The Common Cup in the time of Covid
Updated: Jun 16
ON THE EUCHARISTIC USE OF THE COMMON CUP
I was recently present at a requiem eucharist at which I experienced for the first time the use of individual glasses for the administration of Holy Communion. I appreciate that this departure from the use of the common cup was intended to address the health risks posed by the challenge of the Covid pandemic. However, I have since found myself wondering if the use of individual glasses can really be sustained as a satisfactory alternative to the use of the common cup. Indeed, I suspect that it may in fact be a practice that is problematic both from a biblical and a theological point of view, so I am putting these few thoughts on paper.
I understand that approval has been given for the practice of the use of individual glasses in the Diocese of Perth as a temporary measure. Apparently, there are a few parishes in Perth that have been implementing this practice without authorization; this temporary permission addresses this irregularity by getting it into the open. I guess this at least also inhibits the possibility of disciplinary action being taken against clergy for an unauthorised departure from the normatively mandated use of the common cup. This also gives us all time to work through the relevant issues in a carefully considered way. Hopefully, these thoughts may contribute to what I am sure will be a quite serious discussion.
My first immediate impression of the use of small individual glasses was that instead of standing reverently and drinking or gently sipping, as we would normally from a tumbler, communicants tended to toss their heads back as they downed the consecrated wine in a single gulp. Furthermore, they tended to do this as they walked to deposit their glasses near the front pew. This is not something that can be easily controlled, but I must confess that as people tossed their heads back to consume the wine as they walked to the appointed place for them to deposit their glasses, it was hardly becoming or elegant. Certainly, it was far removed from the reverent ‘meekly kneeling’ to receive communion prescribed by the 1662 Prayer Book, or standing quietly and saying ‘Amen’ as in more recent liturgical practice.
I have subsequently found myself wondering how the mechanics of the ablutions were managed after the service, given that individual glasses would naturally have had to have been washed up. Normally, the presiding priest has the responsibility of consuming any remaining consecrated bread and wine in accordance with the rubric at the end of the 1662 Service of Holy Communion, which directs that none of the consecrated bread and wine is to be ‘carried out of the Church’. The standing practice of diluting any remaining traces of consecrated wine in the chalice with water, which is then also consumed, ensures that nothing of the consecrated wine is handled disrespectfully. In this way, the congregation is visually assured that no consecrated wine is left in the chalice when it is taken to be washed up after the service, but is indeed ‘reverently consumed’. However, I fear that the presiding priest does not do anything equivalent to this when individual glasses are used. If glasses with traces of consecrated wine left in them are just taken out of the Church and put into a dish washer, or into a sink, so that the remaining contents are flushed down a drain, this sounds not only irreverently uncouth, but perhaps even sacrilegious.
However, my concerns about the use of individual glasses at the eucharist do not just have to do with aesthetic sensibilities, or the mechanics of the ablutions that ensure that the standards of reverence required by the 1662 Prayer Book are maintained. After all, it can be acknowledged that the perception of awkwardness or even irreverence is ultimately a matter of sensibility and taste; and communicants might be trained not to toss their heads in a manner more appropriate to drinking at a bar. Also, the mechanics of the ablutions may possibly be attended to satisfactorily – though I am personally at a loss to imagine how. In any event, my basic concerns about the use of individual glasses are basically biblical and theological.
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I should put my cards on the table, so as to try to make clear where I am coming from. I was a theological student in the early 1960s at the height of the post-war Liturgical Movement which transformed the worship of many, if not most, Christian Churches. Prior to this, for us Anglicans the staple diet of public worship had often tended to be Mattins and Evensong on Sundays as well as on weekdays as prescribed by the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, with Holy Communion on Sundays often awkwardly attached to the end of Mattins. In those days Mattins was often scheduled at 11am on Sundays followed by Holy Communion at 12.15. The Holy Communion therefore tended to be presented as an ‘optional extra’ for those inclined to stay. Indeed, the impression that the Holy Communion was a kind of incidental appendage to the choir office was re-enforced by the practice whereby clergy understandably often celebrated the eucharist still wearing choir habit.
The Liturgical Movement shifted the emphasis from the choir offices to the parish eucharist as the principal public act of Christian worship of a Sunday morning. At the same time, some really significant advances were made in the field of eucharistic theology and practice, principally in relation to the involvement of the laity as the whole people of God in reading scriptures and leading the prayers of the people, and generally taking a more active role in the liturgy. The Sunday parish eucharist was seen as an act of the whole community. For this reason, the Anglican embodiment of the Liturgical Movement came to be called ‘the Parish and People Movement.’
This dictated some fundamental changes both in liturgical practice and in language. Scriptures came to be read, not by the priest alone using the altar as a kind of book stand, but from a lectern to which the laity came from their place in the pews. All this was entirely new in the 1950s and 1960s. The result was that no longer were the laity simply passive listeners while the priest ministered to them. As a consequence, the role of ministerial priesthood came to be perceived in representative and ‘presidential’ terms; we began to speak of the ‘presiding priest’ or ‘president of the eucharist’ - and no longer of the priest as the ‘celebrant’. This was because it was appreciated that the actual celebrant was the whole community, for the whole assembled people of God celebrated the eucharist.
