At the seminary, I remember most of my professors opposing the policy of first communion separated from catechesis and confirmation. For a long time, when I would hear of it, I opposed it also. This had less to do with traditionalism than the conviction that we should not give the Sacrament to those, "who do not know what they are receiving or why they are receiving it. " (Luther's Large Catechism) All the examples I saw of early communion confirmed that conviction. Most churches that practice early communion take the children through a short 3 or 4 week course on the specific topic of the Lord's Supper. But the question is, do the children understand what sin is so that they see their need for the Sacrament. Do they have a working definition of sin as defined by the Ten Commandments? Also, do they know who that God is whom they are to fear and love? It seemed to me that a conscientious partaking of the Lord's Supper required an informed knowledge of the faith in all its chief parts. I still believe that.
But recently, godly men and pastors whom I respect for their faithfulness to the Word of God and the Lutheran Confessions have taken a somewhat different approach than that which has been held historically by most American Lutheran Churches. Three churches that I am aware of have moved to an early communion practice for young children. Their arguments seem to me to be solid. The primary reason for their new practice is a desire to get the precious Sacrament of the body and blood of Christ to the children at the earliest possible age. I, also, share that desire.
One of their arguments is, first, most adult converts are not required to undergo all the memorization, so why should we insist that it be done by children. More to the point, why should children be denied the Sacrament until they have mastered the memorization work when adults are given a pass? Is this a double standard? Why should we deny communion to children who have not completely mastered the memorization of the Small Catechism and give it to adults who haven't even tried? What about children who are developmentally handicapped who may never be able to master the memory work? Also, as every pastor knows, there are many children who have been confirmed when they have not fully memorized the Small Catechism. We go ahead and confirm them anyway, because confirmation has become another rite of passage.
Rev. William Weedon makes the argument that our system of catechesis was not part of the age of Lutheran orthodoxy but a later development of Pietism, a movement that was more about personal devotion and introspection than objective faith in Christ. Are we going to say that Luther and the Reformers did not have a solid confirmation practice. Luther saw the parents as the primary catechists. Many old Lutherans learned the catechism from their parents then were brought to the pastor for examination. In this way they were admitted to the Sacrament.
Rev. Richard Stuckwisch makes the argument that catechesis is never really complete. It is a process that begins with baptism and ends with our ascent to glory. He also makes the point that many congregations require memorization of the six chief parts as a sort of hoop that children jump through to show their worthiness to receive the Lord's Supper. In fact, as our catechism states, "That person is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words, 'given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.'"
The new synodical hymnal makes a provision for first communion providing a rite for it. This shows that our synod is already taking steps to make this possible for congregations. In fact, congregations who wish to do it can.
As the people at Gethsemane know, we have been moving confirmation to younger ages for some time now. I still believe that a thorough catechesis for the young has value in that it prepares children to withstand the onslaught that Satan will throw at them. On the other hand, I wish for children to receive communion as early as they desire it and can receive it responsibly. The Lord's Supper itself is a faith building means of grace that strengthens and confirms us in the faith. Children coming to communion must have a handle on the six chief parts of the catechism. Luther said every Christian should know the Ten Commandments, the Apostle's Creed, and the Lord's Prayer. Without these how can we examine ourselves, believe in the One true God who has created, redeemed, and sanctified us, and how can we call upon Him.
Maybe the answer is to take the children through an introduction to the Small Catechism of about ten to twelve weeks, making sure they know the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord's Prayer. They should know something about what God has done for them in Baptism. They should know something about confession and absolution and be able to examine themselves. They should know all about the Lord's Supper, or at least the catechism material. This is, after all, what we require of adults. Later, when they are able, we can take them through again at a deeper level. But, rather than calling it first commuion, my gut feeling is, if we do this, to just go ahead and call it what it is, confirmation.
This blog, of course, is on the world wide web. I welcome all comments, but I am especially interested in the comments of my own congregation. My plan is to present some material to the congregation for them to read and consider and then to present this to the Voters' Assembly meeting in July. I look forward to having a conversation about this.