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Individual cups are allowed for communion, argue Evangelical clerics

21 January 2022


INDIVIDUAL cups are the best way to way to obey Jesus’s commands for holy communion when the communal cup is restricted or not safe for all, a church historian and a tutor in ethics, associated with two Evangelical theological colleges, argue in a new Grove booklet.

Grove Books’ “Drink this, all of you”: Individual cups at holy communion is by the Revd Dr Andrew Atherstone, tutor in church history and Latimer research fellow at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, who is also a self-supporting minister of Eynsham and Cassington, in Oxford diocese; and Canon Andrew Goddard, a tutor in ethics at Ridley Hall, Cambridge, and honorary assistant curate of St James the Less, Pimlico, in London.

It follows recent restrictions on the communal cup during the pandemic. The Archbishops advised clergy to suspend administration of the chalice early in March 2020 (News, 13 March 2020), before advising, in December 2020, that holy communion could once again be administered in both kinds, provided that the celebrant undertook a form of intinction (News, 4 December 2020).

The latest guidance, issued last month, states that the common cup may now be shared, “but the Bishops wish to make clear that, given continued potential risks to health, it remains permissible for the president to be the only person who receives Holy Communion in the form of wine.”

Dr Atherstone and Canon Goddard emphasise that “communal cups are the ideal and it is good to return to them as soon as possible for as many of the congregation as possible”. But, they observe, “even after the pandemic has subsided, there may be a few communicants who still choose not to receive from a communal cup, because of risks to their own health. . .

“When the communal cup is restricted, or not safe for all communicants, the best way to obey the dominical command is distribution of wine in individual cups.”

In a historical survey, the authors argue that “Jesus’s institution of the sacrament gives churches wide liberty to decide almost all the practicalities for themselves.” While noting that the Book of Common Prayer “speaks everywhere of ‘the cup’ in the singular”, they list five historic developments that have, in their view, “diluted the ideal, though all are now widely accepted as compatible with Anglican practice”. There are: gatherings where only one or two communicants join the minister; fixed tables and communion queues (“this format too easily becomes a privatized experience”); multiple cups; wafers; and responses to allergies and addictions, including alcohol-free wine.

The official position of the Church of England’s Legal Advisory Commission, reiterated in advice to the Bishops in 2020, is that individual cups are “unlawful”, with reference to the Sacrament Act of 1547. This has been challenged, however, in an opinion by a group of six barristers (News, 28 August 2020). The Grove authors argue that “there is no Anglican Canon or Measure or Book of Common Prayer rubric against individual cups, nor have they been declared unlawful by any legal ruling. In these circumstances, where the legal question remains untested, parishes are at liberty to use individual cups if they choose.”

The booklet concludes with practical guidelines, including the suggestion that “regular wine glasses are more suitable than small glass thimbles”. It would be a “very sad irony”, the authors write, “if, in an attempt to preserve our symbolic unity by only offering a communal cup, we thereby exclude some Christians from fully sharing in Holy Communion because of their vulnerable health, thus destroying the very unity we are so keen to promote. It is far better to adapt our ideal methods of distribution for the real world, for the sake of the greater good.”

Grove Books’ “Drink this, all of you”: Individual cups at holy communion is available from the Church Times Bookshop for £3.95.

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