The Euphemist

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Thursday, September 29, 2005

"Diary of a Reluctant Dissenter, Part I" - First Communion

Some Lutherans believe that Confirmation (about age 13-14) is the right age to start taking Communion. Others begin at an earlier age, such as in the 5th grade. I believe that 5th grade or even younger is OK, which makes me a semi-lonely dissenter in my church body. The vast majority (but not everyone) in our church body practices the First-Communion-at-Confirmation policy. Some are very confident in their conviction that children are not ready earlier than the early teens, and that it's "liberal" or something to suggest otherwise. In seminary I remember a classmate stating this conviction rather dogmatically. I stuck my neck out, piped up and said, "I began taking Communion in the 5th Grade, and I was ready." My neck didn't get chopped off, but I doubt his mind was changed. I think the subject changed quickly, however.

The locus classicus of this issue would be I Corinthians 11:28, "A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup." (NIV) The word "man" here ("person" in the ESV) is translating the Greek word anthropos, which can mean, among other things, an adult (male or female), someone who has come of age. So the argument is that you need to have come of age sufficiently to be capable of self-examination. How we really know when that is is beyond me. What if, instead of excluding the "introspectively challenged", it simply meant that adults need to examine themselves but children don't need to, before taking Communion? That would put a different spin on things! Apparently that's the position of the Eastern Orthodox Church, as they give Communion even to infants - hard to label it as "liberal", since they've been doing it for centuries.

My first church after ordination had the First-Communion-at-Confirmation policy. I would have loved to change it, but I believe policies like that are something that a whole church needs to decide together, rather than the pastor just setting his own policy (such unilateralism is rarely good pastoring anyway). I defend the prerogative of the local church to set policy, even though I don't always agree with the policy. I think some in my first church would not have been ready to change without a fight. They didn't know it, but my inner conflict about Communion policy was a factor in my departure (and in my unsuccessful attempt to leave pastoral ministry). I had the painful experience of explaining to a conscientious and precocious 2nd grader why she couldn't take Communion yet, and though she accepted the answer without complaint, I would really have rather gone ahead and given her Communion.

It's hard to be a searcher and a pastor at the same time. Being a pastor involves keeping an ordination/installation promise to dish out the teachings of our Faith according to the understanding of our church body. And that's perfectly appropriate, but being a deep questioner (not the same thing as a skeptic) means that sometimes I'm enforcing policies which I personally doubt. It must be nice to be a "true believer" and really believe that our church has it right on these things. I tried to leave parish ministry a few years back, in part so that I could escape the pain of these inner conflicts about enforcing church policy. But my attempt to flee to Tarshish was unsuccessful, and I've learned that there are even deeper pains, so now I'm back in the saddle, dealing with the same Communion issue in a new and interesting way.

I preach at two churches, which I'll call the Town Church and the Country Church. I've been at the Town Church for 4 years, and they have the traditional "First Communion after Confirmation" policy. Just to make things exciting, the Country Church, where I've preached for a little over a year, has held first Communion in the 5th grade for a number of years. Hence, an exercise in diplomacy. In my heart I'd love to see the two churches have the same policy - it would make things a lot easier - and in my heart I believe that 5th grade is plenty old enough. But I'm not ready to try to nudge the Town Church to lower the age - once again I don't think certain people would be ready to change without a fight, and right now such a fight would be a worse problem than the Communion policy. In spite of my personal convictions, I had secretly hoped that perhaps the Country Church might change their policy, at least temporarily. Until a few weeks ago, we didn't have any current 5th graders, and I wondered whether the family of our current 4th grader would be OK with us delaying his First Communion to match up with the "Town Church" kids.

But God has now blessed the Country Church with a couple of new families, including a family with three kids, one of them a 5th grader, who already has taken Communion in the Catholic Church since 2nd grade. So, in accordance with Country Church policy, I've told them that after instruction in the meaning of Communion, he may begin taking it at the Country Church.

I teach the Town & Country Church kids together in one Confirmation class. Most of them go to school together. At the Confirmation Info Meeting I tell the parents and students forthrightly that the two churches each have their own Communion policy, and each church has the prerogative to set its own policy. Town Church kids are asked not to take Communion if they ever happened to be at the Country Church on Communion Sunday (so far it hasn't happened) and Country Church kids are asked not to take Communion at the Town Church before they're confirmed (a couple of them were there on Easter). So far we haven't had any problems with the "Two Policy Policy", but I worry that someone might be offended sometime, thinking that I'm not treating them equally or something. It also means that I avoid having Communion at any joint services of the two churches (which is a kind of a loss). Last Maundy Thursday we had a Passover Seder at the Country Church, partly because I thought it would be an edifying thing to do, partly so we could have a "Communion-y" joint service without actually having Communion. For the foreseeable future I think it would be a good tradition to sustain for our joint Holy Week observances.

So I pray that until the two churches both have the same policy, that Christian good will reigns. I suppose, given my conviction, I should (slowly but surely) explore if the Town Church would be willing to change sometime. But to tell you the truth, I'm chicken.

6 Comments:

Anonymous Dave said...

Are any Lutherans true paedo-communionists, or is it always a 5th grade v. confirmation debate?

10:43 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

I assume a "true paedo-communionist" is someone who gives communion to people of any age, including infants. I think there are a few in isolated pockets here and there, mostly in the ELCA in America (contributing to the misapprehension of the issue as being "liberal/conservative"). The paedo-communionist position is seriously impeded in Lutheranism by a phrase in Article XXIV of the Augsburg Confession, which says "For none are admitted except they be first examined." That doesn't stop us from admitting many unexamined adults to the LORD's table, but that's another issue.

Dave, you have some old connections with the Theonomy/Dominionist persuasion. I understand that in the Reformed Episcopal Church (where many of them are now finding a home) paedo-communion has become a prominent emphasis. Do you happen to know if they're "true paedo-communionists" and if they would argue the case in a similar way to the Orthodox? I believe a book has been published with the title "Mommy, Daddy, Why Am I Excommunicated?" or something like that.

3:31 PM  
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