By Fr. Mark Perkins
Given the phenomenon of “evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail,” we Anglicans have increasingly welcomed into our midst baptized Christians who have not been confirmed — thus raising the question of whether priests should administer communion to such Christians. The final rubric in the Order of Confirmation (page 299 of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer) might seem to settle the matter unambiguously:
“And there shall none be admitted to the Holy Communion, until such time as he be confirmed, or be ready and desirous to be confirmed.”
Nevertheless, there are three considerations which suggest otherwise. The first and by far most important point is that the restriction is not a matter of sacramental validity but of good order. The rubrical exception — “or be ready and desirous to be confirmed” — teaches us this. If reception by the unconfirmed were invalid (as would be the reception of the unbaptized), there could be no such general exception given.
This supposition is strengthened when we note the history of this rubric. The exception for those “desirous to be confirmed” was added in the 1662 BCP — presumably to clarify the position of the children of English colonists who could not be confirmed without journeying to England. When we journey further back to the 1552, we find that the rubric lacks the aforementioned exception but includes an additional requirement:
“And there shal none be admitted to the holy Communion, until suche tyme as he can saye the Catechisme, and bee confirmed.”
No one, of course, thinks that memorizing the catechism is sacramentally necessary for the reception of Holy Communion.
The contemporary practice of the broader Western Church likewise affirms that baptized but unconfirmed Christians can validly receive. Today, young Roman Catholic children generally take First Communion at a young age, followed by confirmation many years later. (The laudable Roman Catholic movement to restore the ancient order of the sacraments does not cast any doubt upon the fundamental validity of the current system — only its good order.) Nor am I aware of any Western theologians who declare confirmation to be strictly necessary for valid communication. (I make no claims about the East one way or the other.)
Thus, our own prayer book, the widespread practice of the Western Church, and basic principles of sacramental theology affirm with surety that baptized Christians can validly receive, even if they have not been confirmed.
The second point considers how the rubric’s historical context relates to good order. The rubric restricting Holy Communion to the confirmed comes from the very first English prayer book, the 1549 BCP (where no exceptions are listed, nor is the additional requirement of saying the catechism present). The rubric’s original scope dealt entirely with Catholic Christians — and naturally so, given that there were virtually no English Christians outside of the Church of England, and none canonically recognized by the Church. Given this historical context, the rubric answers the question, “When should Catholic children first partake of the Eucharist?” It does not even imagine our entirely different situation, and therefore it cannot offer any direct guidance about whether baptized Christians coming from other traditions should be repelled from the altar.
That framing reveals the third consideration. Whereas the rubric in question contemplates First Communion, our situation more closely relates to excommunication. Granted, these unconfirmed Christians may not have partaken of certainly valid Eucharists in the past, and so, whether they realize it or not, they may in fact be presenting themselves for First Communion at our altars. Even in that instance, though, their actual circumstance is far removed from that envisioned by the framers of the historic prayer books — which was to advise parents and godparents in preparing children baptized in the Church of England to communicate at English altars. It should go without saying that, absent grave circumstances such as the appearance of “an open and notorious evil liver” (1928 BCP, 84), we must not excommunicate baptized Christians who present themselves at our altars.
Of course, some of our people may indeed be scandalized by baptized but unconfirmed Christians communicating — but this calls for us to educate the scandalized, not to excommunicate baptized Christians. Indeed, it seems to me that more scandal is likely to be caused by refusing to give the Bread of Heaven to the baptized children of God. While the priest is charged with the fearful task of safeguarding and distributing the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, he is also tasked with feeding our Lord’s sheep. He ought not starve the sheep of heavenly sustenance due to an excessive and misguided scrupulosity about a largely unrelated rubric.
Fr. Mark Perkins is Curate at St. Alban's Anglican Cathedral in Oviedo, Florida and Executive Editor of Earth & Altar.