By Mark Michael

Touching on centuries-old theological controversies, bishops across the Episcopal Church have issued pastoral letters recommending changes to worship practices to prevent infection from the novel coronavirus.

Bishops in the Dioceses of California, Dallas, Olympia, and Los Angeles ordered that Holy Communion be administered to the laity in bread only, although historically Anglicans have often insisted on administering the Eucharist in both bread and wine. The Bishops of Albany and Newark have banned the use of non-alcoholic juice, and others have warned against the practice of intinction, the use of leavened bread and ceramic vessels, and the passing of the peace.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, the highly contagious pathogen spreads through respiratory droplets.

The Rt Revs. Ian Douglas and Laura Ahrens of Connecticut issued a pastoral letter on March 6 encouraging their people to receive the Eucharist in bread only, but allowing a single chalice to be administered at a separate location in the church. They acknowledged that the change in practice stands in tension with the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer and ordinary Episcopalian practice, writing:

The rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer note that: ‘Opportunity is always to be given to every communicate to receive the consecrated Bread and Wine separately.”  (BCP p. 407) At the same time the Canons of the Episcopal Church state: “The Rector or Priest-in-Charge shall have full authority and responsibility for the conduct of the worship and spiritual jurisdiction of the Parish, subject to the Rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer, the Constitution and Canons of this Church, and the pastoral direction of the bishop.”  Canon III.9.6(a)(1) As your bishops we believe that the following liturgical pastoral direction is in order to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, and is in keeping with both the Rubrics and Canons of The Episcopal Church.

Dallas bishop George Sumner defended his March 3 pastoral directive to administer Holy Communion in bread by appealing to concomitance, a traditional teaching about the Eucharist. His letter posed the question, “If only receive the consecrated bread, have I really taken communion?” Sumner answered, “According to the doctrine of concomitance each element conveys the full presence of Christ.”

The doctrine of concomitance dates back to the sixth century, and takes its name from the Latin “accompany with.” Because Christ’s person is one, it holds, his Eucharistic presence cannot be divided, and so a communicant receives the complete benefit of the sacrament in either bread or wine.  The 1555 Council of Trent’s Decree on the Most Holy Eucharist, the Roman Catholic Church’s official summary of the matter, declares, “Moreover, that the Body itself is under the species of wine, and the Blood under the species of bread, and the soul under each by virtue of that natural connection and concomitance by which the parts of Christ our Lord… are naturally joined together.” (Decree on the Most Holy Eucharist, 3).

During the High Middle Ages, approximately 1000 to 1300 A.D., it became common practice to deny the Eucharistic chalice to lay people, and the doctrine of concomitance was often used to justify the practice. Followers of the 14th-century reformer Jan Hus made the restoration of the cup a rallying cry of their movement. Calling themselves Utraquists (from sub utraque specie: under both species), they attacked concomitance for its role in justifying a process that subverted Christ’s practice at the Last Supper, where “he gave it to them: and they all drank of it.” (Mark 14:23). In a series of wars against the Holy Roman Empire that began in 1519, the Utraquists marched into battle beneath a flag that bore the image of the Eucharistic chalice.

The 16th-century Protestant reformers strongly supported the administration of Holy Communion in both bread and wine. Article XXX of the landmark Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, in its discussion of Eucharistic practice, states, “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.” Concomitance, because of its close association with Roman Catholic scholastic Eucharistic doctrine, also was often criticized by 17th-century Anglican theologians.

Even the 20th-century Anglo-Catholic dogmatician C. B. Moss argued firmly against administering communion in one kind in his 1943 classic The Christian Faith. “Communion in both kinds is a Divine command, which the church has no right to disobey,” Moss wrote, “except where communion in one kind only is the sole alternative to no communion at all. Any Anglican priest who refuses the cup to the laity, and any lay person who refuses to receive it (except for the most necessary reasons, and then only with the bishop’s permission), is committing a grave sin, and rendering himself liable to ecclesiastical censure.” (356)

The Rt. Rev. Jennifer Redall of Arizona appealed to this longstanding strand of Anglican teaching in a March 6 pastoral letter on worship in her diocese during the coronavirus outbreak. She said that she believes her fellow bishops who decided to restrict the chalice “write in good faith, to those in their own dioceses, and I respect and honor them and their decisions.”

