Now that many of the COVID protocols have been suspended by the CDC there is a wide movement in many churches (including the Episocpal Church) to bring back the “Common Cup'' for the Eucharistic Feast. This is the ancient Christian practice of using a chalice (Latin for “mug”) for sharing the blessed wine of Jesus. It is an ancient practice that is also overflowing with deep theological and biblical commitments. Just before Jesus’ death, he brought his friends together to impress upon them the fundamental values of God’s kingdom (his last sermon took the form of a shared meal!). These friends would become the transformed One Body of the Church: the mouth and feet and ears of Jesus. One of the great symbols of this new family – this new body – is the common sharing of the Cup of Christ. A moment of self-offering and vulnerability. A moment when the many become one.
Now, as E.J. Dionne once remarked about St. Columba’s, we’re a church that marries faith, reason, and civic engagement. And as we find our way back to shared, public worship we’re determined to be both scientifically and theologically grounded.
In the last three weeks I have taken a deep dive in search of either scientific data (in the form of peer-reviewed journals) or widely shared “best practices” from medical and public-health experts. I found two salient pieces of information:
- There is wide consensus among medical and public-health professionals that when the Common Cup is shared it is much safer not to allow “intinction” (dipping the wafer into the chalice).
- In a large literature review on Eucharistic practices recently published by NIH in 2020, the authors note that in the long history of communities sharing the Common Cup – a worldwide practice – “the transmission of any infectious disease has never been documented.”
Some details about these two data points. Of all the instances of viral outbreaks in communities (including, recently, SARS and SARS-CoV-2) none has either been traced back to the sharing of the Common Cup nor have researchers ever found enough material in the Chalice (at the end of the service) to allow for infectious transmission. And, also, so widespread is the consensus that “intinction” is not a best practice, our own Bishop, the Right Rev. Mariann Budde, has strongly advised parishes in the Episocpal Diocese of Washington not to reintroduce it.
While there is little scientific evidence to suggest that sharing the Common Cup is a health risk, medical and public-health professionals do widely caution the church about another aspect of public worship: the passing of the Peace of Christ (the moment in the service when, pre-pandemic, we used to encourage everyone to shake hands). We can and do pass on infectious diseases this way.
In light of these findings and guidance, we are making the following changes to our worship:
- Beginning Lent 5 (April 3rd) we will eliminate Communion via small paper cups and reintroduce the Common Cup.
- Following “best practice” recommendations, we will not allow “intinction” (the dipping of the bread into the Common Cup*).
- The Church has long held that if you take only one form of Communion (either the bread or the wine) you are fully communed; thus no one should feel pressured to sip from the Common Cup.
- Instead of discouraging physical touch (like hugs and handshakes), we strongly encourage everyone to wash their hands before and after worship to help reduce both common and serious illnesses.
- Every member of the altar party will wash/clean their hands before distributing bread or wine.
- Those who distribute the wine will “wipe and turn” the chalice after each sip (there is evidence that this further reduces trace amounts of “germs”).
We worship a Living God; thus the form of our worship must always remain open to change. The Anglican Church has long been defined by the Latin phrase: via media (literally, the middle road). Even though our prayers and practices are soaked in centuries of multicultural worship, no individual or collective (no matter how smart or accomplished) gets to dictate how or when the Spirit will appear. The love of God is not dependent on us being good enough. It’s just there; a free gift we can only receive. At the heart of our worship is the mystery of Christ – both viscerally present in our midst and impossibly beyond and transcendent. Thus as humble creatures – first and foremost – we approach the altar of God.
The Rev. Joshua Daniel, PhD
Associate Rector for Worship and Discipleship
* Sidenote. Everyone thinks “But I never get my fingers into the wine,” and while that is often true, from a priest's point of view, it is not unusual at all for at least one person per service to accidentally get some of their fingertips into the wine. This is why so many medical and public-health professionals advise against “intinction.”