At the same time, some clarification of what constituted the consecration of the bread and wine ensued. The theological consensus moved well away from the belief that the bread and wine were consecrated by the presiding priest alone, by drawing upon some privileged kind of priestly power conferred upon him at the time of ordination (it was a ‘him’ because this was well before the ordination of women). Furthermore, it was appreciated that the consecration of the bread and wine was not something he achieved merely by repeating Our Lord’s ‘words of institution’ as the incantation of a kind of semi-magical formula. In other words, the ‘words of institution’ were perceived to be ‘words of institution’ rather than ‘words of consecration.’
We Anglicans had tended to avoid speaking of the priest as having a special priestly power to ‘confect’ the sacrament, which somehow tended to remove him from the rest of the Church (by raising him above the laity, as – rightly or wrongly - was perceived to be the case in the Roman Catholic Church). However, what over time had become the regularly used ritual accompanying the recitation of the ‘words of institution’ (in addition to the basic ‘taking’ and ‘laying of a hand’ on the bread and wine during the course of the 1662 ‘Prayer of Consecration’) tended to suggest something very much like it. For this priestly ‘act of consecration’ had often been performed by the presiding priest, for example, speaking in very slow, solemn and deliberate tones over the bread and wine, and was often accompanied, not just by the taking and laying on a hand as required by 1662, but by a set of multiple crossings, pausing, bowing, even genuflecting (respectively following each of the words of institution). Sometimes all this was accompanied by bells and gongs. Anybody observing this would naturally think that it was the recitation of the ‘words of institution’ that was understood to consecrate the bread and wine.
Under the influence of the Liturgical Movement the ‘manual acts’ of the liturgy tended to be much simplified in the course of transforming what became known no longer as the ‘Prayer of Consecration’ but as ‘the Great Thanksgiving.’ For, under the influence of the Liturgical Movement it was discerned that what consecrates the eucharistic bread and wine, or, in other words, intentionally separates it out from ordinary bread and wine for the holy purpose of entering into the Communion of God, was not the recitation of a formula, not even Our Lord’s ‘words of institution’ during the Prayer of Consecration, and certainly not when those words were accompanied by a plethora of fidgety ‘manual acts’. Rather, the consecration of the bread and wine was understood to be effected essentially by the clearly defined eucharistic action commanded by Our Lord himself of ‘taking, blessing, breaking and sharing’. In other words, the four-fold action of Our Lord’s command to ‘do this’ in remembrance of Him provided the basic and indeed fundamentally necessary ‘shape of the liturgy’ (the title of a basic text by Gregory Dix at the time). This four-fold action had in fact tended to be entirely obscured by the multiple ‘manual acts’ that had over time accrued around the recitation of the ‘words of institution’ - like barnacles on the keel of a ship.
At the same time the emphasis moved from any suggestion that Christ’s promised presence with his people (where two or three gathered in his name – Matthew 18.20), was at the Holy Communion somehow actualized by being contained in the bread and wine. Instead, the preferred theological perception was that the spiritual reality of communion with God in Christ was conveyed by the four-fold eucharistic action as the inward and spiritual grace perceived by faith by those who participated in it. So, the static language of something sacred being ‘contained in’ the bread and wine was replaced by the much more dynamic language of the ‘communion of the Holy Spirit’ which communicated Christ’s spiritual presence being ‘conveyed by’ the taking, blessing, breaking and sharing of the bread and wine – the four-fold action actually commanded by Our Lord was the effectual sign of the communion of the gathered people of God with God in Christ, and with each other in Christ.
These theological perceptions concerning the fundamental importance of the four-fold liturgical action of ‘taking, blessing, breaking and sharing’ commanded by Our Lord ‘to be done in remembrance of him’ not only dictated the suppression or removal of extraneous rituals that had tended to accumulate around the words of institution in a way that obscured their clarity. These same theological insights naturally also led to attempts positively to enhance and clarify each of the four actions of ‘taking, blessing, breaking and sharing’ in that order.
For example, first, the ‘taking’, which commences the separation of bread and wine of the eucharist from ordinary supplies of bread and wine so as intentionally to put it to a sacred purpose, was necessarily seen as something more than a perfunctory taking and laying of a hand upon it by the priest in the course of the Prayer of Consecration. Instead, attempts were made to make it a deliberate and intentional act of the whole community. Offertory processions in which the elements of bread and wine were brought from the west end of the nave by representative lay people to be placed upon the altar date from this time. Alternatively, sufficient bread and wine was taken from a credence table and visibly and deliberately placed upon the linen corporal to be consecrated.
