More than two years after the start of the pandemic and the changes this demanded of churches in order to best safeguard people's health - many reflections have been shared about the modifications made around eucharistic practice.
Many kept to sharing communion in one kind (bread) with the presider being the representative on behalf of all the people in drinking from the cup. Some of us, with permission, started using individual glass cups so the people could still receive communion in both kinds. Debate has arisen about the appropriateness of this. Critique has been given that individual glass cups are symbolically and theologically corrupt in comparison to the common cup, that the crucial 'sharing' aspect of communion is diluted, that ablutions run the risk of irreverent disposal of consecrated elements, that this is a digression from the practice and canon of the church, that trays and cups are inappropriate eucharistic vessels, and that this is a departure from what Jesus commanded in the first place.
As someone who never envisaged using individual cups during my time in ministry, but nevertheless has come to believe they have been a desirable and reasonable offering during these past two years, I offer my thoughts on this.
The reason I first felt moved to try the cups was, I admit, not primarily out of deep theological reflection but arose out of pastoral observation. I was frequently given feedback from parishioners that there was a sense of ‘incompleteness’ about not receiving the wine. Explanations about the sufficiency of receiving the sacrament in one kind did not assuage this sense of ‘lack’. In those early days of the pandemic – there really was no clarity (nor could there be) around how long we would be on the rollercoaster of restrictions being imposed and eased, and whether it may be months or years before the common cup was able to be shared again. Looking at some parishioners who were ageing – it struck me that should things draw out for a long time, they may never again in their lifetime partake of sacramental wine. This reality, along with this reported sense of lack and incompleteness, made me willing to take the step of trying individual glass cups.
On the pragmatics of using the cups – the mahogany wood trays with glass cups are positioned carefully to be at least partly touching the corporal, having been brought across from the credence table where the other vessels are. A hand is laid upon each tray at the appropriate time in the Great Thanksgiving to visibly and physically include the trays in the eucharistic action. Eucharistic ministers stand in a line of three (bread, wine, empty cup on a tray) so the chain of receiving communion is elegant and smooth. With the ablutions – we manage as best we can, and I don’t think there is a risk of consecrated elements being washed away irreverently much more than in comparison to a purificator being put through a washing machine with traces of wine on it, or a corporal with tiny fragments of bread.
In terms of our Anglican practice – I think with a bit of imagination the consideration of the tray itself being a ‘vessel’ is not that much of a stretch. We already demonstrate imagination in a ritualised form of the Lord’s Supper which has evolved over the millenia to now seem quite natural to us, though early church eucharists would have been more like actual feasts. We make a creative concession to the ‘one’ cup including a flagon, or cruet, and in the end multiple cups without much difficulty, and it is not a dramatic step to extend this to a tray with individual glass cups. Whilst the ‘togetherness’ of communion is arguably corrupted by individualised portions – it’s worth noting that the glass cups are taken only alongside bread which has actually been broken. This may vary from place to place, but the bread we use are large wafers which fracture into 24 pieces, we do not use individual wafers.
From a theological point of view – I have found myself asking a fundamental question in respect of what is going on in the eucharist. I trust that through the sacred mystery which includes the people of God taking, blessing, breaking and sharing the elements, and the actual reception of the sacramental bread and wine, Christ’s presence is mediated to us. Is it thinkable that that presence is being somehow withheld from us due to the use of individual glass cups? If the people report otherwise, and this is lawfully authorised practice, I can only hope and trust that the grace of God will flow generously towards us even though this is a deviation from normative practice, and surely the validity of the eucharist is determined primarily by God the Holy Trinity first and foremost.
In summation – though I had reluctance about adopting such a practice and have had to overcome a reflexive aversion to it, I have come to appreciate that the use of individual glass cups has, on balance, been edifying for people. We now enter a difficult transition period wherein some will want to retain the glass cups as they feel safer doing so, whilst others will want to return to the common cup. And who knows how long the transition will take? But – let not the body of Christ in sacramental form be a cause of division to the body of Christ in human form.
Whatever our position on this and as the discussions and reflections continue to unfold - I pray we remember first - we are the body of Christ, and his Spirit is with us.
Fr Brett, June 2022