But, Reddall added, “My understanding of both these rubrics and doctrine of the Episcopal Church (specifically page 365 of the Book of Common Prayer and Article XXX of the Articles of Religion), prohibit me from taking such a step. The practice of withholding the cup from the laity was a crucial issue in the Reformation, and it is not exaggerating to say that many people died for us to have the privilege of sharing in both Christ’s body and Christ’s blood at the Eucharist.” Nonetheless, she added, she would support rectors in their own pastoral decisions in the matter.

Bishop Susan Snook of San Diego had earlier offered a similar opinion in her own January 6 pastoral letter, stating, “I do not believe we are allowed to prevent the laity from access to the common cup under our theology, history, canons, and rubrics.”

Bishop Susan Goff, ecclesiastical authority in the Diocese of Virginia, proposed what may be a novel compromise in the matter. In a Facebook post on the evening of January 7, she advised the clergy of her diocese to follow a practice developed ad hoc at an ordination service earlier in the day — to consecrate wine at the Eucharist, but to not allow anyone to receive it.  Her post included the following direction:

Should you choose to offer communion in one kind only, please have wine presented at the offertory as usual, though in a much smaller amount. Pour some wine into the chalice before the Eucharistic Prayer begins. Bless the wine as usual and leave it on the altar. By so doing, the blood of Christ is present for all to see, honor and remember. For the sake of unity in community, no one should partake of the wine during worship. Were the priest and altar party to do so, for example, it would imply a distinction among us that is not consistent with our teachings and theology. After the service, the small amount of wine in the chalice could be returned reverently to the earth.

Most bishops who are allowing the continued administration of the cup specifically discouraged the practice of intinction. Some also cited a report about the risks of contagion associated with various Eucharistic practices issued by the Anglican Diocese of Toronto in 2009. Using recommendations of the Center for Disease Control and a 1995 controlled study of pathogen transmissions via intinction, the report ruled that “the practice of intinction may be perceived as a higher risk as the finger tips of intinctors may contaminate the wine with pathogens other than those found in saliva.”  The study also noted that “a theoretic risk of transmitting infectious diseases by using a common communion cup exists, but that the risk is so small that it is undetectable.”

Some bishops, like Mike Klusmyer of West Virginia, reported that they were surprised by the study’s findings, having long assumed that intinction was the safer option. Indeed, intinction seems to have originated in the early 1940’s in a sanitarium in Saranac Lake, New York. It was originally intended to limit the spread of tuberculosis, which like coronavirus, is transmitted by respiratory droplets.

Bishop Bill Love of Albany repeated a popular belief about the common cup in a March 6 letter to his diocese. Love wrote that “the alcohol content of the wine and the chemical nature of the silver and gold often found in chalices, helps prevent the transmission of disease.” Caitlin Rivers, an infectious disease specialist with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, however, recently told NPR that the alcohol content of communion wine is probably not strong enough to kill the unusually resistant novel coronavirus. The Center for Disease Control recommends that safe disinfectant solutions should contain no less than 60% alcohol, a much higher percentage than the port or sherry used at the Eucharist in most Episcopal churches.

Nevertheless, it remains true, as Bishop Love stated in his letter, that no documented transmission of disease has ever been linked with the common cup. And Love also made a deeper claim in the same letter about God’s protection of his people in receiving the sacraments. “First and foremost, the bishop wrote, “it is important that we remember that at Communion we are partaking of the blessed Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ and as such there is a certain protection through the holiness of the consecrated elements themselves.”

There may also, though, be wisdom in not “putting the Lord to the test” as Nebraska bishop Scott Barker implied in a March 7 Facebook post: “It’s well established however that receiving Communion “in one kind” provides all the benefits of consuming both the body and blood of Jesus in the Holy Sacrament. I urge you all to avail yourselves of this truth. Real courage may well be called for in the days and weeks to come. You need not demonstrate it at the Communion rail tomorrow.”

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