Then, the blessing, which was appreciated to be a typical Jewish berakah prayer in which God was thanked for his work of creation and redemption, and which therefore involved the anamnetic rehearsal of the whole of God’s gracious action in salvation history, was done with the whole congregation standing (as the people of the resurrection – the resurrection being the specifically Christian motivation for standing in the ancient orans position for all prayer). Rather than standing for half the prayer and kneeling for half the prayer (as had been done when consecration was imagined to be effected by the recitation of the words of institution), the congregation stood for the whole thanksgiving. In this way the whole people of God could engage visually with the eucharistic action that was unfolding in front of them and around them.
Then the bread was actually broken. From this time individualized wafer breads tended to be frowned upon, precisely because of the perceived importance of the third and fourth eucharistic actions of breaking and sharing. Receiving communion was not just a matter of consuming bread, for example, as a consecrated substance; rather, it was seen to be important that when a communicant stretched out his or her hands to receive the gift of bread, it could visually be seen to be a fragment of bread that had actually been broken. Only so were we all able meaningfully to say that ‘we being many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.’
The actual breaking is from this perspective essential to the eucharistic action, if it is to signal the inter-personal communion of the whole people of God together in the spiritual reality of the Communion of God, the Communion of the Holy Spirit in which all human divisions based upon race, or social status, or gender no longer hold sway (eg as in the Pauline insight of Galatians 3.28). Indeed, Ephesians makes it very clear that Paul saw this inclusiveness as the essence of the Gospel that had been revealed to him (in Ephesians 3.1-12) (‘that is, the Gentiles have become fellow-heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.’) The actual breaking of the bread so that it could be genuinely shared therefore needed to be visibly seen. Indeed, in the case of unleavened bread, the breaking was not only seen but heard; it was a multi-sensory experience.
I remember writing (this was now about 1970-72) from Bathurst to the Sisters of the Sacred Advent in Brisbane about the possibility of altering their cutting machines so as to produce not packets of individualized hosts (‘fish food hosts’ as we disparagingly called them) so as to produce a much larger wafer of unleavened bread with a four inch diameter, precisely so that it could actually be broken and shared. At first the pious Sisters were reluctant to ‘interfere’ with their machines, which they pointed out ‘all had saints’ names’! I found, however, an enclosed community of Roman Catholic Nuns outside Campbelltown in Sydney who were producing unleavened communion bread with a seven inch diameter. I happened to be a Canon of Bathurst Cathedral at the time and so presented a supply of these for the service of consecration of the newly completed Cathedral building. This was so that the eucharist at the Cathedral’s consecration could involve a genuine breaking and sharing of bread. Alas, I was horrified to find that some helpful person had broken them up the night before the service! This was motivated by a purely pragmatic concern, for it was intended to expedite the liturgy given an anticipated large crowd, but it unfortunately defeated the intended purpose of securing the integrity of the actual breaking of bread within four-fold eucharistic action. Eventually, the Sisters of the Sacred Advent came to the party and began to produce unleavened communion bread that could actually be broken and shared.
In any event, my point is that Our Lord commanded us, not to repeat a formula ‘in remembrance of him’, but to do something ‘in remembrance of Him’ and if this command is taken seriously, then the four-fold action of taking, blessing, breaking and sharing has to be cherished and preserved as essential to the integrity of any genuinely Christian eucharist. Furthermore, for the whole congregation to be fully engaged with this four-fold action it necessarily has to be presented in a clear way that is fully visible. Under the influence of the Liturgical Movement of the 1950s and 1960s all eucharists came to be celebrated with the presiding priest or bishop in the westward position, facing the congregation, with the congregation gathered around, for this reason. Happily, this thus fulfilled the 1662 Prayer Book directive that the bread is to be ‘broken before the people.’
In theological terms the visual aspect of the experience of participating in the celebration of the Holy Communion is not to be underestimated. After all, the definition of a sacrament is that it is ‘an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace’ not ‘an outward and inwardly taste-able sign of a spiritual grace.’ This means that the symbolic impact of the visible use of the common cup certainly should not be lightly set aside and replaced by the use of multiple individual glasses as though this were a satisfactory equivalent practice. Obviously, it cannot be argued that individual glasses constitute a satisfactory alternative to the use of the common cup when, unfortunately, the use of individual glasses positively destroys the important symbolic element of sharing the common cup which is fundamental to the Christian eucharistic experience.
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Furthermore, there is the added difficulty that the lack of biblical and theological grip in relation to the practice of the use of individual glasses unwittingly puts an undesirable emphasis on the wine as such, as a static kind of substance. When it is said in a service sheet, for example, that ‘we have restored communion in both kinds’ what is implied is ‘both kinds of substance’ – both of the ‘natural substances’ of bread and wine of which the 1662 Book speaks (in the final rubric).
However, in biblical and theological terms references to ‘the cup’ are not simply the semantic equivalent of ‘wine’ considered as a substance. This is because it is not ‘wine’ considered as a substance that is of theological significance; rather, what is of theological significance is wine that is intentionally taken into the dynamic of the eucharistic action of taking, blessing, breaking and sharing in remembrance of Jesus Christ.
