First communion in the ELCE

In my previous post, I said I would be looking at the ELCE’s position on confirmation and communion. This is set out in a 2002 report by the ELCE’s Commission on Theological and Social Concerns, entitled “Confirmation, Catechesis, and First Communion in the Lutheran Church” (PDF).

The report provides a helpful historical overview of the development of confirmation from the early church through to the Reformation and beyond. I don’t propose to look at this now, as it covers similar ground to my earlier post. The report is concise and readable, and it is worth reading the whole thing (regardless of whether you’re an ELCE member).

One point the report does make in this section, though, is that Luther continued the rite of confirmation only with some reluctance (“it is clear that [his] heart was not in it”), and his strong preference was for lifelong catechesis of young and old, in conjunction with regular private confession and absolution. The report’s conclusions recommend a recovery of this emphasis on lifelong catechesis (while remaining tactfully silent on private confession, a practice that is by no means repudiated by the ELCE, if you catch my drift).

The report then draws a number of conclusions concerning the ELCE’s current practice. I don’t think one has to read too far between the lines to discern the personal position of the report’s authors, particularly in the section outlining some of the “dangers” of the current approach. Observing that “confirmation in the ELCE and her sister churches has traditionally taken place at the age of 13-14, or older”, the report states as follows:

a. Historically considered, this is extremely late to delay a child’s first reception of the Sacrament.

b. Although some arguments may be put forward in favour of such a late age, it was originally due to pietistic, rationalistic, and political reasons, which have nothing to do with the Gospel.

c. There is no scriptural or confessional reason to withhold the Sacrament from a child who is able to be instructed, examined, and absolved.

d. The pre-teen and teenage years can be among the most spiritually difficult times in a person’s life, a time when the strength afforded by the Sacrament is most needed.

However, the report’s conclusions at first appear to draw back from the obvious implications of these observations:

The ELCE’s current practice that a person’s first reception of Holy Communion in our church be preceded by intensive catechetical instruction and marked by a public rite of acceptance to the Lord’s Supper should be continued as a useful norm. Such a process and rite may or may not be called “confirmation”.

This sounds awfully like “business as usual” (especially if we overlook how lukewarm the expression “a useful norm” sounds, like Tony Blair describing Gordon Brown last week as “a remarkable chancellor”).

But then the next paragraph continues (I love the delicate irony of the opening words):

Recognising that withholding the Sacrament from younger children may not always be justifiable, pastors and parents should be encouraged to begin the catechetical and examination process at the age that is suitable to each individual child. Holy Scripture places upon parents the primary responsibility to raise their children in the faith, and pastors are called to assist them in this duty.

The last sentence sounds very much as if the primary responsibility for assessing whether a child is ready to receive communion lies with the parents, with the pastor’s responsibility being to “assist” them in making this assessment. The paragraph as a whole certainly makes it very difficult to argue that a six- or seven-year old child who is “able to be instructed, examined, and absolved” should be excluded from the Lord’s Table. (For the purposes of this discussion, we are setting aside the question of whether that is that is the correct basis of assessment.)

The next conclusion is even more pointed:

In the absence of a specific Word of God on the matter, congregations must learn to be tolerant of a diversity of practice in such matters as the age of “confirmation”.

As is the following paragraph, which states that:

Members of the congregation should trust the pastor’s judgement in dealing with unusual circumstances.

Now that cuts both ways, of course. It means that parents shouldn’t get too uppity if the pastor judges that their child should not be admitted to communion. But the overall dynamic appears to be: parents have the primary responsibility for determining their child’s readiness to receive communion; the pastor is to assist them in making this determination; and any members of the congregation who don’t like it should (ahem) “trust the pastor’s judgement” (which I think translates as, “butt out”).

I may be reading too much into this. Certainly I don’t believe the report is justifying parental militancy – a particular danger for middle-class parents accustomed to making sure their children get what the parents determine the children need – or attempts to overthrow the pastor’s authority.

But the report’s final conclusion is unarguably correct. What’s more, I believe the process it commends could lead only to one conclusion on this issue (and I suspect the report’s authors were well aware of this):

Unity of understanding and practice in this matter would be improved if the pastors and members of the ELCE would carefully review together such basic teachings as the nature and benefits of Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, grace and justification, catechesis and confession of faith.

Once we really understand and appreciate what the Lord’s Supper is, and the gifts we receive in it; and once we really understand and appreciate that our children’s baptism has fully incorporated them into Christ and given them the Spirit, as surely as our own baptism has for us; once we shake off the last influences of pietistic and Reformed thinking concerning the shape of the Christian life; then how can we withhold from our children the gifts we claim for ourselves?

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