Communion and Corona image

Communion and Corona

The Lord’s Supper, that great symbol of Christian unity, has long caused contention. We may not be fighting tooth and nail over transubstantiation, consubstantiation or concomitance – but whether the wine should be wine, or juice, the bread should be bread, or gluten free, the cup one, or many, can cause real friction in congregations. Throw in concerns about hygiene, highlighted at the moment by the corona virus, and we can find ourselves in eucharistic chaos.

My experience of celebrating the Lord’s Supper has changed significantly over the years. Like many from a low, free church background, my experience of the Lord’s Supper was of a monthly-observed, painfully introspective, somewhat off-putting communion service. Then into a more charismatic and ‘grace-filled’ expression of church, communion became less regularly celebrated and when it was often painfully informal. Over the past ten years a recovery of a more Calvinistic emphasis on the real, spiritual, presence of Jesus in the supper has led to communion being celebrated more regularly, and more meaningfully.

In the church where I pastor our normal practice is to celebrate the supper every Sunday. There is theological conviction about this, as the instructions of the New Testament seem to necessitate regular participation in the supper. There is ecclesiological conviction as we recognise the manner in which our partaking in the bread and wine speak of our ‘one bodied-ness’ with the church universal. And there is hermeneutical conviction as communion brings into physical, visual, focus what has been expressed in words during singing, praying and preaching.

Yet the concerns of (and for) those with allergies and intolerances (did such things exist in the first century?!) mean that at times we have ended up with three different types of ‘bread’ available; so we have now taken the line of least resistance and use only gluten free bread – though at least one person has claimed to be allergic to this and others protest its consistency and texture. Concerns of (and for) those with alcohol problems mean that we were offering both real wine and grape juice but have now adopted alcohol free wine – though it tastes nothing like wine. At least now we do not cycle through a menu (literally) of options for those participating in the supper, though bread without any wheat in it and wine without any alcohol in it don’t feel quite in line with the habits of the first church.

We dislike using those little ‘shot’ glasses for communion; or pre-chopping the bread into tiny squares. Both these practices seem to undermine the very physicality that the supper represents, and certainly the oneness of the loaf and of the cup. But when swine flu came through a few years back people started getting very nervous about hygiene, so we adopted the practice of intinction (dipping the bread into the wine). This is a help to those who feel squeamish about drinking from the same cup as their neighbour – though if that neighbour has dirty fingers that get dipped in the cup the comfort is scant. (This risk is exacerbated by the use of gluten free bread that has a tendency to fall into crumbs rather than hold together.)

And then someone new to our church told me she could not participate in the supper with us because intinction is unbiblical, and that got me thinking again. (The most helpful analysis I have found of the validity or otherwise of intinction is here.)

So I’m feeling increasingly uneasy about intinction, but last Sunday was at a church where we shared cups, and that felt quite odd from a hygiene perspective (I was conscious of the fact that I had been unwell and was possibly passing something nasty on) and the week before that I was at another church where we used plastic shot glasses, and that felt too antiseptic. (And what about the turtles if we’re using more plastic?!) While the real risk from COVID-19 seems minimal there is no doubt lots of people are feeling very fearful about it and are likely to be fearful about communion hygiene – even if you are more likely to contract a virus by talking with someone over coffee after the service than during communion, no matter how it is administered.

I want us to go on celebrating the supper regularly – I’m theologically, ecclesiologically and hermeneutically committed to that. I’d much rather use real wine and real bread, but don’t want to exclude those for whom this is difficult. I don’t want a range of ‘offers’ in the elements as that is so damaging to the enacted sermon of partaking in one loaf, and one cup. I don’t want to be hygiene obsessed, but recognise the cultural significance of hygiene in our context. My natural tendency would be to tell people to stop missing the wood for the trees, take the supper in faith, and not worry about allergies or viruses - but pastorally I probably need to be more flexible than that.

It’s a communion conundrum!

We’re currently having an eldership discussion to work our way through this conundrum but it seems something will have to be sacrificed in order to achieve an acceptable compromise. I don’t want our experience of the supper to be compromised - but perhaps sacrificing something isn’t such a bad principle when it comes to how we approach communion.

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