Unfortunately, talk of ‘restoring communion in both kinds’ of substance implicitly falls into the category mistake of assuming that consuming the substance of the wine is what is of religious significance, as though the eucharist is a sharing of bread and wine, whereas it is actually and essentially a ‘breaking and sharing of bread and the sharing of the cup.’ This dynamic action is what has theological significance, for it is this symbolic action that outwardly and visibly signals the inner spiritual reality of inter-personal Communion with God perceived by faith that binds humans together in the unity of one body as the Body of Christ.
The wine in the cup is, of course, a key part of the eucharist, though not as a substance that is to be consumed, but insofar as it is taken and incorporated into the four-fold action commanded by Christ, and thus set apart (or consecrated) for this explicit purpose. I think this means that it is a mistake to regard the wine as a substance that must be consumed simply in order to satisfy the directive that communion should normally be in both kinds, given that this tends to suggest that it is purely as a substance that it has some kind of theological importance, divorced from this dynamic action.
But we have to be even handed here. When it is pointed out from an Anglo-Catholic perspective that communion in one kind is sufficient, for the reason that the communication of God’s grace is not divided, with part being received via the bread and part being received via the wine, the logical implication is also that ‘one kind of substance’ (bread) is once again being conceived in static terms. Clearly, once again the focus of this language has shifted by default from the dynamic of the eucharistic action of ‘taking, blessing, breaking and sharing’ to the substances of bread and wine in themselves. The argument seems to be that consuming one kind of substance is sufficient. Once again, the language of the sufficiency of one kind of substance is also problematic insofar as it implies a static and substantialist understanding of things.
Indeed, in using this kind of language we are playing essentially the same kind of Aristotelian language-game as the medieval Church when it sought to defend the doctrine of Transubstantiation by distinguishing the substance of bread and wine from the accidents, and then argued that a change of inner substance was effected by priestly consecration, even if the accidents of bread and wine remained the same.
It has to be said, that even at the time of the Reformation, the continuing prevalence of an essentially Aristotelian metaphysic of substances and accidents, meant that Luther, for example, sought to explain Christ’s eucharistic presence with his people using the same categories when he spoke of ‘Consubstantiation’ as distinct from ‘Transubstantiation’. In this way he sought to argue that the natural substances of bread and wine remain along with an additional divine spiritual substance. And there may be a remnant survival of this even in the 1662 Prayer Book insofar as the rubric at the end of the Service of Holy Communion asserts that the ‘Sacramental bread and wine remain still in their very natural substances.’
However, the remnant survival, perhaps even in 1662, of Aristotelian substantialist categories does not commit us today, of course, to an Aristotelian metaphysical understanding of reality. We are not obliged to continue to think or speak in Aristotelian substantialist categories because fortunately the authority of scripture prevails, and scripture itself makes it clear that it is not so much the bread and wine as substances in themselves that is sacramentally significant. Rather, the Christian eucharist is essentially not a matter of consuming the substances of bread and wine, not even in both kinds, but a matter of doing something with bread and wine – taking, blessing, breaking and sharing. We do this, just as our Lord commanded, in remembrance of Him.
Those who are inclined to opt for doing something else by using separate glasses must justify this non-biblical and theologically questionable alternative to the use of the common cup. Furthermore, by insisting on the theological significance simply of the consuming of both kinds of substances, there is a need to explain a theology of the consecration of the bread and wine as static substances, as an alternative to that outlined above with its focus upon the essential importance of doing what Jesus commanded us to do in remembrance of Him – the four-fold eucharistic action of taking, blessing, breaking and sharing. In other words, the challenge is to explain why communion in both kinds of substance is somehow in itself theologically essential.
Obviously, the practice of using individual glasses certainly should not be introduced as though the abandonment of the common cup does not really matter and in a way that suggests the belief that what does matter is the consumption of the natural substances of both bread and wine in both kinds.
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Now, it is in the light of the eucharistic theology outlined above and the liturgical practices that it dictates that we can begin to assess the appropriateness or otherwise of the use of separate glasses in lieu of the use of the common cup for the distribution of communion at Christian eucharists.
The first thing to be said is that this somewhat idiosyncratic innovation has no biblical warrant. It is clear from the biblical texts that Our Lord took ‘the cup’ and not a tray of individualized glasses (I Corinthians 11.25; Mark 14.22, Matthew 26.26, Luke 22.20). Accordingly, the rubrics of the 1662 Prayer Book unfailingly refer to ‘the cup’ when it directs the priest to take ‘the cup into his hands’ or when he delivers ‘the cup’ to each communicant.
Clearly, in theological terms the sharing of the eucharist is not just a matter of sharing wine, understood as a substance. It is a matter of sharing ‘the cup.’ Just as ‘we are one body for we all share the one bread’, so, we being many also share the one cup. Clearly, the action of sharing the common cup is as theologically important as the sharing of the substance of wine which it contains.
