Hygiene at Holy Communion

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This morning I want to give over this sermon to explaining in more detail the instructions which have been issued by the Bishop concerning hygiene at Holy Communion. These involve a change in a practice which has been gathering pace over recent decades, namely intinction – dipping the communion bread into the wine. In short, the headline is this practice has to cease as of now and I’ll explain more in a moment. There is also advice for those of us who prepare the altar and bread and wine, and also administer it to make sure we have clean hands, involving using antibacterial gel before touching it. For everyone there is the encouragement to be conscious of how easily disease can be spread by our hands so to pass the peace with the right hand and receive the bread with the left. There is antibacterial gel around the church at key places if anyone would like to use it and of course you may well bring your own.

The trigger for these instructions, issued on Thursday this week, is Covid-19 Coronavirus and its spreading throughout the world. There are health implications from this and also from the practice of dipping the bread which have caused the House of Bishops to seek medical advice and it is on this advice that their instructions are issued. There are also deeper theological issues about the nature of Communion and what we think we are doing. First the relatively simple and straightforward – the health and hygiene of what we do.

Dipping wafers into the wine presents two significant health risks. The first is the accidental contamination of the wine by fingers going deeper than we intend, so that they touch the wine. Most people are very careful not to go to deeply into the chalice but it is easy to accidentally go deeper than intended. The Bishop’s letter says that the fingers and hands are a greater risk of infection than the mouth. Catching any illness through the shared chalice is extremely rare, not least due to the antiseptic qualities of both silver and alcohol. This has frequently been noted. But when there are infectious diseases about, and when there is a major health concern, it makes good sense to take sensible precautions. So this is one reason why the Bishop has said that the practice of intinction, dipping the bread in the wine, should stop and I’ve been instructed by him to make sure that happens. When I spoke to him yesterday about this he told me the authority for it comes under the oath of Canonical Obedience which I swear when appointed. He can tell me to do this and has.

The second health area concerns people with gluten intolerances. There is a scale of severity with this. For some it is mild, for others it is acute. When bread is dipped in the wine small fragments, sometimes larger, break off and contaminate the wine. This can be severely hazardous for some. We have people in our congregation who are gluten intolerant and we owe it to them to care for them. This is the other reason why the Bishop has instructed this change, the ending of the practice of intinction. It is not a temporary measure but a permanent one.

All of the administrants have been informed of this change and so when you come for Communion if you do not want to sip the wine,  for whatever reason, please either move away after you have received the bread or simply keep your head bowed and they will pass you by, but they will not offer you the chalice to intinct from.

There is a rarer practice which is also to stop and that is receiving the bread directly into the mouth onto the tongue. This causes me to contaminate my fingers and that causes a real risk of cross infection. So if that is your practice, please now put out your left hand, the opposite one to the one you passed the peace with, receive the bread and bring your hand up to your mouth yourself. The bread is not too holy to touch. You are, after all, going to eat it.

For some these instructions will mean they receive Communion in one kind only – simply the bread. It is a very long tradition in the Christian Church, that we receive all the benefits of Holy Communion even if we are only able to receive in one kind. This goes back to at least the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, when understandings about the Eucharistic doctrines were being codified more fully. This is because Christ is not split. Whatever happens at the Communion – however we see the significance and spiritual aspect of Communion – it is the action of the Holy Spirit who is feeding us in Christ. Therefore by partaking of one we partake of the whole. This was confirmed at later Councils. And the Church of England has not changed this understanding.

In the Final Report of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission in 1981 the essential unity of the Eucharist was affirmed. The Eucharist is not one act, where magic food is shared or taken. It is an act which includes the gathering of the community to worship and it is in this gathering that the celebration takes place. Christ is present in a number of ways. Christ is present in the gathering, when two or three are gathered together. Christ is present as the eternal Word when the Bible is read and scripture opened for us. Christ is present in the sacramental actions of taking, blessing, breaking and sharing. In the words of that International Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission report:

“The ultimate change intended by God is the transformation of human beings into the likeness of Christ. The bread and wine become the sacramental body and blood of Christ in order that the Christian community may become more truly what it already is, the body of Christ.” (ARCIC p22)

Christ’s presence is not confined to the consecrated elements of bread and wine but in the wider gathering and action of the community of faith. The bread and wine represent and become vehicles of this. But Christ is not divided, so what we receive, affirm and acknowledge in one element is the same in the other. We share in bread and wine if we can because we honour Christ’s command at the Last Supper, from which Communion is derived – to do this in remembrance of him. If we are not able to receive both elements, and not everyone is, then as a community gathering we participate in the corporate act where this is the case, so it is still honoured. 

Now I realise for some this will involve a major shift in practice and it may take time to come to terms with it. 

A copy of the Bishop’s instructions is displayed on the noticeboard in the church and also in the vestry. I have also placed it on the Church website and posted it yesterday on our Facebook and Twitter feeds.

As a church community, which gathers to share in Christ, we aim to look after one another. These instructions are intended to help us do this, so that our feeding on Christ may be life-giving and not life-damaging. Christ is not divided. What we receive in one kind is the same in the other, so we are not diminished by this, even if it feels odd at first. Christ’s presence comes in various ways throughout the Eucharist: in the gathering community, in the sharing of the word in scripture, and in the sacrament. In all, the aim is to be transformed into his likeness to live to his praise and glory in the world.

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 23rd February 2020

About Revd Canon Ian Black

Ian is Vicar of Peterborough, Canon Residentiary of Peterborough Cathedral and Rural Dean of Peterborough. He previously served for 10 years in Leeds, as Vicar of Whitkirk and as a member of the Chapter of Ripon Cathedral. He has also worked in Kent in Maidstone and as priest-in-charge of a group of parishes 10 miles north west of Canterbury. He was a Minor Canon of Canterbury Cathedral, a prison chaplain and Assistant Director of Post-Ordination Training for the Diocese of Canterbury. Prior to ordination Ian had a career in tax, both with the Inland Revenue as a PAYE Auditor and a firm of Chartered Accountants as a Tax Accountant. Ian is married with two sons. He is the author of three books of prayers: Prayers for all occasions (SPCK 2011), Intercessions for Years A, B & C (SPCK 2009) and Intercessions for the Calendar of Saints and Holy Days (SPCK 2005). His latest book is 'Follow me: living the sayings of Jesus' (Sacristy Press 2017). He has been writing online since the mid 1990s.
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