Communion on the rise at Christian schools

Christian schools in the US are performing Communion, prompting a discussion about how much church and school should intersect...

Marie Correia, a spry 10-year-old, stood in a line recently with 20 other fifth graders dressed in white shirts and black pants. The group left a pew and walked to a wooden table where they retrieved pieces of homemade bread and cups of grape juice. Their faces blank and hands fidgety, the children returned to the pew.

“We drink this juice and we eat this bread to remember our Lord, Jesus Christ,” said the Rev. Thomas Clark from the large altar at the Tri-City Christian Academy in Somersworth, N.H.

Then Marie, and most of her peers, ate and drank.

The ritual is hardly unique--the children were receiving the Christian sacrament of Communion that memorializes Jesus Christ’s death, known in some churches as the Eucharist. But a growing number of Christian schools nationwide are distributing Communion during the school day, prompting a discussion in religious circles about just how much church and school should intersect.

While no firm numbers exist, many religious educators report that more and more primary schools are embracing Communion.

Raymond Rafferty, a former New York University professor of religion who now works with school groups in Manhattan, believes that the rise in Communion is partly linked to an increase in conservative evangelicals.

Rafferty cautioned that schools should use the ritual as a chance to educate, but never to proselytize. He is concerned that some youngsters get so swept up in the group chapel services that they decide to abandon their own faiths.

"The school has to be very careful to make sure parents are aware of that decision," he said. "No school should try to encourage the child to join a religion without the parents' permission."

At Tri-City Christian Academy, the decision to hold Communion could be best answered by a "Why not?” said Paul Edgar, an administrator.

“We see our school as a ministry of the church, of both word and sacrament,” he said.

Still, for Ellsworth McIntyre, superintendent of Grace Community Schools, a group of nine Christian preschools with more than 2,000 students in Florida, potential divisions over serving Communion were too great to ignore.

“We seriously considered it, but we were persuaded that because we have so many Baptist and Pentecostal children who have not been baptized, we would stir up a controversy” that would send children elsewhere, McIntyre said, referring to a practice in those denominations not to baptize children under 10. It is generally agreed among various denominations of Christianity that one must be baptized to receive Communion.

Instead of Communion, the students take part in activities like Bible study and prayer, McIntyre said. “We cannot initiate a practice that would drive children from hearing, studying and praying the word of God,” he said.

At schools distributing Communion, the rite usually takes place during a chapel service. Some schools hold chapel daily and offer Communion only a few times a year. At the St. Hilda’s & St. Hugh’s Episcopal School in Manhattan, which has 370 students, daily chapel is augmented weekly with Communion, said the school director, Virginia Conner.

“For me, the Eucharist is our communal life. It is what we do. It is how we worship as a corporate body,” Conner said. She noted that some of the students - in preschooler through eighth grade - are not Christian.

The non-Christian population in Conner’s school prompted some faculty members and parents to question whether weekly Communion was necessary.

“Yes, it is,” Conner said she told them, saying the school’s mission was to help students better connect with their own faith. “I hope we leave a Catholic a better Catholic, a Jew a better Jew.”

Edgar, the administrator at Tri-City Christian Academy, agrees.

“I think it’s not at all confusing; rather, it’s clarifying," he said. "When you have a clear Communion experience, the clarity of whether or not you are a Christian is revealed.”

Other religious educators disagree, and the umbrella group comprised mostly of evangelical schools says the practice is an institution's individual choice.

“This is something that is totally determined at the local level, not by us,” said Burt Carney, spokesman for the Association of Christian Schools International.

Dan Bragg, superintendent of the Cincinnati Christian School, said Communion is not part of weekly chapel services, mostly because he and other administrators prefer to focus more on class work.

“We are always having to walk a fine line between what’s our job, what’s Mom and Dad’s job and what’s the church’s job,” Braggs said. “It’s not like we won’t do Communion if requested. It’s just not a normal occurrence.”

With more than 700 students from 100 different churches, Bragg said the logistics of even trying to organize Communion during chapel would be impossible, given that each church does it a little differently.

“We’re just saying we don’t want to tell a kid, ‘This is how you do it,’” Bragg said. "I don’t think we’re committing a biblical error by not doing it.”