This means that the use of the common cup is as important, both actually and visually, as the breaking and sharing of the bread. For this reason, once again under the influence of the Liturgical Movement, the use of multiple chalices on the altar when numbers of worshippers demand a quantity of consecrated wine larger than can be held in a single chalice, is as a matter of liturgical custom today discouraged. As it happens ‘a flagon’ is envisaged for this purpose by the 1662 Prayer Book rubric which directs that a hand should be laid upon it as well as on the chalice to signal its being ‘taken’; today a back-up flagon or cruet is intentionally used on the altar, rather than multiple chalices, because, at this point, it is also important from a visual point of view that there should be one chalice to be shared, just as from a visual point of view the bread received into the hand of the communicant should be visually a fragment actually broken from a greater whole. And if more than one chalice must be used in the case of large numbers of communicants, then the consecrated wine is decanted into them from a cruet. In this way at least each chalice is then actually shared. In the case of the use of individual glasses, which are not shared, the fourth element of the eucharistic action is by default eliminated both actually and visually.
My recent experience was also that the first of the four eucharistic actions, the ‘taking’, was also effectively eliminated visually, and possibly even actually as well. This is very concerning. The tray of glasses was produced at the time of communion with little indication of where it had been or exactly where it had come from. There was no visible indication, at the at the time of the taking of wine from the credence table for pouring into the chalice, that this action also involved a tray of glasses. Indeed, the tray of glasses could hardly have been taken and placed on the corporal along with the chalice so as to ensure that the wine in them was to be consecrated, as it is problematic that a large tray would even fit there on the corporal. I suspect it was perhaps elsewhere, possibly already on the altar. I was also not aware that consecrated wine was decanted into the individual glasses from a flagon or cruet following the Great Thanksgiving, as envisaged in the case of the possible need to replenish the chalice in 1662. Perhaps wine had already been decanted into the individual glasses before the service.
Furthermore, and even more concerningly, there was no indication that a hand was laid on ‘every vessel in which there is wine to be consecrated’ (in this case each of the glasses) as directed by the 1662 Prayer Book.
In the case of my recent experience, the tray of glasses, apparently already charged with wine, was obviously somewhere in the vicinity, perhaps, and hopefully at least on the altar, but, if the explicit 1662 directive of ‘laying a hand upon every vessel to be consecrated’ was not followed, how are we to be assured that the wine in the individual glasses was in fact consecrated? It is clear enough that in 1662 the rubric about the laying of a hand is required as a minimal signal that wine in each vessel is included in the action of being ‘taken’ to be consecrated. In other words, the gesture of the laying of a hand signals that the wine in each respective vessel is being intentionally separated from other wine in the vicinity, whether wine remaining in a cruet on the credence table or wine in a bottle in a vestry cupboard.
I realize that when A Prayer Book for Australia is being used rather than The Book of Common Prayer of 1662 this directive does not explicitly appear. However, 1662 is the authoritative norm in the Anglican Church of Australia; we are bound to it by Constitution. And in any event, APBA itself stipulates: ‘The rubrics (rules governing the ordering of services) of The Book of Common Prayer apply unless separate provision has been made in this book.’ (p. x). Clearly, at least some kind of manual ‘taking’ of each vessel containing wine to be consecrated is mandatory. In theological terms a eucharistic liturgy in which wine in each vessel to be consecrated is not ‘taken’ is seriously defective.
If the wine in individual glasses was not actually incorporated into the eucharistic action in this way, and not actually consecrated, this perhaps deals with any qualms we might have about the remains of the consecrated wine being carried out of the Church in individual glasses. If it is not consecrated wine, then the 1662 rubric about not carrying it out of the Church does not apply.
On the other hand, if there were to be, let us say 100+ glasses and 100+ gestures in which a hand is laid upon each of them, this would certainly not have been envisaged by the Prayer Book of 1662! Indeed, in the case of the use of individual glasses the multiple laying of a hand on ‘every vessel containing wine to be consecrated’ is probably unrealistic in purely practical terms. It would therefore be difficult in practical terms to do as directed by 1662. Furthermore, this is unlikely to be achieved without it being counter-productive in conative symbolic terms. Instead of the laying of a hand being a minimal token of the essential ‘taking’ of the eucharistic action, the action of laying a hand on each of 100+ glasses would probably send an undesirable message – eg. as being suggestive of some kind of ‘tactile magic.’
So, I fear that those who wish to use individual glasses for the distribution of communion may be in something of a bind. The laying of a hand ‘on every vessel in which there is wine to be consecrated’ which is required by the directive of the 1662 Prayer Book is hardly realistic in the case of the use of multiple glasses, and in any event problematic insofar as it might send the wrong conative message; on the other hand, without the laying on of a hand ‘on every vessel in which there is wine to be consecrated’, there is no clear ‘taking’ of wine, in the sense of no clear separation of wine to be consecrated from the ordinary supply of wine somewhere in the vicinity. In this circumstance, whether wine in individual glasses is actually consecrated, and can be known to have been consecrated, becomes problematic.
