The effectiveness of traditional Sunday school methods of evangelism, and the place of children in the church’s life have been in the spotlight for some time.
In the Eastern Church, a child who has been baptised receives communion immediately. The Western Church, on the other hand, has placed a time barrier between infant baptism and the first communion. In the Protestant tradition, the barrier has been maintained until confirmation: the public Confession of Faith and Admission to the Lord’s Table at “the age of discretion.” This rite has come to be associated with the laying on of hands and prayer for the Holy Spirit.
But just as no rite of confirmation distinct from baptism can be traced in the New Testament, so none can be traced in the post apostolic church. Writers like Hermas, Irenaeus and Justin Martyr speak about baptism but nowhere mention any post-baptismal laying on of hands. The Didache specifies only baptism as necessary for admission to the Eucharist. Tertullian (c200AD) emphasised that the spirit is received in baptism, but actually in principle had drawn a distinction between baptism (as the forgiveness of sins) and the laying on of hands (as the gift of the Spirit)
Later under the influence of Augustine, the western church came to understand baptism more as the cleansing from original sin and not imparting of the spirit. So the episcopal laying on of hands came to be interpreted as the sacrament by which the spirit was imported. The reformers agree, that, according to scripture, baptism was the only sacrament of initiation. But in rejecting confirmation as a sacrament, they substituted the public confession of faith as part of the rite of admission to the Lord’s Table.
Today, the whole basis of any barrier between baptism and communion is problematic. Prolonging the period of instruction and postponing admission to communion has had the effect of children in our society treating Confirmation as a kind of graduation from church, a passing out parade. Theologically, and within the ecumenical movement, there is a growing sense of the need of affirming the reformer’s belief that Baptism is the only rite of admission to membership and the Lord’s Table, despite their practice of delaying it; and psychologically, it is seen that by denying baptised children the sacrament of communion, we in effect teach them that they do not really belong to the church, and encourage the habit of seeing themselves as outsiders.
We would do well to remember that the sacrament does not just focus on the death of Christ. That is to confuse the last supper with the Lord’s Supper. The Holy Spirit could only make Christ present for us if Christ is still alive- therefore the Sacrament of Holy Communion is about the death, the resurrection and the second coming of Jesus. Over the centuries, Christians have experienced the sacrament of Holy Communion ‘working’ in different ways. It can be a way in which God offers something concrete in the way of conferring grace to the believer, or it can also be a way in which the faith of the believer is strengthened. It can help to build up the fellowship of the community of faith and it can remind us of God’s promises towards us.
In the fourth century, there was a serious conflict in the life of the Church, known as the Donatist controversy. One of the key questions of debate was whether a person baptised by a bishop who lapsed was truly baptised, or whether he or she needed to be baptised again by an orthodox bishop. So, the debate centred on whether the sacrament ‘worked’ because of the character of the presiding minister. In the end, consensus was reached that because all people (including ministers!) are sinful in some way other, if the character of the minister is crucial then no one would ever receive a true sacrament. It was agreed that the sacrament did not work because of the holiness of the minister, but because of the holiness of the Holy Spirit.
In conclusion, it is very important for us to understand when it comes to the Holy Communion. Anything and everything that happens with this sacrament (‘sign’) is not dependent upon the education or the holiness, or the age or colour or sex of the presiding minister. The minister is a channel through which the Holy Spirit works to make the sacrament ‘work’ in the lives of the faithful. Therefore, it would seem to be a great mistake to prevent baptised children and even sinners from coming to the table. Perhaps the practice in some churches of refusing them access to the sacrament misses something important about what the spirit can do in people’s lives.