Of cups and microbes

Sunday 7 June 2009 6:10 AM

Well it's about my turn probably. Wednesday: I got home from a first-rate Melbourne Anglican ministry conference, possibly the best ever for me. Thursday: early signs of a cold. Now it's Saturday evening, and I'm facing the prospect of preaching to two congregations with a raspy throat, a headache and my nose running like a tap. But such is life for those who preach. It's just as I said .. probably about my turn.

But other thoughts arise as well. The sad irony that the great conference may be the source of the bug that got me. The unsolvable hypothesis: is it swine flu? (I may never know since the state of Victoria is now beyond the quarantine stage where every sniff is tested. It's now the collective grin-and-bear-it and see-what-happens stage.) And most of all the pastoral conundrum: what will we do with communion?

The bread and the cup Well what indeed? Like other liturgical churches, we Anglicans have historically taken pride in our preservation of the common cup when we share the Lord's Supper. So much so, that some of my more liturgically impassioned colleagues would view the end of the common cup as the end of life as we know it. To me it's sometimes a puzzle. I too value the common cup. But then I'd also much prefer a common loaf of .. well, um .. bread. That's the spongy stuff that rises, in contrast with those tiny flat white discs in general Anglican use. Now I admit that they do melt in contact with human saliva at a faster pace than polystyrene in all likelihood does. But my intellect struggles to identify them as "bread"; and even if a panel of lawyers, linguists and dieticians were to declare them so, it would not end the matter. A hundred white discs is certainly not a single loaf, whatever else it might be.

So what do we have? Well historically at least, we have:

  • in the blue corner - the one cup wonders basking in the liturgical purity of sharing the same cup, whilst largely oblivious to their singular lack of one-loafness (that's the 'one' and the 'loaf' both missing in action); and
  • in the red corner - the one loaf lovers exulting in oneness and breadness, whilst drinking grape juice (some even call it 'cordial') from a platoon of private thimbles.

Either way few of us can claim the high liturgical ground when it comes to "eating this bread and drinking the cup" (1 Cor 11:26). Puts a few things in perspective, don't you think?

So to return to cups, coughs and sneezes … What does one do to be alert and not alarmed, like any good blue-blooded Aussie, which used to be most Anglicans? Well it does rather depend whom you talk to, and how long ago they took their white coats and test tubes to church.

Dippers One popular approach is intinction, which despite the sound actually involves neither cosmetics nor brushes. Historically this practice of dipping the bread (or whatever those silly things are) in the wine developed as a practical means of giving communion to sick people, and it still has much to commend it in that pastoral context. But in latter years it's become a hit with the germ-free supper brigade, in the quest not only to save sinners but to sterilise them as well. (Digestively, that is ... ) On the surface it makes good sense. But as the white coated army tell us, the surface is precisely the catch. Multitudinous microbes take up residence on human hands in the most innocent of moments. Those sinister microbes employ a two-pronged attack on the unsuspecting dipper:

  • one microbic cohort jumps from the minister's hand to the wafer, and thence to the receiver's hand where it gathers reinforcements. As the wafer breaks the surface of the liquid a detachment of menacing microbes leaps into the crimson flow, and then lies in wait for another wafer to board
  • and whilst that's happening, another cohort abseils down the receiver's finger, in readiness for the moment when the fingertip itself touches the liquid, providing the easiest transit for these living weapons of mass infection

Beyond that the picture gets slightly murkier, but not much. One scientific opinion from 1995((Microbiologist Dr Anne LaGrange Loving writing in journal "Lutheran Partners" vol 15, no 4)) concluded that "although intinction is by no means completely microbe-free, it does seem to reduce the risk over that of sipping from a common communion cup." More recent opinion however is much less equivocal. Notably a Toronto (Canada) diocesan investigation of 2003 found intinction to pose a greater risk of transmitting infection than sipping from a common cup, on the twin grounds that preventing every communicant's fingers from touching the wine is impossible and that there are no "cleansing options" between communicants. The latter study rates sipping from a common cup as a "minimal risk" (comparable to many other daily activities, such as shaking hands), but assesses intinction "a higher risk activity" since "fingertips of intinctors may contaminate the shared wine with pathogens other than those found in saliva." The concluding recommendations include the complete discontinuation of intinction in public worship on health grounds, with scientific backing.

Wheezers So all in all it seems intinction deserves extinction. Alternatives are needed, clearly. Recognising the increased risk of transmission whilst someone has viral symptoms, one now quite common piece of Anglican pastoral advice is that affected communicants should receive the bread only, for as long as the symptoms are noticeable. This is predictable, yet to me thoroughly unsatisfying. It almost assumes that drinking from a common cup is of the essence of the sacrament itself. That deserves to be challenged. I think it represents a confusion between essence and method. If Jesus intended the bread and the cup to serve as food for faith, then eating and drinking matter infinitely more than any one received means of partaking. Believers may develop varied preferences between a leavened loaf, various varieties of unleavened bread, individual wafers, a common chalice, unfermented grape juice, individual glasses, red table wine, and fortified wine. But if all are "a participation in" the blood and the body of Christ (1 Cor 10:16), the method must be secondary to the spiritual needs of the worshipper. If any member of the body is barred from partaking by one method, let them use another. No cathedral ceiling has collapsed under the weight of a single glass thimble, to my knowledge.

Sippers Illness aside, the common cup tradition has little to fear from the weight of current microbiological opinion. That certainly is the conclusion of the Canadian Anglican paper, along with heightened attention to cleansing at various points. The principle elements of such a strategy might be summed up thus:

  • at all times, communion ministers, communion assistants and sacristans should apply an antimicrobial rinse to their hands before handling communion vessels or elements.
  • sterilise purificators, plates and cups in an antimicrobial rinse between uses.
  • common chalices should be wiped thoroughly after each administration of the cup to a communicant, and purificators changed frequently during the service.

Here endeth the lesson. Now back to the tissue box, Vitamin C, Echinacea, lemon, honey, oil, water and whatever folk remedy one trusts.