In this case, we would probably have to say that the distribution of the tray of separate glasses of wine constitutes a kind of para-liturgy that is designed to meet the 1662 requirement that communion be distributed ‘in both kinds’ but with little or no attention being given to other crucial requirements of 1662. The inconsistent insistence on one requirement of the 1662 Prayer Book while apparently overlooking other requirements, and particularly one so crucial to the taking of the wine to be consecrated by visibly laying a hand upon it so as to separate it from the ordinary supply of wine to set it apart for its specific sacred purpose, is to say the least unfortunate.
Clearly, by seeking to ensure conformity to the directive of the 1662 Prayer Book that communion is to be distributed and received ‘in both kinds’, while passing over other important directives of 1662, we could be charged with being arbitrarily selective. Certainly, in my recent experience, the directive that communion was to be received in both kinds was selectively highlighted and taken seriously, but the direction that a hand was to be laid upon each vessel containing wine to be consecrated was apparently overlooked.
We have also to be wary of insisting on communion in ‘both kinds’ in a legalistic way, by following the letter of the law, without considering the biblical and theological issues that may be relevant to it. If we were to insist on communion ‘in both kinds’ merely because of the 1662 rubric alone which directs this in normal circumstances by bringing it to bear in the abnormal circumstances created by the Covid pandemic, without attending to the biblical and theological tradition which informs our understanding of what we are really about, then we could be caught in nothing more than an unfortunate bit of legalism. This is a particular danger if the directive to receive communion ‘in both kinds’ is cited selectively, while other directives of the 1662 Prayer Book are passed over.
Clearly, an appreciation is needed of the biblical and theological importance of the four-fold eucharistic action that was commanded by Our Lord to be done in remembrance of him. Not least, we are obliged to attend to the first of these actions, the ‘taking’ of the bread and wine, that in the 1662 rite is signalled by the directive that ‘the Priest is to take the Paten (with the bread) into his hands’ and then ‘to lay his hand on all the Bread’ and then he is to take ‘the Cup into his hand’ and then to ‘lay his hand on every vessel containing wine to be consecrated.’ The failure to follow 1662 at this point means that the use of individual glasses becomes not only non-biblical and problematic theologically, but also in liturgical terms, defective, insofar as without the laying on of a hand on each of the glasses, there is a question as to whether the wine in them has actually been consecrated at all.
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Finally, there is yet a further difficulty. If anything, the substitution of separate glasses for the sharing of the common cup is in symbolic terms deficient as an outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual grace of inter-personal communion with God. Indeed, this method of distributing communion does not just suffer from a deficit in terms of the symbolic content of the message it delivers, and thus ultimately fails as an outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual grace it is intended to convey. It is a problematic practice because the symbolic significance of the use of separate glasses positively signals a tacit denial of what is essentially signified by the common cup.
Whereas the sharing of the common cup speaks of human togetherness in the Communion of the Holy Spirit, and of inter-personal unity in community, with its obligation of mutual care and the sharing of responsibility for the well-being of others, the use of individual glasses embodies a message of the separate identity of human individuals. Indeed, the hard reality is that this is a practice that cannot avoid generating the connotation of a kind of individualism, for individualism is the obverse implication of the undeniable fact that the use of separate glasses is positively intended to avoid the very inter-personal sharing that the use of the common cup essentially signifies. This means that far from being a symbolically neutral alternative to the use of the common cup, it actually undermines the theologically significant symbolic meaning of the common cup.
Given that the introduction of the use of individual glasses is explicitly and intentionally motivated by the concern to eliminate or replace the sharing of the common cup, the use of individual glasses is therefore not just a conatively neutral sign; rather, in conative terms it positively undermines what it is signified by the sharing of the common cup. In effect, the outward and visible sign of inter-personal communion of the people of God with one another in one Body which is achieved by grace through the gift of the Holy Spirit, is intentionally replaced by an outward and visible sign which, perhaps unwittingly, inevitably signals a noxious kind of individualism.
As Christians we are not essentially individuals, but persons in community with others in the unity of the Body of Christ. At this point the difference between ‘an individual’ and ‘a person’ is theologically significant. An individual is by definition conceived in separation from others; but the discovery of the concept of a ‘person’ by the Cappadocian Fathers in the process of articulating the doctrine of the Trinity in the fourth century, was grounded in the conviction that a person, as distinct from an individual, is related to others and has his or her identity with and from others. The Three Persons of the Trinity have their identity in relation to one-another in the unity of the inter-personal communion of the Holy Spirit. This Cappadocian discovery pointed to the truth that, by contrast with individuals, between persons there is inter-personal give-and-take. The Persons of the Trinity are therefore not three individuals; that would amount of a kind of tri-theism. Rather, the Christian God is ‘Three Persons and One Communion’ as Basil of Caesarea was so fond of saying (in his Treatise On the Holy Spirit).
