Grove Books have just published a new study, “Drink This, All of You”: Individual Cups at Holy Communion, by Andrew Atherstone and Andrew Goddard. I caught up with Andrew Atherstone to ask him about it.
IP: Why do you think this booklet is needed, and why is it needed just now?
AA: Many Church of England parishes are currently puzzling over how best to distribute wine at Holy Communion. Ever since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, our usual tradition of passing around a communal cup has been deemed a potential health risk. Some parishes have therefore returned to the medieval practice of communion in “one kind” (bread only) for the laity. Others have become dippers, intincting the bread in the wine. But for many Anglicans, neither of these methods are satisfactory, on theological grounds.
Jesus tells us to drink, not dip. And it’s a dominical command to all Christians – “Drink this, all of you” (Matthew 26:27) – not just the clergy. So our booklet lays out the obvious solution to the current conundrum: individual cups at Holy Communion. This method of drinking is widespread in other parts of the Anglican Communion, and in the Free Churches, of course. With Lent about to begin, and Easter on the horizon (the chief eucharistic celebration in the Church’s calendar), this is a pressing question many parishes are facing in early 2022.
IP: Who is it written for; who should read it?
AA: Hopefully many readers will find our booklet profitable and stimulating, including the House of Bishops. But it is designed for regular parish clergy, and PCCs, who want to think this question through, on the ground, in their own contexts. It aims to be winsome in style, not polemical, appealing to a wide audience across the whole Church of England. It helps vicars and PCCs consider the question from theological, liturgical, and practical angles.
We address some of the standard objections to individual cups, and the alternative solutions which have been proposed, like “spiritual communion”. We also offer “good practice” guidelines, with recommended dos and don’ts. And all in just 28 pages, perfect as a handy primer for those who want a quick orientation in the subject. There’s nothing else like it on the market!
IP: So what do the bishops think of the issue?
We are posting a courtesy copy of our booklet to all the House of Bishops, and would love to see them recommend it to their dioceses in their next Ad Clerums. As many of the bishops will admit, the House of Bishops have, unfortunately, tied themselves up in knots over this question since July 2020 with some ill-considered missives, and have been trying to untangle themselves ever since! Our booklet is designed to help them get untangled. One understandable episcopal fear is that by encouraging “individual cups”, they will open the floodgates to all manner of dubious innovations.
But our booklet is reassuring, promoting sound theological and liturgical wisdom, and showing that individual cups are entirely consonant with the historic Anglican tradition and do not threaten the classic Anglican view of the sacraments. Indeed, we especially recommend the symbolic benefits of the flagon (as mentioned in the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer, and widely used in the 17th century) for consecrating the wine before it is poured into individual cups. This helps emphasize our corporate oneness, not our individuality. So if your parish has an old flagon buried away at the back of the safe, take it out, polish it up, and bring it back into regular use. How much more Anglican can you get!
IP: Where have the House of Bishops’ own discussions ended up?
AA: The House of Bishops set up a “Holy Communion Working Party”, to examine a whole range of questions about the sacrament in a post-Covid world. Their major focus for 2022 will be the theology of “Zoom” communions. In 2021 they explored the topic of individual cups and held some private teaching seminars on the subject. At their October 2021 gathering, the bishops agreed overwhelmingly that there is no profit debating these questions on the floor of General Synod, but also (as the Bishop of Lichfield assured General Synod during Question Time, on behalf of the House of Bishops) that they have no intention of policing the issue.
Some bishops are resistant to individual cups, others are warmly supportive—it depends which diocese you are in. Therefore, individual cups won’t be receiving an official imprimatur from the House of Bishops, and there won’t be official Church of England guidance on the subject. But there is now general agreement that parishes (clergy and PCCs together) may make a local decision about the best way forward in their own context, and our booklet is designed to speak into that process. We aim to do the House of Bishops a favour by writing practical guidelines for them.
IP: For many people this debate seems rather novel. But is this a new question in the Church of England?
AA: Not at all! There was a very lively Anglican debate about “chalice hygiene” over 100 years ago, especially between the 1890s and the 1920s when medical science began to appreciate the existence of germs and the dangers of contagion from shared cups. The question was addressed by Free Churches like the Baptists, Congregationalists and Methodists – many of whom introduced individual cups at the start of the 20th century – but there was also plenty of attention given to the question by Anglicans.
This important Anglican history has sadly been forgotten, which has skewed our recent debates and some of the misinformed conclusions of the Church of England’s Legal Advisory Commission. I’ve been collecting material for a research article on the subject, but you’ll have to wait a while until that’s published.
