Welcome to the banquet
It is a holy moment. It almost always is. At the heart of the worship area the long banqueting table, covered by a shimmering purple-blue cloth, is set. In the centre is the platter with a large flat loaf resting on a mound of red grapes.
Once the Eucharistic bread and wine have been consecrated, the children will flock to take their seats at the banquet. Each child will be given a hunk of loaf followed by a handful of grapes. They will be reminded by name that Jesus loves them, that he died for them, that he is with them always and everywhere.
The children are not receiving Holy Communion. They have not gone through a preparation course although at least once a year they all explore the meaning of Holy Communion. Their parents may stay with them if they are very young but this is essentially a ‘children only’ experience. Prior to his retirement, Bishop Peter appreciated the banquet when he visited us.
The Eucharistic banquet is rich in symbolism and meaning for these children and for the whole church at St Paul’s Finchley. Let me explain!
At the centre of worship
The banqueting table is physically at the centre of worship. The eye of anyone coming to worship is instantly drawn to the colourful table stretching across the front of the church, right in front of the chancel steps. It is obviously for children, so it says that both children and the Eucharist are really important in this church community.
Spiritual, intellectual and emotional development
The banquet recognises children’s spiritual, intellectual and emotional development. The children know they are an important part of the ceremony since they participate as much as the adults do, if not more so. Sitting and eating at the banquet they experience being part of a feast in a way that is more difficult to create with a wafer or a small piece of bread and a sip of wine. They are reminded of the last supper story, they taste, they see, they smell, they touch, they hear the words of consecration and blessing. For them this is a truly multi-sensory act of worship. They look forward to it and they remember. It is so wholly appropriate for children.
The banquet gives two pastoral opportunities to minister to each child, calling them by name as they are first given the bread and then the red grapes. They are always reminded of the reason why only red grapes are used and they watch as a jagged tear is made that splits the large loaf. Jesus’ body was really broken. His red blood poured from his stabbed side. For those distributing the bread and grapes it is a precious privilege.
The banquet is gloriously inclusive, for all children are welcome – whatever their age (toddlers included); whatever the children do or do not understand; whatever their baptismal status; whatever the faith background of their family of origin. No child is turned away. Visitors with small children may know little about the Christian faith but as they crouch down beside their small child to help them feast, their child’s experience feeds the parent’s hunger for God.
The banquet may sidestep the issue of baptised children receiving communion before confirmation, but it is an alternative that has been richly enjoyed by all ages at St Paul’s Finchley. The children have been ‘feeding on Christ in their hearts by faith and been thankful’.
Ro Willoughby is Children’s and Families’ Community Worker at St Paul’s Finchley.