In the last week there has been at a suspected case of Coronavirus at Lawrence Memorial Hospital, with the patient having recently traveled from China. That patient is in quarantine and at the time of the writing of this article the virus has not been definitively identified.
However, it brings back into our common discourse the question of safe practices associated with our Eucharistic traditions, especially the use of a common cup. Theologically the common cup is a central element of the Eucharistic experience, in the notion of “one bread, one cup” and the Book of Common Prayer says only one chalice should be on the altar during the liturgy. It is worth noting, however, that we as Christians have largely abandoned the “one loaf” policy out of logistical issues, so the concept is more theological and liturgical rather than rigidly mandatory.
But the issue is not a new one for the Episcopal Church and in my own life I have seen the denomination wrestle with the question as HIV/AIDS came into public awareness, and later SARS, and then H1N1 or the “swine flu.” I found a 2009 letter from the bishop of the Diocese of New York, in response to H1N1 to be particularly helpful in spelling out some common sense practices. Here is an excerpt:
- There is very little risk in the use of a common cup if a clean purificator is used appropriately. This means wiping both the outside and the inside of the lip of the cup, with a clean part of the purificator, each time the cup is administered. It is suggested that more than one purificator be readily available for the chalice bearers in larger congregations.
- It is imperative that Eucharistic ministers have clean hands when administering the bread. It is suggested that the lavabo be of an adequate size to accommodate some soapy water in which the hands can be truly cleansed and then rinsed by the pouring of additional water. The use of an alcohol hand sanitizer is also recommended.
- Intinction by the communicant is strongly discouraged. If communicants have a personal preference for this manner of receiving the Sacrament, it should be only the clergy, who have utilized the lavabo, who intinct the host.
- When intinction is the preferred method of receiving Communion the priest or deacon should take the wafer directly from the ciborium, not the communicant’s hand, to avoid introducing that person’s germs into the chalice.
- Silver has a mildly antimicrobial effect which is beneficial but it is not sufficient without the above-mentioned precautions.
- Receiving the Sacrament “in one kind” has always been, and continues to be, an acceptable alternative for communicants. While we promote the use of the common cup, we also want to offer this option for those who prefer it since it too has ancient precedent in our spiritual life. Indeed this entire message is designed to retain our inclusive community with its rich heritage of commonality.
In light of this, I will be adding the use of hand sanitizer to the washing regiment before the Eucharistic Prayer, but I would especially encourage people to use sound judgement and common sense. If you are showing symptoms of any potentially infectious disease, please use restraint both in the participation of the Eucharist and the passing of the Peace. Remember that it is possible to receive a blessing, or just the bread, as an alternative to the traditional bread-and-wine participation. Mostly, be smart, use good judgement, and stay safe.
Yours in Christ,