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General Synod: Children to administer the sacrament

30 November 2012

Children as eucharistic ministers

Arguing the case: the Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler

Arguing the case: the Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler

UNCONFIRMED children who are regular communicants should be enabled under certain conditions, by a change in the law, to distribute holy communion, the General Synod has decided.

In a debate on the Wednesday morning, its resolution also requested that, if the bishop agreed, the power of authorisation could be transferred to the clergy.

Introducing the motion from his diocesan synod, the Bishop of Southwell & Nottingham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, told the story of two children. Kathy, 11, was regarded as a leader by adults and her peers, who thought that she would be "highly suitable" to help administer communion. Khalil came to faith after attending a local faith school, and whose head teacher felt "disbelief and anger" when she was told that children could not administer communion.

He argued that children were given "all kinds of responsibilities" in school and parish settings and that enabling them to assist with administering communion was "a further way of recognising their full inclusion in the Body of Christ and the life of the local church". They were "wholly capable of doing it carefully, wisely, reverently, safely".

The Bishop also sought to address an "anomaly in our systems" by allowing bishops to delegate the authority to clergy, and PCCs to approve licences for the administration of communion.

Prebendary Stephen Lynas (Bath & Wells) put forward two amendments in order to prevent the Measure's being "hybrid" by removing all reference to children, and stating that the sacrament could be distributed by any authorised regular communicant "who has been confirmed". He had researched the history of enabling lay people to administer communion, regarded in 1958 as dangerous. Since that time, the Church had seen an "explosion" in lay ministry, and it no longer treated lay leadership as "exceptional".

Thus, he argued, it was "inconsistent" for the ministry of the eucharist to go to the bishop for authorisation. It was a "nonsense" to say that bishops had "any way of knowing whether any of these people [recommended for the ministry] exist, let alone are suitable".

Canon Dagmar Winter (Newcastle) supported the inclusion of children in administration of communion, but disagreed with the delegation of approval from the bishop to the local clergy, and had put down an amendment to that effect. It seemed to her to carry a "highly unfortunate narrative of downgrading the role of administrating communion". The bishop may not know the volunteer, "but the important point is that volunteers know the bishop".

The Revd Jeremy Fletcher (York) spoke in support of the motion, which "rejoiced my heart". He introduced a "friendly amendment", recommending that the list of those licensed to administer communion be subject to regular review and various kinds of review.

Fr Thomas Seville CR (Religious Communities, York) spoke in support of Prebendary Lynas's amendment, and wanted to explore on aspect of it: the part played by confirmation. He suggested that the Synod needed to give "some thought" to the relation of the eucharist to confirmation, and the use of alternative expressions of faith other than confirmation.

The Revd Professor Paul Fiddes (Baptist Union) said that the Baptist Church and Church of England agreed that those who distributed communion represented the Church "in its serving of the world following the example of Christ the servant". These servants could, he said, only represent the whole Church "if they have fully entered into the fellowship of the Church and are completely initiated into the body of Christ". Initiation was not complete until a person had confessed a personal faith in Christ, and was commissioned as a disciple to share his or her ministry in the world, and receive the gifts of the Spirit. Thus, those who administered communion should have been commissioned to serve as a disciple through baptism or through confirmation.

The Bishop of Grimsby, the Rt Revd David Rossdale (Southern Suffragans), said that the best children's work involved treating children as "a normal part of the church community, and not as exceptions to entertain the adults". This was an opportunity to "invite children to take their place as a normal part of church life and ministry and service".

The Revd Charles Read (Norwich) urged the Synod not to be "distracted by issues of confirmation".

The Bishop of Willesden, the Rt Revd Pete Broadbent (Southern Suffragans), said that the Measure raised "serious questions" about the status of children: "It's very good to say everyone has a ministry and let them all exercise it, but what is the most appropriate ministry for them to exercise?" There "must be things that people don't do because they are not yet at the right stage to do it". He also urged the Synod to "think carefully" about the delegation of the approval process from the bishop to clergy.

Prebendary Patricia Hawkins (Lichfield) spoke as the Vicar of a church in the Catholic tradition. When her PCC originally considered the possibility of admitting children to communion before confirmation, they had rejected it; but, after considering it, they had come back and voted for it unanimously.

"Part of the motivation was our work with Messy Church. I hope that that church will become a service in its own right, and, as we gather around the Word, we would also gather around the Lord's table."

Pamela Bishop (Southwell & Nottingham) said that she supported the motion and wanted to "speak up for children". She had recently attended a diocesan education conference where she had been "challenged to place children central to our thinking and actions, as this is evidence of a healthy organisation". The motion was a golden opportunity to do that.

The Revd Philip North (London) said that he welcomed anything that encouraged children in worship, but was "disturbed by the motion", as it "confused the nature of childhood and the nature of the eucharistic worship. . .

"There is a tendency to honour children by letting them to do anything they like whenever they like." Children could be clumsy, and the development had the potential to embarrass children if they dropped or spilt the sacrament.

Joy Gilliver (Chichester) was concerned that the Church had not addressed the issues arising out of admitting children to communion before confirmation. Also, adults who are trained as eucharistic assistants were encouraged to "explore the implications for the lifestyle, attitudes, and beliefs. . . I am not saying children or young people can't model mature discipleship. They often do it much better than adults; but do we place a much greater burden on children and young people if we ask this of them at a time of rapid growth and development in their lives?"

Prebendary Lynas's first amendment (including the reference to confirmation) was lost, as was Canon Winter's; and Prebendary Lynas withdrew his second amendment. But Mr Fletcher's amendment was carried.

Debate resumed on the amended motion.

Elizabeth Paver (Sheffield) with a "very heavy heart" opposed it. The Archdeacon of Sarum, the Ven. Alan Jeans (Salisbury), urged the Church to be "risk-taking and permission-giving". Baptism, not confirmation, was "the normative rite of initiation". Prudence Dailey (Oxford) failed to win enough support for a vote by Houses, and the motion, as amended, was clearly carried. It said:

That this Synod request that Canon B 12 and the Regulations taking effect under it be amended so that:

(a) the Holy Sacrament may be distributed by any authorized regular communicant (including children admitted to the Holy Communion under the Admission of Baptised Children to Holy Communion Regulations 2006);

(b) if the diocesan bishop agrees, the necessary authorization may be given in relation to any parish by the incumbent, priest in charge or (during a vacancy) rural dean;

(c) no person shall be authorized to distribute the Holy Sacrament without the support of the parochial church council of the parish or, where the Holy Communion is celebrated in a school and the person concerned is a child, of the head teacher of the school; and

(d) the authorisation given in relation to any parish is required to be kept under review in accordance with guidelines issued by the diocesan bishop.


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