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Angela Tilby: Why I am hesitant about individual communion cups

11 September 2020


THE use of individual communion cups during the pandemic was ruled out by the House of Bishops during the summer, after legal advice. But the ruling is now being challenged, in a revolt against the instructions that communion should be administered in one kind only (News, 28 August; Letter, 4 September).

I remember the strong emotions about this issue from the swine-flu outbreak in 2009. While most of my Cambridge congregation were content to receive in one kind, quite a number argued passionately that it was the right of the laity to receive in both kinds, and that a key Reformation principle was being breached. Certainly, it is hard to say, “Drink this, all of you. . .” and then withhold the cup.

I have attended communion services in Baptist and Methodist churches at which individual communion cups were used. I found the drama of the simultaneous taking and drinking quite striking, though not perhaps in quite the way intended. Among those who are pushing for communion cups to be permitted in the Church of England, there are no doubt some who have experienced something similar at gatherings such as Greenbelt, at which consecration occurs at a distance, and groups of worshippers share loaves and small containers of wine.

But there are deeper issues to be considered before making changes to the current practice. The first is the potential loss of focus on the sacrifice and victory of Christ. The symbolism of “one cup” (even where more than one chalice is used for the administration) brings to mind the sharing of Christ’s cup at Gethsemane, and the new cup of the Kingdom. To my mind, this is undercut when each individual takes their own cup.

And “taking” raises another issue. Traditionally in the Church of England, communion is not taken, but received. To have the cup put to one’s lips is unnatural, a reminder of infant helplessness, of being fed. This is emphasised further if communion is received kneeling. The presence of Christ experienced here is profoundly maternal; recipients are made viscerally aware of their dependence on the life-giving grace of Christ.

The cup debate appears to be being encouraged theologically by conservative Evangelicals who hold to a Reformed eucharistic theology. Curiously, although Evangelicals emphasise humility and dependence on Christ, they seem less willing than others to express this sacramentally. Perhaps in the background is the old fear that kneeling implies idolatry, or just that men dislike not being in control.

My personal hesitation about cups is because the moment of simultaneous drinking, intended to emphasise the fellowship of believers, actually suggests to me a group of Russian generals knocking back a vodka toast and then hurling the shot glasses away: it is not a helpful association, even if it might help with the remaining problem (a serious one for Anglo-Catholics) of how to do the washing-up.

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