Coming to a Church of England church near you this weekend: communion in one kind

Readers in the Church of England may be surprised to learn that the Archbishops of Canterbury and York have written to all clergy recommending the withdrawal of the common cup (ie. the chalice) at Holy Communion, commencing this Sunday.  You can get the official word on the Archbishop of Canterbury’s website. This is potentially controversial, as one of the hallmarks of the Reformation was the restoration of communion in both kinds (bread and wine) to all participants. In this, the Archbishops seem to be following government advice.

Simon Taylor, that wise (and brilliantly-trained) parish priest, has some very informative and intelligent comment on his blog.

As I’m not a parish priest anymore, with the responsibility of implementing this policy, I feel somewhat free to give my opinion. That opinion is from someone who has no medical training whatsoever, so take it on that basis…

The last significant ‘flu pandemic was in 1968 – so-called Hong Kong ‘Flu. During that time, weekly consultation rates rose to a peak of over 1200 per 100,000 (ie. over 1 in 100 visited the doctor each week with symptoms).  At the moment (25 July 2009), with Swine ‘Flu, weekly consultation rates are at just under 200 per 100,000. Quite how many people currently have swine ‘flu is probably impossible to know.

However, the point is this: in 1968, the common cup was not withdrawn in Holy Communion. So what’s changed? After all, this is a bad ‘flu, not bubonic plague or cholera.

Simon thinks the difference in the response is to do with there being a potential breakdown in confidence in taking Holy Communion in church – which, given our media-saturated age, may be true. A big factor, for me, is that people (and therefore governments) seem to be far more risk-averse than they were in 1968, a year which I somehow managed to survive (along with the vast majority of the Church of England).

Perhaps somewhere there are lawyers breathing the phrase “duty of care” into some ecclesiastical ears. But I can’t help feeling that this is massive overreaction. The people most at risk from this ‘flu are already ill – and they already know that they will need to take extra precautions to avoid infection. But I doubt whether withdrawing the cup from the Church of England communion services is going to make any significant difference to the spread of the disease, and hence the risk to those who are already immuno-suppressed or who have chronic illness.

Other changes apparently coming in are:

  • Communion wafers will be placed in the hands, not (as in some churches) directly in the mouth or on the tongue
  • In some places, Holy Water stoups are being drained
  • Priests and distributors of the Communion are being urged to avoid touching people’s hands while giving them the bread/wafers
  • Communion by intincting bread/wafers in the wine is being stopped – apparently, it’s more likely to spread disease than drinking directly from the cup, since we have nastier and higher-numbers of bugs on our fingers than in our mouths

Then of course, there’s shaking hands (or in some places, hugging and kissing) at the Peace…  Maybe that’s why the Church of England managed to survive the 1968 ‘flu outbreak. It was before the arrival of Holy Communion – Series 3 and ‘The Peace’. People kept in their pews and didn’t try to snog each other.

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7 replies on “Coming to a Church of England church near you this weekend: communion in one kind”

  1. An interesting perspective from a former priest. As a Catholic here in the states – so far, the bread water and wine are still avail although not many opt for the chalice, even before the flu. Personally, I could do w/o the sign of peace in an era of nasty germs. Could the hand gesture of the peace sign suffice? There are little hand sanitizing wall units everywhere these days- maybe a few in the entrance couldn’t hurt.

  2. An interesting comment – thanks! Susan White’s book _Liturgy and Techological Change_ tracks the change in the practice of common cup communion amongst other churches in the Reformation tradition: the discovery of ‘germs’ in the 19th century was what brought in the practice of small personal chalicules (‘thimbles’) in many other churches. I’m wondering, if this instruction stays in place for long (and the pandemic could last a couple of years), whether the Church of England will have difficulty reinstating the common cup afterwards, largely because of the ‘yuck’ factor.

    Just to clarify, I am still a priest, but I don’t have responsibility for running any particular parish, so do not have to implement this policy.

  3. I’m getting a clerical biohazard suit made with face mask and breathing apparatus. I like Rick’s idea of catapulting intincted wafers. Works better with the round ones.

  4. Even better if there’s some weight on the wafer, you could put some Flintoff-like spin on ’em. (Hang on, I think I’m losing the plot here…)

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