Wednesday, January 11, 2006


In children’s ministries here at St. Paul and St. James, the annual Christmas pageant tends to bring children out of the woodwork and, at least for a while, back into the orbit of the church—or, sometimes, into the church’s orbit for the first time. It’s fitting that this annual “teachable moment” leads directly into the season of Epiphany, which encourages us to focus on spreading the Good News that God has come into the world to be with us, to share our life and our death, and to offer us new life.

Children who come to us without much church background typically enjoy Sunday School a great deal and are then confused by what happens when they get into church. There, up front, they see a table set with a white tablecloth and candles, and a brightly robed adult setting out bread and wine. All the people, including kids, come forward and are given a morsel of bread and a sip of wine. What is this all about?

Even if they have had some experience with churchgoing, they are likely to be puzzled. If their earlier experience was in an evangelical, Pentecostal, or African-American church, the focus on the Lord’s Table—as opposed to prayer, praise, preaching and witness—will be unfamiliar. If their background is Roman Catholic, the altar will be familiar, but not the fact that children under 8 are receiving bread and wine.

Often, children who are visiting our Sunday school have tagged along with a friend who is a member of our church. Typically, their parents are not with them. When we line up after our Sunday school project to join the congregation at the Offertory, what is the right thing to say to them, to orient them to what is coming next?

Usually, when a visiting child tells me that he or she has no experience of church, or no experience of sharing bread and wine in church, I will say something like this: “When we go into church there will be bread and wine on the altar—the table at the front. It’s special bread and wine and it has special meaning. In a little while, people will come up to the front. You can come to the front too. Because it’s your first time here, and you haven’t learned yet about the bread and wine, you should hold your hands like this—” I cross my arms over my chest— “and the priest will give you a blessing. If you keep on coming, we can talk with your Mom about what we should do so that you can get the bread and wine too.”

What we hope will happen, of course, is that the kids will come back ... and that they will learn the story of Jesus, and begin to be stirred by his invitation to come to him, to be part of his Body, to be fed with his special food. We will tell them that they need to spend some time learning and praying, and then they can be baptized. We will need to talk to their parent or parents. Our parish baptismal process will include enrollment, the assignment of at least one “parish sponsor” along with any godparents the family may choose, then several sessions of preparation, and finally, baptism on one of the major baptismal feasts. Once baptized, they will begin to receive communion. This has been the traditional sequence in the Christian church throughout its long history.

St. PJ’s is “centered in the eucharist and grounded in baptism.” We refer constantly to baptism as a powerfully formative experience. We have a baptismal process that involves enrollment, preparation, and the involvement of parish sponsors. Normally, we see baptism as the sacrament of entrance, and the eucharist as the sacrament of sustenance. Normally, you get born and named and welcomed, and then you get fed. And once you are born, you are a member of the family: baptized children receive communion from the day of their baptism. There is no “first communion;” no confirmation requirement, before a child is welcomed to the table. Normally, there is a pattern and a process, that provide order and structure for the life of faith.

Sometimes this scenario works just fine. Just as often, however, we hit a snag.

Families with a Roman Catholic background may have one or more children who were baptized some time ago, as infants; then, as the family drifted away from church attendance and practice, the younger children were never baptized. Should the baptized child be encouraged to receive communion as soon as the family begins attending, while the younger siblings are asked to wait?

Families with an evangelical background may feel strongly that their children need to show signs of a true “born again” conversion before they are allowed to be baptized. They may withhold permission for a child to be baptized because they do not see signs of a radical life change in their child.

Families experiencing stresses, disruption, and economic difficulties may begin planning for children’s baptism, and then change their plans, because they no longer feel ready for a big celebration. An eagerly anticipated, already scheduled, baptism may be put on hold indefinitely as the parents struggle through a family crisis, or hope for better times when they can afford new clothes or a party worthy of this important event in their child’s life.

