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blessing or communion?

layingonhandsPrior to the 1970s, NZ Anglicans had to be confirmed in order to be allowed to receive communion. Then in the 70s and 80s General Synod allowed those baptised who had been “Admitted to Communion” to receive communion. This followed the then RC model of “First Communion”. In 1990 General Synod restored the tradition of communion for all the baptised, whatever their age, whatever their denomination. Confirmation moved from a puberty rite, to an adult confirmation of faith in the presence of the community and our bishop. Roman Catholics, meanwhile, moved in the opposite direction age-wise, now offering confirmation as a completion of baptism and requiring it for communion (where Anglicans were prior to 1970). Roman Catholics also require that one be a Roman Catholic in good standing (eg. not divorced/remarried) and have made one’s “first communion” in order to receive communion at their Mass.

All this means that in a variety of circumstances there will be some going forward for communion, whilst others present in the congregation are not welcomed to receive. In many places these are invited to come forward for a “blessing”.

There are different forms and traditions within Christianity about “blessings” – and generally a weak theological reflection on this IMO. Bishops and priests regularly bless in different forms. Roman Catholic deacons bless. Anglican deacons do in some provinces (eg. marriages, baptismal water). NZ Anglicanism appears to not have reflected much on this (do any deacons bless the baptismal water in NZ? – I know of none that bless marriages here).

I am aware of abuses: I have seen clergy administer lollies (sweets) to children as “the body of Christ”! I have heard a child back in the pew say, “Mummy, mummy, I don’t want to go up there and get my head measured again”!

I have seen blessings (“replacing communion”) done with far more reverence, take longer, and with greater intensity than receiving communion – giving greater weight to blessing than communion. Similarly, I’m sure we’ve all seen a blessing at the end of the Eucharist (optional in the NZ Anglican rite) done so dramatically as to “compete” with communion [remembering that this concluding blessing grew historically as receiving communion diminished].

Roman Catholic lay people cannot formally bless in a liturgy. At the Eucharist when distributing communion, the priest is the “ordinary minister” and lay people are “extraordinary ministers”. This means often when there are large groups not receiving communion but seeking a blessing at a Roman Catholic Mass, the priest, the ordinary minister of communion, is giving the blessings, while the extraordinary minister is administering communion.

Some, of course, hold to the position that if something is not mentioned in the rubrics or appropriate documents, then it is forbidden – there being no mention of blessing as an option at communion time, they argue, it should not be offered.

Increasingly there are health issues around communion. Do we lay hands on people’s heads and then with the same hand administer bread – sometimes on people’s tongues?

Pastorally, do we refuse communion to any who come forward that we know are not welcome to receive in our tradition?

This reflection can be extended to blessings in the home: of meals, places, people, our children. Protestants often do not use the sign of the cross having lost touch with their Reformation heritage.

What are your own reflections as you read the above post? What are your own practices and practices in your community and why?

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16 thoughts on “blessing or communion?”

  1. From what I recall most anglican churches I’ve been to in the UK have some kind of “don’t put your hands up to receive” system that results in a blessing instead. If it’s offered in advance verbally, the priest will normally make it clear that it’s the recipient’s choice: the table is open to all but one may elect not to participate fully in bread & wine per se, if one so wishes for one’s own reasons rather than any imposition of the church’s.

    Pastorally, do we refuse communion to any who come forward that we know are not welcome to receive in our tradition?

    Not if you want to see me again! It is not the job of the Church to guard access to the sacraments as though God somehow needed them protected (as if mankind could control them), but rather to guide the people *in* to encounter God *through* them, growing in understanding what happens as they grow through practice. If the Anglican understanding of a sacrament is “a visible means of realising inner grace” or something then the celebration is between me and God and woe betide anyone who puts a rule in the way.

  2. I have shared the eucharist in many traditions and often times it has been reduced to, in the words of my Old Testament lecturer, ‘the worlds smallest crumb competition’ as the worshippers break bread together.

    The blessing is often done to the side, and is for those without a strong faith commitment or who are too young to understand the ritual.

    I have an ‘anabaptist’ theological understanding myself, thus any believer may administer communion or bless or pray for another person.

    Now if I became a part of the Anglican communion and ministered in that context, I would seek to bless those who had not made a commitment to Christ. I would do this as a witness to the non-believer, that they may have communion with God through faith in Christ. The blessing then serves to make the non-believer welcomed into the fellowship in one respect, showing love, but also marks the believing community out as separate, holy

  3. Hi. I attend a US Episcopal church. The program is printed with the liturgy so you don’t have to flip around in the BCP. When it comes to the Eucharist, it says that all baptized Christians are welcome and if you don’t want either element, to cross your arms in front of your chest. It also says others who are not baptized Christians can come forward for a blessing.

    I haven’t been next to any non-Christians at the communion rail, but I have been next to a woman who normally receives, but declined one time (perhaps ill and not wanting intinction? don’t know…) and a baptized child of around 3 who is still a little young to understand. Our priest did a blessing that was essentially spiritual communion–she blessed them with words that included something to the effect of Christ’s presence. I don’t know what would be done to other people.

    I’m pretty sure no one would ever say to someone “YOU’RE NOT BAPTIZED!” and decline them communion at our church.

    I’m not confirmed as an Episcopalian yet, but I’m undergoing catechesis starting in February.

  4. Bosco, thanks for a thought-provoking post. My own practice is to err on the side of inclusion and offer communion to anyone who asks for it though I include in the bulletin the rubric that communion is open to all baptized Christians regardless of denomination. One time a parishioner challenged me on offering communion to children (even though baptized) because they do not understand – my response was, “Do you, do any of us really understand?” With the 1979 BCP TEC recognizes baptism as full membership in the Church. Having said all this I also think we need better and more intentional formation for all ages.

