The Synod has recently debated children as lay eucharistic ministers. Given that in some parishes such ministers distribute the sacrament outside the eucharist, what qualities, in addition to decorum and manual dexterity, are looked for in them? Is a degree of theological learning desirable, or may this ministry suitably be exercised by an altar server or PCC member?
The question of children distributing the sacrament of holy communion needs to be seen in the wider perspective of the development of lay eucharistic ministries. There was a time when even the idea of lay eucharistic ministries would have been unthinkable, and indeed, given the supply of clergy in those days, it was unnecessary.
In radically changed circumstances, the acceptability of laity in the Church’s structure and public worship gave enormous impetus to their involvement in accredited ministries, and new patterns have evolved. At first laymen, and later laywomen, were licensed or permitted to assist their parish priest in administering the sacrament in the sanctuary at a celebration of the holy eucharist. These assistants were said to have a “chalice or sanctuary licence”.
This provision continues, and most eucharistic assistants are content to help in this limited way. It seems entirely reasonable that this restricted ministry could advantageously be open to children, who would be representatives of their peers in a congregation. The capacity to do so must depend not only on the decorum and manual dexterity to which the questioner refers, but, above all, on spiritual attributes of humble reverence and awe, coupled with modest and self-effacing demeanour — those simple and unsophisticated qualities that children often exhibit and that should never be underestimated.
This ministry of assistance, which can be shared with some of the servers and PCC members, must be clearly distinguished from the wider duties of adult lay eucharistic ministers, who, as licensed lay ministers, require training in basic eucharistic theology and the conduct of the authorised liturgy of Public Worship with Communion by Extension.
(Canon) Terry Palmer
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