For any of these reasons, unbaptized children attending St. PJ’s may remain in an extended limbo, where it is unclear whether or when they will go through the full baptismal process that is supposed to be the prerequisite to receiving communion.

This is hard for kids. Sometimes they take matters (literally) into their own hands. They simply stick out their hands like the people around them, asking for the bread and wine. If the priest administering communion knows that a child is unbaptized, he or she may gently remind the child that it’s not yet time for them to receive … or may decide to dispense with the standard process and respond to the child’s desire. Sometimes the kids may quite intentionally choose the side of the altar where the minister of communion does not know them, and will serve them with no questions asked—or even leave the altar rail where the priest has just given them a blessing and come back and try again on the other side.

Our parish prides itself on its diversity and inclusiveness. We have a very high level of discomfort with anything that appears unwelcoming or judgmental, or places “hoops” in front of people. When adult newcomers participate in communion, nobody examines them on the question of whether they are baptized. Even once an adult has informed the clergy that he or she is unbaptized, nobody will refuse outright to give communion to that person if he or she continues to come to the altar with hands outstretched.

In the name of welcoming and including, we may look the other way when adults take it upon themselves to follow a different order. But what about kids?

If baptism and eucharist are as powerful as we say they are, then presumably we have no right to administer them to children without the full cooperation, or at least the full consent, of their parents. But (in my experience at least) parents express much more hesitation about baptism than about the eucharist. Baptism is seen (rightly) as a once-and-once-only commitment of faith; as an occasion of public and family celebration. Communion is seen (wrongly?) as a much less momentous business--a matter of fairly casual personal weekly practice, about which parents are relatively indifferent. The kids, however, are not indifferent.

Would baptism lose some of its power if it were no longer seen as the gateway to the eucharist? Would “the baptized” become an elite minority of the super-committed, instead of the whole community of faith? What are the implications of allowing the eucharist to be seen increasingly as a fellowship meal, from which none should be turned away, rather than a holy mystery reserved for the initiated? Is it more important pastorally to show children from at-risk families a clear, orderly pattern of boundaries and process, requiring effort and patience; to affirm their parents’ right to choose for them; or to address their hunger right now?

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At 3:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

From a friend, a priest at a small parish:

You hit several nails squarely on their heads. No one asks about baptismal status if an adult comes forward and extends hands to receive the eucharist. I have a four-year-old, Tiffany, who comes to church with her father's girlfriend's grandmother. Tiffany isn't baptized. I communicate her regularly. The girlfriend's grandmother has said "We need to get Tiffany baptized." I told her I'd welcome a conversation with Tiffany's but that she had no dog in this fight. I won't even consider baptizing Tiffany without his involvement and consent. But Tiffany is hungry and spiritual and I feed her.

But I also struggle. Tiffany is four and for now it's okay. But what do I do as she grows older? At what point do I talk with her about her baptism? At what point would I consider baptizing her because she wants it (even if her father doesn't)? I remember an Easter Vigil at St. PJ's when two teenagers were baptized, and was really struck by their assents that they did want this sacrament. And what do I do if Tiffany grows up and doesn't want to be baptized but still puts her hands forward when she comes to the rail? If I knew an adult was not baptized and did not want to be but wanted to receive, I would use it as an opening for pastoral conversation and pray that baptism would result. What I don't know is whether I would refuse to feed that person if he/she decided against baptism. I don't want to be the one who decides whether or not someone is eligible (worthy?) to receive. But I also took vows to uphold the doctrine and discipline of the Episcopal Church.

It's gnarly. When you get answers to the questions you posed at the end of your piece (or answers to mine), please share!

At 2:28 AM, Blogger Lydia said...

Nice to be found by you. Do you know about the Blogging Episcopalians blogring? It may bring you readers (although I have to say few people I don't know ever comment on my blog) or help you find other interesting Episcopians. If you scroll down on my blog, you will find a box that says Blogging Episcopalians and click on JOIN. The keeper of the blogring is my friend Emily of who is also a knitter.


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