When we say that COVID-19 has touched “every aspect” of our lives, we’re not kidding – even the way we take Communion has changed. I’m writing this piece to explain how even one more change will affect our practice going forward, along with its theological significance.
The “common cup,” just as the term implies, is the practice of administering and receiving Communion from a single shared chalice, rather than, say, individual cups used in other denominations. Highly symbolic, and theologically significant, it has also been hotly contested throughout the long history of the Episcopal Church. When COVID-19 struck, no surprise, churches employing the “common cup” went into a tailspin. Historic fears of germ transmission became the center point of Sunday Eucharistic worship: the “commonness” or shared aspect came to be seen as a direct threat to physical health (ignoring spiritual health), and the suspension of half the Eucharist seriously disrupted the flow of the liturgy of Communion.
In the Diocese of Virginia, and consequently, at Creator, the common cup was restricted for a time, and reception in one kind (bread) was the established norm. Unfortunately, while the elimination of the Chalice satisfied viral transmission concerns, it created a crisis of polity and theological confusion by running aground of major Eucharistic theology. As Article 30 of our “39 Articles of Religion” states:
“The Cup of the Lord is not to be denied to the Lay-people: for both the parts of the Lord’s Sacrament, by Christ’s ordinance and commandment, ought to be ministered to all Christian men alike” (BCP 867-876).
This polity draws straight from Christ’s practice in the Gospels and is thus critical to us as a Eucharistic-centered worshiping Body. For some, this restriction created a spiritual vacuum that became untenable, and they left the Church for a different house of worship that did not restrict the cup. In a word, we who stayed were thirsty.
Time enough has passed now that Anglican provinces, dioceses, and parishes have modified their “Communion Methodology” to re-introduce the common cup. Indeed, the reintroduction of the Chalice was undertaken very early on in some Anglican churches with no repercussions. Well over a year ago, the Diocese of Ottawa, Canada reintroduced the Chalice with the following statement. I’m citing a significant portion of their letter because it contains information valuable to us in considering the health and hygiene considerations:
Please be assured this step is only being taken because it is known to be very low risk. What follows is a summary of a paper by Bishop Shane’s public health advisor, Rev. Michael Garner. Michael is the associate incumbent of St. Thomas the Apostle church in Ottawa, but before joining the priesthood, he worked in public health and epidemiology for more than 20 years, including 13 years as an infectious disease epidemiologist at the Public Health Agency of Canada. The full-length paper was written for the national House of Bishops.
People have questioned the hygiene of sharing chalices during communion for more than 100 years, but during the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, research showed the risk of transmitting HIV by using a common cup was very low. Since then, research on infection risks at communion has focused on whether viruses or bacteria can be found in the common cup after the service, and so far there is no documented evidence of diseases being spread by sharing the cup. People also worry that during a regular communion service, the chalice will be contaminated by the saliva of the participants. While it’s true a shared cup could transmit infection through saliva, the risk is extremely low, with no documented cases of any disease ever being spread that way. In the case of COVID-19 the risk is even lower because it’s spread by aerosols and droplets: the fact is, the risk of catching COVID is far greater from breathing air exhaled by an infectious person next to you than from sharing a common cup.
The full-length paper is reproduced and available in the Narthex and is linked here:
Based on the review and adoption of this paper, combined with our theology and the 39 Articles, most of the parishes and Diocese in Canada reinstated the Chalice within the same year. Helpful information coming out of the Diocese of New Westminster reads:
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, medical authorities were still uncertain as to how the virus was spread. Very quickly Anglican bishops in Canada decided to limit consumption of the consecrated wine to the presider and only to distribute the consecrated bread to the other communicants. In addition to these restrictions, clergy and congregations were mandated to wear masks, to sanitize their hands frequently and to maintain physical distance.
These measures were reasonable precautions to limit the spread of the virus and to protect the more vulnerable members of our congregations. But we know now that the virus is not transmitted by food and that sharing the common cup poses a minuscule risk, particularly when our traditional practices of administration are employed, e.g., the use of wine, wiping the chalice after each communicant and the sanitizing of the hands of the administrator prior to administering the cup.
In the American Episcopal Church, dioceses have also been returning to the Common Cup. At Eastertide of this year, Bishop Dietsche of the Diocese of New York wrote:
I am happy to authorize, effective immediately, the return to Communion in Both Kinds, and to permit, and encourage, the restoration of the Common Cup in the worship of our churches.
I have long felt that the passing of the communion cup from person to person is one of the most powerful symbols we have in the Christian church of our mutual vulnerability, depth of community, and open self-offering one to another. As a very frequent celebrant at our altars, I have often felt uncomfortable and even lonely when I have drunk from the cup alone. So I have longed for this day, and the full return of our customary and ancient practice of holy communion. May this add to the joy of our Easter celebration and the lifting of our collective heart!
There are so many other powerful witnesses affirming the return of the Common Cup from both a health and spiritual perspective, all affirming confidence, safety, diligence, and faith. It is no wonder that its absence has caused the confusion, sadness, and even division it has in our own Creator family because the common cup is a hugely significant part of our corporate worship and an indispensable symbol of theological reality. According to the Rt. Rev. John Baycroft, former Bishop of Ottawa, the Common Cup is central to our heritage:
“The cup is also important. Jesus took one cup and gave it to all of his disciples to drink. Perhaps it was the cup of Elijah from the Passover ritual as some people say, but it was certainly a single cup. He did not merely pour wine into the disciples’ individual cups and tell them to take a drink. There is a powerful challenge in this one. We are reminded of the agonizing decision that faced Jesus when he was praying before the crucifixion: ‘My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt. (Matthew 26:39). …. We are also reminded by the one cup that we cannot drink it alone. We drink from a common cup as a strong symbol of unity and our willingness to accept each other. We share our love and lives as we share the cup. The implications for this for fellowship and support in the local church, for relationships between rich and poor in communities and nations, and for justice between North and South and first world and world countries are enormous. The cup of love and unity is unavoidably a cup of sacrifice.”
In keeping with this great cloud of witnesses, it is a great joy that at long last we will once again offer the Common Cup here at Creator.
Our New Eucharistic Practice
We will be offering the Eucharist in three different ways:
We will fully adopt this new methodology on Sunday, September 11th.
If you have any questions or concerns, please do contact me—I want to help people feel comfortable and fed at our altar in any way I can.
Faithfully in Christ,
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Father Bill Burk†