IP: Can you give us a sneak preview?
AA: It’s a fascinating history! You’ll have to wait for the full story, but in summary the Church of England was much more permissive about the question in the early 1900s than we’ve been led to believe. For example, here’s a little snippet, from the correspondence files of Archbishop Frederick Temple, in the archives at Lambeth Palace. He was approached in April 1902 by an Anglican in Sussex, where there was an outbreak of potentially-fatal tuberculosis, who asked as follows:
Considerable apprehension, increased but not initiated by medical testimony, is being felt in your Province on account of possible tuberculosis contamination during the administration of the chalice at the Lord’s Supper. Assuming that non-communicating attendance is discouraged as an irregular attempt to imitate the custom of the Roman Catholic Church, and that the withdrawal of the cup from the laity would be an abandonment of Christ’s command that all should drink of it, may I venture to ask your Grace to be courteous enough to inform me whether, as a precautionary measure within the sphere of your jurisdiction, you are willing to allow each communicant to provide, or be provided with, a small glass into which a portion of the consecrated wine could be poured for individual consumption at the altar rails. If you would grant the necessary dispensation, which does not appear to involve any rubrical infringement, all uneasiness in respect of this matter would be at once dispelled.
Archbishop Temple replied through his chaplain that “there is nothing illegal in the proposal” and that provision should be made “either by the churchwardens or by the communicant who himself desires it.” Archbishop Temple’s approach was sensible, practical, pastoral and permissive, and entirely in keeping with classic Anglican theology. This was not some radical Free Churchman, but the Archbishop of Canterbury himself!
IP: And didn’t the Lambeth Conference also discuss the question?
AA: Exactly right, back in 1908, when Randall Davidson was Archbishop of Canterbury. There was a Lambeth Conference working party which debated the topic, with bishops from all over the world. They came to the view that there was no need for Anglicans to move from a communal cup to individual cups, but, importantly, the Lambeth bishops reached this conclusion not on grounds of theology or law, but because they didn’t think there was sufficient medical urgency.
Lambeth Resolution 31 from 1908 deserves to be better remembered – the bishops resolved that it was “not desirable to make, on the ground of alarm as to the possible risk of infection, any change in the manner of administering the Holy Communion.” But they also added: “Special cases involving exceptional risk should be referred to the bishop and dealt with according to his direction.” In the debate about the resolution – recorded in wonderful long hand, in the Lambeth Palace archives – the Bishop of Southern Brazil explicitly clarified: “Under that last clause, may I ask your Grace, is it competent to any Bishop to allow the individual cup?” To which Archbishop Davidson replied: “I think we must leave the Bishops to deal with exceptional cases in exceptional ways.”
In other words, here was diocesan discretion to allow individual cups, no blanket rule and no suggestion that essential Anglican doctrines might somehow be undermined. Once again this was sensible, practical, pastoral and permissive – a model for all bishops to follow!
AA: Don’t worry, there’s not very much history in our booklet, only a little flavouring! But if you ask a historian about his research, what do you expect! The point is simply that we’re not the first generation of Anglicans to have thought about this question. And yet in other ways, our situation in the 2020s, post-Covid, in unique. Our booklet is deliberately aimed at the real-life world of the present, with all its practical and pastoral complexities. Whether we like it or not, the pandemic has jolted the Church of England’s parish life, perhaps permanently in some ways.
It might be a long time until most communicants (including the clergy) are confident enough to drink from a communal cup which has touched many lips. We have a pastoral duty to find practical ways to include every Christian fully and equally in the celebration of Holy Communion, not least those whose health is not robust, such as the elderly and the immunocompromised.
It’s been almost two years since the pandemic began, and we can’t go on forever with bread alone for the laity, or with dipping bread in the wine. Jesus commands us to eat and drink at Holy Communion, so we need to find a practical way to do so. Individual cups are the best answer, and many PCCs up and down the country are now adopting them.
IP: Thanks very much, Andrew, for this fascinating reflection—and for the work you and Andrew Goddard have done in writing the booklet.
You can order the booklet post-free in the UK or as PDF ebook from the Grove Books website.
We will look at: the background to this language in Jewish thinking; Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 24 and Mark 13; the Rapture—what is it, and does the Bible really teach it; what the New Testament says about ‘tribulation’; the beast, the antichrist, and the Millennium in Rev 20; the significance of the state of Israel.
The cost is £10 per person, and you can book your tickets at the Eventbrite link here.