What has happened to the common cup?

Sunday, April 3, 2016

The new Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Michael Curry, has testified that he, a black man, was first attracted to the Episcopal denomination because when he was young, he attended an integrated Episcopal church and was deeply impressed that black and white members all drank out of the same communion vessel.

He did not say anything about the wholesale abandonment of this tradition by the church in recent years.

Until the 70s and 80s, virtually no Episcopalians dipped their communion wafers into the chalice (intinction). I grew up acting as an acolyte in the early 50s (probably the first girl acolyte in the diocese of Virginia), and I can vouch for the fact that no one ever dipped his or her wafer in the wine. Everyone drank from the common cup. I went to many Episcopal youth camps; no one dipped. I was an active Episcopalian in college and early adulthood, going to numerous conferences; no one dipped. It would have been considered very peculiar if not downright irreverent (indeed, I’m afraid we were snootily dismissive of Baptists and others who passed around those teensy little individual glasses in trays). It’s possible that occasionally someone would refrain from drinking from the common cup if she had a bad cold and did not want to risk giving it to others, but even that was very unusual, and typically she would not dip but would simply signal for the cup to pass by. I don’t recall anyone ever mentioning the possibility that a healthy communicant might catch a germ from someone else.

When I was a seminarian in “Mass class” in the early 70s, we were instructed to “turn the chalice with each sip, wiping as you go” and  “keep the wine flowing over the rim” and “refold the purificator frequently, keeping the stained side in.” This counsel hardly seems necessary today. Since I was ordained in the mid-70s, the numbers of people drinking from the chalice has plummeted.

I realize that my anecdotal evidence is not scientific. I admit that I don’t know what they are doing in the Dioceses of Eau Claire or San Joaquin. However, I have traveled very widely across the Episcopal church, East to West, North to South, and although I have trained myself not to look at my neighbors when I am actually receiving, when I as the preacher am sitting behind or near the communion rail, I can’t help noticing that the vast majority are dipping their wafers. (Generally speaking, the few that still drink from the chalice tend to be of a certain age.) I have also noticed that  the amount of wine poured into the chalice has greatly decreased. We used to fill up a chalice, or even two, at a Sunday service in a small-to-mid-size parish, in order to provide for all those who were sipping; now the priest puts in barely half a cupful for the dippers.

For 20 years and more, I have inquired from many people about this, The answer is always the same: GERMS. Sometimes the person giving this reply is being considerate of others, because he has a cold, or she is coughing. But the great majority who receive are not sick. They are afraid of contracting germs from others.

I have consulted two epidemiologists about this. Both of them said that sterling silver, interacting with wine, neutralizes germs (both of them were leery of porous ceramic or pottery!). They emphasized what everyone surely knows by now, that colds are spread on hands, and people sometimes get their fingertips in the wine when dipping. I believe it is the case that no one has been able to prove that disease is spread through the common cup in ordinary circumstances. If it was, the clergy would be the sickest people in the nation, since a good many of us consume the leftover wine; I did this without fail every time I presided at the Eucharist during the entire 21 years of my parish ministry.

I don’t have a “magical” view of what happens to the wine when it is consecrated. Drinking a lot of leftover consecrated wine at the end of the communion can give a definite “buzz,” as I can testify. Many recovering alcoholics, understandably, receive the bread only. I admit that in the case of epidemics of saliva-borne illnesses, such as SARS or–worse–Ebola, exceptions would have to be made. I think I remember that the Roman Catholic Church made such an exception during the SARS epidemic of 2003. I can’t say that I would drink the leftover wine in the middle of an Ebola breakout. But these are exceptional circumstances.

I don’t see this as an ontological question, but an ecclesiological one. When Paul rebukes the Corinthians because they do not “discern the body” during the Lord’s Supper (I Corinthians 11:29), the context indicates that he does not mean the bread or wine themselves; he means the diverse members of the Body of Christ.  It is our mutuality, our union in the Lord that is the central focus.

Therefore the most significant problem with this shift in church practice, it seems to me, is that people are acting out of fear. Children and visitors from other denominations are instructed that they should receive by intinction because they might catch something harmful from a fellow Christian. Surely this undermines the central reality of the sacrament. When we are at the altar rail we are brought into the closest possible personal communion with other disciples of Christ in the fellowship of His conquering love, and “there is no fear in love; perfect love casts out fear” (I John 4:18). Should fear dictate our practice in this most intimate of all settings? It seems to me highly ironic, to say the least, that this precipitous decline in the use of the common cup should have coincided with the wholesale shift toward the centrality of the Eucharist in the worship of the .Episcopal church.

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