Another way of putting this would be to say that, whereas individuals are understood essentially as being in separation from one another, a person is one who is able to address another and who is justified in expecting a similar response. Thus, it is not as individuals but precisely as persons, made in the image of God, that we are addressed by the Word of God, and are personally able to respond to God in prayer and worship. Furthermore, the Communion of God is the inter-personal Communion of the Holy – in other words, the ‘Holy Communion’ is the spiritual reality of the divine life to which the people of God have access by faith in Christ, and in which they intentionally participate sacramentally through the outward and visible sign of the taking, blessing, breaking and sharing of bread and the sharing of the common cup of the eucharist.
Ultimately, when we speak of the ‘Holy Communion’ we are thus speaking of the Communion of God, to which we have access together by faith, as one Body in, with and through Jesus Christ. In a sense, our corporate participation in this dynamic action each Sunday morning reconstitutes and recreates the Church as the Body of Christ in the Communion of the Holy Spirit. It is not just a matter of individuals drinking wine as well as consuming bread in ‘both kinds’ of natural substance. Rather, what happens in the eucharistic rite of the Church is the taking, blessing, breaking and sharing of bread and the sharing of the cup in remembrance of Jesus Christ with thanksgiving, as the outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual grace whereby we have access through Christ to the Communion of God.
Clearly, the unfortunate individualism of the practice of using separate glasses is without the give-and-take of inter-personal communion signalled by the breaking and sharing of bread and the sharing of the cup; indeed, given that its introduction is positively designed to avoid the sharing that is the outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual grace of communion, it is thus in symbolic terms actually inimical to the interpersonal communion, both human and divine, that is so essential to our understanding of the Christian eucharist. This means that the practice of using individual glasses is not just biblically and theologically questionable; in symbolic terms it is destructive of the authentic communication of the meaning content essential to the maintenance of the integrity of the Christian eucharist.
I think we have to conclude that, the individualism signalled by the use of separate glasses is therefore inappropriate as an effectual sign of the human participation in the inter-personal Communion of God. Consuming wine from separate glasses might be acceptable if this practice were to be used to signal the competitive individualism of liberal democratic societies in which each individual is free to do his or her own thing so long as he or she does not infringe upon the equal right of every other individual to do his or her own thing. Alas, the competitive individualism of the cafeteria rites of modern democratic societies is far removed from the inter-personal sharing of the divine love and care, or of mutual responsibility and inter-dependence in the Communion of the Body of Christ. Rather than individualism, what we give thanks for in the Christian eucharist is the unity of human persons in Christ through the Communion of the Holy Spirit of which the breaking and sharing of bread and the sharing of ‘the cup’ is the effectual outward and visible sign. Obviously, the symbolism of this sign must be preserved so as to carry the freight of meaning essential to the Christian eucharist.
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How then are we to address the situation in which we currently find ourselves, in which the common cup cannot actually be shared by members of the congregation as originally intended by Our Lord and as explicitly directed in the 1662 Prayer Book because of the risks to health posed by the Covid pandemic?
At the time of the Reformation Anglicanism was resistant to any tendency to remove the priest from the community by a kind of special privilege. Rather, ministerial priesthood was understood in representative terms: the priest performed a ministry of service within and to the community: he or she represents God to the people in the exposition of God’s Word and the administration of the sacramental signs of God’s grace, and represents the people to God by leading and giving voice to their prayer. Just as the priesthood of the people of God as a whole is to represent God to the world and the world to God in prayer, so the essence of ministerial priesthood within the Church, though in an important sense different, is representative.
Thus, when the remaining consecrated bread and wine is to be consumed at the end of the eucharist, this is the responsibility of the presiding priest, not as a kind of privilege, but as an act of service performed on behalf of the community, for he or she acts not apart from, but as representative of, the people.
The Anglican Reformers directed that at the time of communion the sharing of the cup was not reserved to the priest alone as a special privilege but shared with all the people of God. Thus, the 1662 Book of Common Prayer explicitly says that first the priest and then the people are to receive communion ‘in both kinds.’ Likewise, Article xxx of the Thirty Nine Articles explicitly says: ‘The Cup of the Lord is not to be denied to the Lay-people: for both the parts of the Lord's Sacrament, by Christ's ordinance and commandment, ought to be ministered to all Christian men alike.’ The ‘ought’ here is a word of moral persuasion, rather than a legal imperative, but, either way, both moral and legal precepts are designed to be applied in normal circumstances. They are norms that by definition do not necessarily apply in exceptional circumstances. In other words, moral and legal norms do not commit us to an unthinking pharisaic legalism that might be hell-bent on keeping ‘the letter of the law’ while being oblivious to the consideration of mitigating circumstances in which it is to be reasonably applied. The commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’, for example, does not necessarily apply in cases of self-defence.
