God’s free grace. A red herring here is the definition by Boethius (died 524) of a person as ‘an individual substance of a rational nature’, which was refined by Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) and is at the root of much Western thought on human personhood. It is not relevant as it attributes reason to what is common, the nature, not to the individual. An individual human, or for that matter an angel, would still be ‘an individual substance of a rational nature’ even if the rational aspect of their nature was not actuated.

There is another problem, some people object to infant baptism because the person baptised might grow up to be an unbeliever and resent this imposition on them before they had the freedom and autonomy to choose it. There is a real problem here as, for example in the Church of England, many babies are put forward for baptism although there is no active Christian faith in their family. In this situation I found the desire for baptism was usually a sign of a residual Christian identity and an opportunity for catechesis and developing a connection to the Christian community, but it does highlight the fact that to baptise and give Communion to infants only makes sense if they are to grow up in a Christian family or community. When households were baptised in the New Testament (1 Corinthians 1:16; Acts 16:15 & 16:31-33), there is no evidence that it was only the grown-ups who received the sacrament and what evidence we do have from the Early Church suggests it is reasonable to hold that children were included. One might even say that only a modern post-Reformation, post-Enlightenment individualist would think that that they were not. We receive our identity from our parents and the family and community in which we grow up. What we receive marks us for life, whatever we choose later, for example Richard Dawkins’ atheism is marked by his Anglican upbringing. If a child grows up in a Christian family, one would not avoid teaching moral behaviour until the child can choose for itself, and so it is wrong to avoid giving that child a formation in the faith held by the family. Religious and moral formation, moreover, comes less from teaching than from a way of life, it is primarily ‘caught not taught’, and so if a Child grows up in a Christian family it is right that they should be baptised and receive holy communion. This is just being honest about the situation. Not to do so would be to deny them the freedom to choose what is right, although respect for freedom of choice means that they may later reject the faith.

One might say that the logic of this argument means that the sacraments of holy orders and matrimony should also be open to infants. If we apply here the same principles of honesty and truth, we will see that both these sacraments are ordered to a way of life which demands a certain maturity to live it with integrity. I have seen Coptic deacons of primary school age functioning in the liturgy and some Christian jurisdictions allowed marriage for women from the age of 12, but just as the sacrament of Reconciliation presupposes the ability to sin and confess, so these two sacraments presuppose the ability to exercise them. The sacraments of initiation, however, baptism, confirmation/chrismation, and holy communion, simply require the recipient to be human and to have faith, whether that faith is explicitly assented to or is part of the family and community bringing up the child.

It is probably worth noting here that the Scottish Episcopal Church is confused about confirmation. There is a 2006 rite of ‘Affirmation of Holy Baptism for Confirmation and Renewal’ which looks like confirmation but is said to be a ‘pastoral’ service and, although it allows an anointing with Chrism, not a ‘completion of baptism nor a gateway to the full participation in the eucharist’. There is also a post-baptismal anointing with the oil of chrism in the 2006 rite of baptism which looks very much like the chrismation which is the Eastern version of confirmation. The history and theology of confirmation is itself not clear but in the West it seems to be a part of the baptismal rite detached and postponed to keep a connection with the bishop. Thus it is probably best to see the current practice of the SEC as a restoration of chrismation to the baptism rite while recognising the baptisms of those who omit the anointing.         

It may be thought that giving holy communion to infants devalues the sacrament as they don’t understand it. My experience suggests that they do in a way appropriate to their age and moreover Christ in the eucharist is a mystery none of us can fully understand. The eucharist is also more like medicine than a reward, and so not to give it to baptised children being brought up in a Christian family or community either makes it a reward for knowledge or cooperates with an inadequate vision of the human person.

In addition to all its other aspects, receiving holy communion is an act of truth. The priest says, ‘the body of Christ’ and the ‘amen’ is a recognition that the recipient is a member of the body of Christ, the Church, in which we are incorporated by baptism (1 Corinthians 12:12-13; Galatians 3:27-28). Augustine made the same point when he said of holy communion, ‘it is your own mystery that you are receiving, you are saying ‘amen’ to what you are’ (Sermon 272). Giving holy communion to babies and infants is a witness to God’s love, to the primacy of grace and to the fact that we are saved as a community not as individuals. It may not be appropriate in all cases and it requires the active support of the parents and the parish priest, but, if it is part of the life of a community, it is a precious sign of these Christian values and also a witness to an authentic vision of what it means to be human. These profound meanings expressed by infant communion suggest that it should be encouraged.

The Scottish Liturgy shows us that Episcopalians have often learned from the Orthodox East and Canon 25 has allowed the recovery of an important part of our common tradition. At a time when the unique value of the human person is under threat in different ways, this recovery of tradition also connects with the new understanding of Christian anthropology revealed through ‘disability theology’. Jesus was not speaking of the eucharist when he said the following words, but they may justly be used here: ‘let the little children to come to me and do not stop them, for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs’ (Mt 19:14)

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