Peter Anthony reveals the murky racist past that lies behind the invention of individual communion cups in Nineteenth Century America and argues against their introduction in the Church of England for a number of theological and practical reasons.
Is the use of individual communion glasses to avoid the spread of COVID a good idea? A small number of voices have recently argued that these little thimble-sized cups should be allowed in the Church of England.
I want to explain in this article why this proposal is the worst possible way of dealing with the threat of COVID during worship and why it represents a worrying change in eucharistic theology which would be a significant threat to the unity of our Church. Moreover, the introduction of individual communion cups in the Nineteenth Century was closely linked with deplorable racist assumptions and is rooted in prejudice – which I for one do not wish to be associated with at all.
A major problem with the proposal is the fact that it represents a substantial shift in the received eucharistic doctrine of the Church of England.
The Church of England has never in any of its formularies distanced itself from the doctrine of concomitance, which teaches that the grace of the sacrament of the Eucharist is received in its fulness even if communion is administered under only one kind. At the Reformation, the return of the chalice to the people was a significant and welcome liturgical reform but did not come at the expense of ditching the doctrine of concomitance. Common Worship liturgies for the communion of the sick make it clear, for example, that if the sick person is very weak, or encumbered somehow, communion in one kind as an exception to the rule is entirely acceptable.
The Church of England has for many years now dealt with periods of infection or epidemic by withdrawing the chalice as a temporary action. A good example would be the Swine Flu outbreak in 2009. It has always been restored when the time of emergency is over – the suspension of the common cup has only ever been a time-limited injunction. As such, it has never undermined the important Anglican liturgical tradition of the laity receiving the chalice as the norm.
The sharing of one cup also carries deep theological significance. It reveals the unity which the Christian family shares in Christ. The Eucharist draws us deeper into the mystery which is Christ’s Body, the Church. It is not just about an atomised individual’s unmediated communion with God. At the altar, we enter into the eschatological reality of our redemption by Christ through the Paschal Mystery, as we worship together with the Church in heaven and on earth.
It must be assumed, therefore, that if those advocating these changes feel it is impossible to celebrate the Eucharist without receiving the chalice, they are proposing a doctrine of the Eucharist which is different to that which the Church of England has taught until now in its formularies and liturgy. If the House of Bishops allows this proposal, it needs to enunciate what this new doctrine is.
A further problem with this new idea is quite simply one of practicality. There is no measure by which individual communion cups offer an experience of the Eucharist which is more hygienic than the present situation mandated by law, which simply involves, as a temporary measure, receiving solely the host.
One of the most important ideas undergirding the COVID worship restrictions is the principle that the less physical contact a worshipper has with others and the church building the better. The more physical contact, the higher the theoretical risk of infection. Being attentive to key sources of infection such as tiny particles of moisture on the breath is also important, as is shielding specific parts of the face, such as the mouth, which are the key places for the virus to enter the body. This is why we wear masks and keep social distance.
Using small communion glasses on the other hand increases the number of objects that are touched by more than one person during a celebration of the Eucharist. Not only that, but communion glasses come into direct contact with the communicant’s lips, one of the most susceptible places for infection to enter the body. The giving out of small glasses from a tray is exceptionally difficult to do in a COVID-safe way. All this increases the risk of contagion to those receiving communion, by comparison with receiving in one kind alone.
Individual cups are also more dangerous for whoever is responsible for cleaning them or throwing them away. Current Church of England rites mandate without exception the reverent consumption of the sacred elements after a celebration of the Eucharist. Any wine left over in individual communion cups would need to be consumed. This would expose the person cleaning them to significant risk before they even started washing them. If leftover eucharistic elements are now to be washed down a drain, the House of Bishops needs to make clear what new eucharistic doctrine makes this possible.
Individual shot glasses are in fact a classic example of an intervention that gives a dangerous sense of false hygienic reassurance. Thinking through the mechanics of how they would be used indicates pretty quickly that they have the potential to be a significant source of infection.
In addition, the history of using individual thimbles for the Eucharist is a surprisingly murky one. It is far from clear that the modern Church should be allying itself with a practice whose origins are closely linked with racism and prejudice.
Their principal advocates were a coalition of late Nineteenth Century American Protestants who claimed to have hygienic concerns in mind at a time when germ theory was just emerging and urban epidemics amongst the industrial working classes were common. However, there is ample historical evidence that many at the time felt the real reason for their popularity was racism and social prejudice. Small communion glasses meant white congregations didn’t have to share the chalice with their black brothers and sisters.
A fascinating article by Barak Wright (also available on the PBS/NPC website WHYY as a 6-minute podcast which is really worth listening to)(1) draws attention to the research of James Buckley, the editor of an American Methodist publication in the 1890s, who had significant reservations about the introduction of individual communion glasses. He gathered evidence that their popularity stemmed from pretty uncomplicated prejudice – squeamish congregations where the middle classes didn’t want to drink from the same cup as poor immigrants, and white Christians who didn’t want to share the chalice with black Christians.
This outlook is not confined to the Nineteenth Century. Many Christians today can remember the hysteria during the AIDS crisis in the 1980s when similar arguments were made about the need for more “hygienic” communion practices. Most people looking back on that period would admit now that many of those calls stemmed from homophobia rather than concern for hygiene.
The sharing of a common eucharistic cup rather than individual glasses is a vital sign of the unity all Christians share in Christ, irrespective of background, wealth, identity, or culture.
There is very little to commend the use of individual thimble glasses at communion. It is clear their use would represent a shift in the eucharistic doctrine of the Church of England. At this time of crisis, this is the last thing we need, when a perfectly satisfactory and widely agreed way of dealing with communion under the present epidemic is available and mandated by law. Logic simply does not point to egg cup sized glasses being more hygienic than communion in one kind. Indeed, there is much to suggest that they are in fact more dangerous and increase the risk of infection. Finally, the worrying racist history of this practice should make us think twice about adopting it.
The sharing of the common cup is a crucial sign of our common identity in Christ which goes beyond race, class, gender, and sexuality. The task ahead of us is very straightforward – simply waiting patiently a few months more until this practice can be restored.
The Rev’d Dr Peter Anthony