Likewise, communion ‘in both kinds’ is certainly the desirable norm in normal circumstances. This is one of the principles of the Church of England that are embodied in the foundational documents of the Anglican tradition and which by virtue of the Constitution of the Anglican Church of Australia we ‘retain and approve’. We are naturally anxious and in fact committed to remain true to this important aspect of our tradition if that is at all possible. Alas, while we all agree that the Lord’s Sacrament ought to be ministered to all men and women alike, it is obviously impossible to argue this in the exceptional circumstance of a lethal pandemic. Self-preservation and self-defence dictate otherwise.
While valuing this norm, we understand that in the case of a pandemic, strict adherence to the letter of this norm is simply not possible. Indeed, we can be quite certain that the Anglican divines of the sixteenth and seventeenth century were not addressing the exceptional circumstances created by a death-dealing virus, given that the description of these non-bacterial pathogens dates only from 1892. Clearly, they were articulating a norm for what they understood to be normal circumstances. However, we also fully appreciate that the situation which faces us today is an abnormal circumstance, and hopefully only temporary.
In normal circumstances the sharing of the common cup seems not to involve the anxiety of health risks. Sometimes the antiseptic properties of alcohol, especially in fortified wine, is highlighted in defence of the use of the common cup. On the other hand, the sharing of the common cup may well play an important part in achieving a kind of ‘herd immunity’ amongst the people of God. Successive international studies have shown that people who practice religion generally have a longer life expectancy than others in the community. Furthermore, given that the priest consumes what remains of consecrated bread and wine at every eucharist, it is probably not insignificant to note that English statistics have shown that Anglican clergy enjoy a higher life expectancy than members of other professions in the community.
Nevertheless, even in normal times, it is not unusual for at least some people to refrain from actually sharing the common cup, for specific health-related reasons of an exceptional kind. Those suffering from a cold or influenza, for example, are advised not to share the common cup. Likewise, those whose immunity is compromised are advised not to partake of the common cup. People suffering from HIV Aids, and those who have received organ transplants and whose immunity has been lowered in the interests of avoiding rejection, are advised not to share the common cup. Likewise, pregnant women are advised not to share the common cup, given the cytomegala virus which is present in saliva, notably in high quantity in the saliva of children (something we had to address when children were admitted to Communion before Confirmation in the 1980s).
However, in these exceptional cases the common cup is not normally abandoned. Rather, communicant worshippers finding themselves in a condition of low or compromised immunity are advised to receive the broken bread and then join with others in appropriating the spiritual significance of sharing the common cup in an experience that must necessarily be only visual and virtual. However, the normative place of the common cup in the eucharistic liturgy is not abandoned or obscured by the implementation of a practice that in symbolic and conative terms is countervailing.
In a similar way, some are prevented for health-related reasons from actively sharing the broken bread if it is not gluten-free. But in this exceptional circumstance, the use of bread is not therefore abandoned.
Given the current pandemic, it is recognized that as a temporary measure, not just a few people whose immunity is compromised, but all communicants are obliged to forego receiving the common cup, with the exception of the priest alone. In this case, the priest does not exploit a privilege but, once again, acts as a representative person. Just as in the 1662 directive the priest has the responsibility of consuming remaining consecrated bread and wine as representative and on behalf of the whole community, so in the exceptional circumstance of pandemic he receives the cup and consumes the consecrated wine as representative of the community as a whole. Ideally, the presiding priest should audibly say the words ‘The Blood of Christ, the Cup of Salvation’ at this point so that it more clearly becomes a representative act in which the people may at least participate visually and virtually, and so appropriate its spiritual significance in faith.
Indeed, the fact that for the time being the common cup cannot actually be received by the assembled congregation is a poignant and painful reminder of the crucial importance of the sharing of the common cup in normal circumstances. This does not undermine or negate the significance of the common cup but re-affirms it.
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Clearly, the taking, blessing, breaking and sharing of bread and the sharing of the common cup commanded by Our Lord is of the essence of the Christian eucharistic experience; the common cup should not be lightly abandoned or replaced with a questionable alternative. Even if, in the abnormal times of pandemic, when as a matter of practical necessity the appropriation in faith of the significance of the common cup can only be a visual and virtual experience, it is better that the experience of gathering for the breaking of bread and sharing of the cup be temporarily diminished in this way, rather than replaced with a conatively countervailing and symbolically unhelpful alternative. Given the restraints necessarily imposed by the abnormal circumstance of the Covid pandemic, a visual and virtual experience is at least something. Indeed, at the height of lock-down in 2020 when attendance at public worship became impossible, we all had to make do with a visual and virtual worshipping experience. Even though we were prevented from assembling together, this was at least something. Nobody imagined that it would have been an appropriate response to abandon corporate worship altogether, and replace it with some kind of individualised and private alternative of our own invention. Certainly, the symbolic importance of the use of the common cup is not to be compromised by substituting a biblically unauthorised and theologically questionable practice in its place.