    1. Yes, Mike, I would ask those who only nourish upon full understanding if they wait until a child understands the Biology etc. of nutrition prior to allowing them to eat and drink. Like you, I am still growing in my understanding of the Eucharist (and ordinary nutrition), and I agree we all need ongoing, intentional study, training, and formation. My hope is always that this site is part of that, including for me as I research and learn from others in their comments and responses.

  5. At my church in San Francisco, the rubric is something akin to “this is not our table, nor is it the table of the Episcopal church. It is God’s table, and all who feel called to it are welcome.” This was extremely important to me since my husband is a non-baptized Christian. The welcome we received at Holy Innocents deepened our faith experience. If anyone feels diminished that wine and wafer were presented to someone who wasn’t baptized, I feel very, very sorry for them.

  6. “Mummy, mummy, I don’t want to go up there and get my head measured again!”

    Bosco, you can’t imagine how hard I laughed when I read that one!

    But on a more reflective note, if you haven’t read the book “Take this bread”, read it. It’s the story about how a woman came to the Episcopal church BECAUSE she decided to start going up to the communion rail. There would be those who said she shouldn’t have done it without the proper “training and preparation,” but what I would argue is it was the sacrament itself that led her to a fuller understanding of God. My guess is the elements are perfectly capable for caring for themselves, and we human beings put an awful lot of rules in front of them and complicate things.

    As many have already said, a printed notice in the bulletin probably suffices, and I realize some folks are more lenient about the non-baptized than others there, but ultimately, I think I’d rather err on the “giving” than the “not giving” side.

  7. I’ve found in my Church (St Barnabas fendalton) that I you tallk to one of the Priests and say you are not baptised for what ever reason the vicar ofers a blessing but the youth ministers allow people to have communion anyway

  8. Really important issue imo. Thanks for raising it. I have written a piece of academic work on the issue of children and communion – how receiving or not affects the child’s understanding of it. I came to it expecting that children who received would have a better understanding. Very small sample and not statistically valid, but when I spoke to children in a range of contexts (UK Methodist, Anglican, Baptist with different practices) there was no clear difference in the level of understanding. However, the clear tendency was that children who had always received thought that it was important for them to do so, and were horrified that some weren’t allowed to until they were older. Children who didn’t receive (including those who were significantly older, who professed some level of faith, including daughter of one of the church leaders) were strikingly indifferent, didn’t seem to care at all that they didn’t receive. Why should they? How can we teach someone that this is an important means of grace FOR THEM, and then tell them that they can’t have it until they are older / better educated / whatever else the hurdle might be? Do we want future generations to be indifferent to the Eucharist?
    Really interesting parallel with the passover meal where one of the main emphases is to pass the communal memory on to the younger generation – the youngest child asks ‘why do we do this? what does it mean…?’ and the story of the 4 sons and their different questions is also significant here I think. If we trust the liturgy to do its job (ok, with some backup in teaching) then we grow in understanding though participation, not outside of it.
    Try reading whatever liturgy your church uses while imagining that you are not able to receive. Does it make sense? What does it tell you about who you are? How much of it can a non-communicant say and still make sense? Not a lot more than the Lord’s Prayer and the Peace. Try ‘Lord we come to your table trusting in your mercy… we are not worthy even to gather up the crumbs… but it is your nature always to have mercy…so feed us (but not the children) that we may for ever live in him and he in us.’
    In my experience with my own children, the pre-school years, age 2 up, are particularly significant. In terms of child development, this sort of thing is right up their street – exploring identity, learning to belong, something re-enactable, the essence of play – that this thing can be / stand for something else.
    I could say more… but really should stop :o)

  9. I left the Catholic church years ago for many reasons. I came to the Episcopal church 15 years ago. I was very fortunate with the parish we chose. After 3 weeks of attending, I decided to receive the eucharist. Their stand was if you’re a baptized Christian, come on down! I went up that Sunday and received and it changed me. I cannot explain how or why. It’s one of the many mysteries I experience when God has a hand in it. 🙂 I am not going to argue the rules of various parishes. I can only relay my experience. As far as children go, they do grown in understanding. I love your articles and posts Father Bosco. Keep them coming.

  10. Just wondered whether anyone can answer this…I grew up in an Anglican church in which there was a (possibly) unspoken rule that you had to be confirmed before actually receiving the bread and wine, though you could go up for a blessing. A couple of weeks before being confirmed I decided to pull out of it, though am still not sure why. I walked away from Christianity a few years later but have come back to it in the past few years. I have struggled a lot with my faith during that time and the one thing I have been unable to do is to take part in communion. A couple of times I have gone up intending to take the bread and wine but have found I cannot open my hands to receive it and feel physically uncomfortable. I simply cannot bring myself to take it and feel that it is distancing me from God. Anyone got any reasons why this may be happening?

  11. From your description I understand that you have every right to receive communion and it sounds as if there may be psychological and emotional issues that it will be fruitful for you to explore with a competent person – you mention you are still unsure why you did not continue to confirmation, for example. As this is clearly distressing you, I suggest you try and find someone who is competent to explore these issues with you. I would like to hope that your pastor can point you towards such a person. Blessings.

  12. Just a question, I have been reading much lately and can’t remember where I read about whether to name or not when giving the bread and wine at communion? Can you give me some help on this

    many thanks

    1. Thanks for your question, Sharon. I am not at all aware of any writing about this – but some others reading this might like to comment. Sure, use the person’s name if you know everyone receiving. But what happens if you are distributing and suddenly someone’s name slips your mind? How does a visitor feel, if everyone else is named and they are not? Blessings.

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