Infection and the common cup

Nature, it is said, abhors a vacuum, and churches abhor ordinary practices that can’t be justified in ways that theological standards are. I sigh when certain Unitarian Universalist ministers (whom I otherwise admire) make outlandish claims about the symbolic — I’ve even heard the word sacramental — importance of taking the Sunday offering. Does this mean direct deposit would be a liturgical reform? A crisis of faith?

I bring this up because of the plain division in communion practices seen in Protestant churches. I’ve only served (and now attend) churches that use small glasses in trays, derisively (if descriptively) called “shot glasses” by the uninformed or dismissive.

I don’t particularly like them. They’re messy, hard to handle, and noisy. If new, they’re expensive or cheaply made. In small churches, they’re overkill. (Though I’ve seen versions that work for very small churches which appeal to the gadget-freak in me. In particular, I’ve seen a rectangular tray with cut-outs for, say, twelve small glasses with a handle that reaches lenghtwise over the top. Imagine if a traditional milkman was doubling as a parson. The ones I’ve seen hearken back to hobbiest woodshops, and I love them the more for it. A smaller version of the one on the left of this image.)

While associated with Protestantism, it isn’t a particularly old use. Look to all that antique communion silver auctioned out of New England Unitarian churches: you find common cups. The common cup is a livelier symbol of the Great Thanksgiving, a more precious emblem for the church, and heck of a lot easier to carry and keep clean. It is — as they say in the software world — a scalable solution. (A flagon helps; indeed, certain Unitarian rites carry over an almost medieval importance to the pouring that I appreciate. Why some Episcopalians make such a deal of the fraction but do nothing with the pouring is beyond me.)

But the reason for the small cups being introduced continues to haunt churches: the fear of contagen. While it may take some convincing, and some basic hygenic steps, the common cup is safe. You probably are at more risk of catching some illnesses by shaking hands or breathing the same air. Receiving an HIV infection isn’t in the cards. (Cholera was probably the disease that first prompted the individual cups.)

While there should be extra precautions for immune-suppressed individuals and for communion in a hospital setting, there’s no reason to paint the common cup with unfounded charges.

Here’s a good briefing paper.

Eucharistic practice and the risk of infection (Anglican Church of Canada)

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Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.

2 thoughts on “Infection and the common cup”

  1. Off the topic of disease, but the briefing paper says:

    A further consideration with the practice of intinction is that it is only feasible when wafers are used. More and more churches are starting to recognize the sacramental value of the one loaf of bread that is then divided for distribution. Intinction would not be a tenable option in these circumstances.

    To which I say “huh?” I’ve been to a few intinction churches, and they all used real bread — in fact, I thought *wafer* intinction was unfeasible because wafers wouldn’t absorb the wine. But maybe the Anglicans use a different kind of wafers than I’m used to.

  2. I’ve written so much about communion bread in the past that I effectively skipped that part of the report when writing earlier. There do seem to be two kinds of wafer.

    I suspect you (Stentor) are familiar with the whole wheat kind that are about the size of a quarter, nearly as thick, and so hard that one could use them to battle-plate church mice. The non-whole-wheat ones are usually thinner and have a more absorbant quality. I think they use these at King’s Chapel.

    That said, I’m not fond of communion bread that one needs to self-serve by tearing, gets hard enough to cut one’s gums, breaks leaving a pile of crumbs, or is greasy to the touch. That’s enough to rule out pita, matzoh, and commercially available communion bread for the low Protestant market. I don’t mind wafers, the old smushed Wonder Bread usage, or even the Disciples of Christ oyster crackers. (There was this wonderful old litho I’ve seen in a couple of places of Hosea Ballou — in street clothes, for the record — serving communion. Common cup(s?) and flagon. A platter of sliced loaf bread. I smile just thinking about it.)

    My prefered use is a prepared leaven loaf. I’ve written about it before, but here are the directions again. And, no I won’t try to theologize it; this just works.

    Slice the crusts off of a loaf of bread if the crust is thick. (I once prepared a supermarket “white mountain loaf” for a communion service at GA and the crust was so thin I left it on.) With a bread knife, cut the nude loaf in slices — about 3/4 inch –to within about an inch of the bottom of the loaf. So, from a distance it still looks like an intact loaf. Do the same in the other direction, so that what you have is essentially contiguous pillars of bread with a common base.

    Now, at the fraction, you have a single loaf that you can break easily, and dismantle into individual pieces in less than a minute. The nice thing here is that you can break the “columns” into as many pieces as you have communicants. For small churches, each gets a “bread stick” which makes intinction easier. Bonus!

    Since practice makes perfect, newish ministers might do this at home, sans rite, and apply the produce to making croutons or stuffing. Try to break the loaf without looking down; it can be done.

    Now, a word about the kind of bread and quantity.

    I like a good Eastern prosphora (see http://www.prosphora.org) for the same reasons of purity the Orthodox do, plus there’s the added feature of sharing something (a recipe and tradition) with other Christians. But consider, too, that if you add other ingredients, you add other opportunities for allergies. (Wheat and yeast are enough.) Also, the texture is wonderful for communion; it cuts with minimal crumbing and it is as absorbant as a sponge for intinction. It has a pleasing flavor — you can reserve part of the loaf before worship for secular table use, if the congregation is small — and it can be made in a bread machine. If made with a light crust, I wouldn’t bother removing the crust per the earlier directions. It freezes well, too. What further reasons would you want?

    If you’re not allowing extra for “intinction sticks” a one pound loaf can be divided for at least a hundred communicants. Bake — and freeze in heavy foil — accordingly.

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