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See the children’s bread from heaven

16 November 2012

A diocesan motion before the General Synod seeks to allow children to distribute communion. Peter Hill puts the case for it

IT WAS the climax of an informal parish event. I turned to the right, and held up my hands to receive the bread, hearing the familiar yet profound words: "The body of Christ". They were spoken by a nine-year-old girl: strongly, if a little nervously, and with a smile. I had baptised her as a baby, seen her grow up in the church family, and prepared her for admission to holy communion two years earlier. Now she was ministering to me as part of the one body of Christ, to which we both belong.

On the few occasions I have received eucharistic bread and the wine from the hands of a child, it has always been a most natural and graceful act of sharing in Christ's love and goodness. Sometimes it has been in the context of a short informal eucharist during a parish holiday, or at the end of a special event, sitting in an all-age circle, where the bread and wine have been passed from one to another: adults offering the sacrament to children, and children to adults. Similarly, it has happened with my own children at home in special family moments, when one of us has been sick, or else while we have been on holiday and out of reach of a church.

The settings described were not deliberately set up, but rather arose naturally in the parishes where I have been Vicar, as well as from within my own family's spiritual need and worship. At the time, they seemed the obvious and most real way to express our oneness, joy, and dependence as members together of the body of Christ.

I have never yet encouraged or allowed children to administer the elements in a Sunday parish communion, although I look forward to the day when I can do so appropriately, and with the authority of the Church.

I REJOICE that in the Church of England we now all belong to a Church that allows for the admission of baptised and regularly worshipping children to holy communion before confirmation. The sacrament of initiation at baptism rightly opens the way to the sacrament of nurture in holy communion. It took us hundreds of years to revert to what the earliest churches and Eastern Orthodox Christians have understood and practised from the beginning.

The eucharist is a liminal encounter with our Saviour, where all hierarchies, whether social, institutional, or age-related, are laid aside in the oneness of the body of Christ. Why do we not order our worship accordingly, and use the gifts of all members of the fellowship more fully?

We neglect the many examples in scripture where children and young people are called and set aside for leadership and ministry very early: the boy Samuel hearing God's voice in the middle of the night; David, as the youngest son, being dragged away from his sheep to be anointed the next king of Israel.

Most of all, we do not fully honour the way in which Jesus regarded children and placed them centrally in the Kingdom. Young children are often servers at the eucharist. Why can't they be eucharistic ministers also?

The increasing practice of celebrating the eucharist in church schools, including primary schools, also offers a terrific opportunity for properly discerned and discerning children to express this grace and pastoral gift. It takes their Christian nurture and potential spiritual leadership seriously, and enhances the quality of worship for all. I know of church secondary schools where students have been formally licensed by the bishop to administer in services of holy communion; why not in primary schools, too?

AT THE General Synod in the summer, we authorised specific eucharistic liturgies for use when a significant number of children are present (Synod, 13 July). It follows theologically and spiritually that it is apt to prepare some of our young disciples to administer the sacrament in such worship at church and school, as well as to receive it.

Some Christian children offer early evidence of the charisms of pastoral care and spiritual leadership. And Jesus did put a child in the midst of his divisive, ambitious, and immature adult followers, as the ultimate example of true and trusting discipleship. It is a justice issue within the Kingdom of God. Are they not full members of the body of Christ, and as such to be given the opportunity to serve?

In both parish churches where I have been a vicar, I have been privileged to prepare and admit young children to receive communion, and have seen the worship and life of the church transformed in doing so. To allow and encourage committed Christian children and young people to administer the sacrament of our Lord's body and blood is a natural and inclusive progression. It is transformative for both children and adults, and enhances our mutual experience of the body of Christ.

Our Lord Jesus was vulnerable and powerless on the cross, and it is iconic for adults to receive from a young person with little social status and influence. In doing so, children are no longer passengers in eucharistic worship, and can give as well as receive. They are often more insightful and open, reminding us that you do not need intellectual understanding to discern the love and sacrifice of Christ in bread and wine.

There was a seven-year-old with Down syndrome who regularly signed the nail-prints of Jesus on the palms of his hands at the communion rail when I held out the bread to him. In the body of Christ, age, experience, status, and intellect are all laid down at the foot of the cross.

Jesus said: "Whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God like a child cannot enter it." Whoever has not received the sacramental tokens of the Kingdom from a committed, joyful, and yet serious Christian child has missed out on a humbling, challenging, and nurturing experi- ence. The General Synod meeting next week gives us an opportunity, through the Southwell & Nottingham diocesan-synod motion, to make a change. Let's authorise it.

The Ven. Peter Hill is the Archdeacon of Nottingham.

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