Taking communion like Judas: the end of the pandemic and the restoration of the common cup

This year has seen the removal of obligatory covid restrictions in churches, and congregations have, at varying speeds, been returning to old practices. I have seen much concern for those who still feel anxious and for those who are vulnerable or suffer from long covid. It is interesting to see which parts of the ‘new normal’ remain; there is more online worship but the peculiar enthusiasm for consecrating the eucharist through a computer screen seems to have died. My concern here is that worries about restoring the common cup to the laity are revealing a lack of formation in eucharistic theology among Scottish Episcopalians and will lead to a distortion of the sacrament. I am writing this from a Scottish context but I hope it is of use in the wider Anglican world and among our sister churches.

The pandemic caused the withdrawal of the common cup from the laity on public health grounds and revealed that the Scottish Episcopal Church believes in the doctrine of concomitance. This means, as our bishops taught, that the whole Christ is received under either form, bread or wine. This makes theological sense as Christ is risen and can’t be divided. It also makes practical, pastoral sense. Some people can’t receive one or another element, they may be seriously ill or unable to take alcohol or bread, but they are not thereby deprived of the benefits and reality of the sacrament. I have discussed this elsewhere.

In this we are at one with the western Catholic tradition in which our Church stands. In an earlier post, however, I showed that Scottish Episcopalian divines, even the most catholically-minded like Bishop Forbes of Brechin, were firm on the importance of all sharing the common cup. This is part of our Reformation inheritance but also, more importantly, an aspect of the Episcopalian reverence for the practice of the ‘primitive church’ which is shared by many recent Roman Catholic theologians and liturgists. As such it is ecumenically important and faithful to scripture and tradition.

‘While they were eating, Jesus…  took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’ (Matthew 26.26-28). At the Last Supper Jesus used wine, wine which becomes his blood and is shared from a cup. After more than two years of covid the idea of drinking from a cup shared with others is terrifying. It is dangerous. Scripture agrees with this: the sacrament is dangerous. Paul says of those receiving the sacrament in Corinth, ‘for this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died’. He is not speaking about infectious diseases, though, but about those who ‘eat and drink without discerning the body’, such people ‘eat and drink judgement against themselves’ (1 Corinthians 11.30,29). This is serious stuff, the eucharist is spiritual life or death. We need to take Scripture seriously. We also need to take seriously the physical reality of the eucharist, both that it may spread disease and that we have a responsibility to obey Christ’s command: ‘drink from it, all of you’. Some of the proposals to tinker with the elements of the eucharist seem to come from a theology which thinks matter is not important, that ‘it doesn’t matter what you do, it’s only what’s in your heart that’s important’. This is a practical denial of the Incarnation and a perennial temptation of Protestantism, as I have argued in another post. The Son of God thought matter sufficiently important to take a body, give us sacraments, and take our human body into the highest places of heaven.

Scottish Episcopalians can make some silly mistakes concerning the eucharist. At the last General Synod the liturgy committee presented some excellent pastoral booklets for ministers. These did, however, suggest that wafers be dipped in consecrated wine and dried before being given to the sick (‘Pastoral Offices for Priests’, page 17). I know a number of clergy have been doing this, but giving wine stains as part of communion has no justification in scripture or tradition. We have a responsibility to follow Jesus’ commands, taking real bread and real wine, blessing them, breaking the bread and sharing them. If for a good reason we can’t do part of this, like sharing the cup in a pandemic, an intelligent appropriation of tradition contains the answers. No need for non-alcoholic ‘wine’, dried wine or little shot glasses.

When we finally, after a lot of discussion, returned to sharing the common cup at our church, I found it an intensely moving moment and was told that the communicants did too. We were very clear that the full benefits of the sacrament come through receiving one of the elements alone, but this reminded me that a sacrament is not just the reality contained within it. A sacrament is also of its nature a sign, and the fullness of the sign of the eucharist involves eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ and sharing in the sacrifice of the cross in which Jesus’ body and blood were separated.  

