Tuesday 19 October 2021
Call it a eucharistic celebration, holy communion or the Lord’s table but it is all essentially the same thing – the Christian practice of recalling that Jesus Christ is the Bread of Life and that his blood was poured out on the cross for the remission of our sins (and, implied, that he rose again demonstrating his victory over sin and death). Exactly how we do that (ritual) and how we think about it (theology) varies widely between denominations, congregations and to some extent, even between individuals. There is broad agreement though that we retell the story with something representing bread and something representing wine; these are called the ‘elements’.
Roll on 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic. Many denominations, including the Church of England, have a sacerdotal fixation. In other words, only those ordained as priests are allowed to perform certain duties, including presiding over communion, so there were questions during lockdown about how communion could be performed remotely and whether it counted in family groups and for people isolated on their own. I have opinions on that but it isn’t what I’m pondering today. In England, as churches began to emerge from lockdown and we could conduct services, the question then arose of how we could celebrate communion together. In my church, and many others, a decision was made to move from bread to wafers and to celebrate ‘in one kind’. In other words, only the priest drinks the (small amount of) consecrated wine while the wafers are distributed by the priest to the congregation.
Hand sanitisation has become part of the ritual and I think it reasonably minimises the risk of spreading infection. I deeply value the shift from congregants going forward to be served to the priest making the rounds of the congregation and serving each person in place. I think that is a valuable picture of the role of a Christian leader. However, what about the wine?
My understanding is that the Church of England now supports three practices – continuing with bread only, returning to a shared chalice as before or ‘simultaneous administration’. Bread only is not in itself a novelty. Some churches were doing this anyway and it has plenty of historical precedent. Advocates of a shared cup argue that the alcohol in the wine on the silver of the chalice is a natural antiseptic, although my attempt at a literature review did not find strong evidence-based research demonstrating this (nor, to be fair, research demonstrating the opposite). I think ‘simultaneous administration’ is the priest dipping the bread in the wine (intinction) before passing it over. Other methods, like individual glasses or the congregant dipping the bread themselves are not permitted by the Church of England.
If the archbishops would care to come and chat with me, I’d present a strong case for seedless black or red grapes. That would be a natural alternative – the basis of wine, packaged in its own skin and also solving the problem for those who struggle with alcoholism – and would be as hygienic as the accompanying wafers. However, until that happens or the infection rate in England shifts significantly downward, I’m happy to continue in one kind. I miss the way the picture is completed with the wine but, if we added that back, I think we’d risk losing an even more important element – widespread participation from the congregation. If people excluded themselves from participation or, worse still, stayed away from the service entirely, we would lose more: we are the body of Christ.