Isolation and Communion (part 1)

One Cup?

The practical questions for us have rumbled on for years. Traditionally our church followed the practice of passing round the bread first and letting people tear off a piece, then we pass round chalices, each person taking a sip before wiping the rim of the cup with a serviette.  Sharing in the one loaf and in a common cup is meant to represent that we are united as one body. 

The problem was that several people were wary of taking communion. Could sharing a cup lead to the spread of infection? Newer people were not taking communion, it wasn’t that they did not have faith in Christ. It was because they were afraid or repulsed about the idea. Who wants to be drinking other people’s saliva. Some people took to dipping a piece of the bread in the cup and we had provided little individual wafers as an alternative for this. However, that meant you now had to contend with bits of bread floating in the cup like the dregs of lunchtime soup but even less appetising, besides this was risking contamination from dirty fingers not just from virus carrying mouths.

A lot of churches use little individual glasses for drinking the “wine.”[1] This makes things more hygienic but doing this can be equally odd to those used to sharing a common cup.  The first time my wife, from an Anglican background came to my old church where this was the practice she was shocked because to her it looked like we were sharing shots. I guess whichever option you choose it is going to be a challenge for some.

The early days of coronavirus pushed us to bite the bullet and we now have a load of individual glasses and someone from the church fashioned some beautiful cup holders. This meant that people were able to share the wine still. That was our response. The Church of England however instructed clergy to withdraw the cup and serve communion “in one kind” meaning the congregation only received the cup whilst the vicar alone drunk wine.  When asked why they were using individual cups instead, clergy explained that this was against Church Law.

 However, we only got to use these for a few weeks and then we had to stop meeting together. This led to a second issue. If we cannot meet physically in church buildings, then can we share communion at all. The strong view of many was that we could not. This is a meal we share together as a physical body of Christ. Interestingly some of my Anglican friends who recoiled at multiple cups felt this was less of a problem and whilst less than idea, it would be enough for people to watch the vicar taking communion as part of the live-stream.

How do we decide what to do? Well first of all, I want to suggest that this is about wisdom. We are dealing with second order issues here and there should be room for charity in disagreement. However, secondly, we need to take care because what we do communicates something about how we feel and so these matters are not theologically neutral.

A bit of history

At this stage it is helpful to remember that we are not the first people to debate communion. This was one of the issues at the Reformation.

The Roman Catholic belief was that during Mass, the bread and wine were changed into the body and blood of Christ because Jesus had said at the Last Supper “This is my body…” In John 6 he told offended Jews that they needed to eat his flesh and drink his blood. The Mass was a sacrament so that the congregation received Christ and grace through it.  This is probably why they began the practice of communion in one kind. The fear was that clumsy, sinful laity could not be trusted with the wine, passing the blood of Jesus around might lead to spillages. The bread was put directly into their mouths by a priest to prevent carnage too. 

Then came the Reformation and of course the idea that Jesus was somehow sacrificed again for us was identified as clearly wrong. But if that was so, then what did communion represent and what did it do?  Well, Martin Luther stayed pretty close to the Catholic idea of transubstantiation. In fact,t he term “consubstantiation” was used. The bread did not transform into Christ’s body but in some sense, he was present with the bread so that the congregation feasted in him.

For Zwingli, another reformer,  the key to the question was what does the word “is” mean. Jesus, actually bodily present at the Last Supper clearly could not mean that the bread was turning into his body. The phrase was metaphorical. You could say that the bread represented his body.  Therefore communion is primarily a memorial, the bread and wine just a visual aid to prompt our memory.

Finally, John Calvin takes what might be seen as a mediating position. No, of course the church do not offer Christ again as a sacrifice and literally eat his body and drink his blood. Yet, the meal seems to be so much more than a visual aid or memorial. For Calvin, we physically eat bread and wine, it remains just bread and wine. However, the nature of Communion, it’s place as part of the gathering around the Word means that we at the same time feed on Christ. He is both the host at the meal who invites us to come and he is the meal itself.  Communion, therefore does something. There is something in our participation that is spiritually helpful in a way that mere observation is not. 

[1] There is a good chance if they are doing this that they have also substituted wine for grape juice or Ribena.

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