The bishops have been clear that self-intinction, the communicant dipping their consecrated bread in the cup, is banned on public health grounds. This practice also compromises the nature of the sacrament because you are taking one of the elements rather than receiving it, it is like going up to the altar and taking the bread without receiving it from the minister. This has been hard to accept for some who have been accustomed to doing this in good faith. I suspect the practice of self-intinction began during the AIDS pandemic when people feared the common cup. It is like the origins of individual little shot glasses at communion which seems to have come from a fear in America of sharing the common cup with black people or unhealthy poor people. This shows the power of the common cup and hints at why Christ commanded us to share it. It is dangerous because it breaks down barriers.

Nicolas Poussin, The Institution of the Eucharist

The bishops have banned self-intinction but, at least in some dioceses, it is allowed for the minister to intinct the consecrated bread and place it in the communicant’s hand. This avoids the public health and theological reasons for banning self-intinction but it has its own problems. It is messy and irreverent, one communicant said to me ‘I don’t want to lick the precious blood of Christ off my hands’ and another referred to it irreverently as ‘soggy biscuit communion’. It also, most importantly, avoids Christ’s command ‘drink from it, all of you’. As we know you receive the full benefits of the sacrament from bread alone, it is also not necessary. We can easily restore the common cup and allow people to receive as they wish, in one kind or both. When this is understood it shows that it is also a false argument, revealing a lack of theological understanding, to say we should continue to withhold the common cup until all feel able to share it. No one is excluded by restoring the common cup.

I have given holy communion by intinction many times, in hospitals and directly on the tongue of the communicant as tradition allows, and I have also followed the local custom by giving intincted hosts into the hand in churches where it is the normal practice and allowed by the local bishop – not to do so has its own spiritual problems. To make giving communion by intinction in the hand the normal practice, however, is not good and does not seem a faithful following of Christ’s command. It may possibly be a useful interim practice, but I believe some churches are responding to people’s fears by having special vessels made with space for bread and wine so that intinction becomes the new normal. This, like finding ways to avoid the common cup so you don’t drink with people you fear, overthrows the nature of the sacrament and institutionalizes a denial of love. I am glad to note that the Diocese of Glasgow and Galloway has banned intinction, calling for the restoration of the common cup, and hope other bishops will do this. Clear leadership here will help congregations restore the full sign of the sacrament while allowing people to continue to receive under one kind if they wish.  

The Communion of Judas

As a final thought. When preparing to explain the restoration of the common cup to my congregation I re-read the stories of the Lord’s Supper. Only once did I find anything like communion by intinction at the Supper: ‘so when Jesus had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot’ (John 13.26, cf. Matthew 26.23, Mark 14.20). I am not necessarily arguing that Jesus gave Judas communion by intinction while the other Apostles received from the common cup, but all the above has shown how we need to be attentive to the meaning of signs and symbols. The sacrament of the eucharist is very powerful. Paul said it can kill. Receiving the sacrament is throwing yourself into the fire of God’s love, it is a risky business. It is a great spiritual gift we receive from Christ and it is not something we manipulate for our own comfort. Unless we steep ourselves in the meaning and practice of the eucharist, unless we form ourselves and our congregations in authentic eucharistic theology, we may find ourselves taking communion like Judas.

4 thoughts on “Taking communion like Judas: the end of the pandemic and the restoration of the common cup

  1. Many thanks Stephen, I am right with you on all of this! Interestingly, from an infection control perspective, a friend of mine who works on infectious diseases in biomedical research and is married to a priest said very bluntly; ‘It’s a respiratory disease – you don’t get it from eating stuff!’ We restored the shared chalice in OSP shortly after Easter and some still don’t feel comfortable sharing from it, but most do. We discourage intinction and respect those who choose not to share the chalice. For a while, we regularly reminded people that there was no compulsion to receive from the chalice but we no longer do that and people make their own choices. We’ve also been experimenting with home-made leavened bread (with prosphora seal when I make it, of course!) but that’s another discussion for another time!

  2. Thanks, John, that’s really interesting. We’ve just restored the chalice and decided to do so at St Salvador’s. I think we are quite late in that, it would have been good to know what other churches are doing. You should write something about the leavened bread experiment – I suspect Bishop Jolly would have approved!

  3. Thank you for this thought provoking post. I have restored the common cup in my charge. It was a beautiful moment , it was also the first time the people came up to the altar rail for over two years .
    There were tears in many an eye.

    The food grade anti bac wipe after each sip gives us confidence too!

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