Individual cups at Communion: history, theology and pastoral practice

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!

IP: That was then—but what about now?

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.

Come and join me for a Zoom teaching afternoonon Thursday 3rd February to explore all the issues around the ‘end times’ and end of the world.

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.

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26 thoughts on “Individual cups at Communion: history, theology and pastoral practice”

  1. How about the Salvation Army solution – namely, not to have either communion or baptism?

    When I see how it is done in the present day, I think of the bronze serpent from Numbers 21:4-9 and Hezekiah from 2 Kings 18:4, who smashed the bronze serpent, because it had become a snare and a source of idolatry.

    I’m happy enough to go to worship services where they have some sort of communion, provided it isn’t the `main event’ – if it is something at the end, because the bible says `this do’, but when I see it as the central point of an act of worship, I see the great wisdom of the Salvation Army position where they decide to avoid it altogether as part of their worship.

  2. I am very interested in “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,…”

    That isn’t how I have understood it. I really hope I am wrong though. Where can I find more info on this “general agreement”, please? NB, I’ve just ordered the Grove booklet.

  3. That’s a very interesting distinction between consecrating individual cups (which is what I thought was being recommended) and consecrating a flagon the contents of which is then distributed. I have severe problems with the former but the latter doesn’t seem contentious – as Ramsey indicated. Indeed, it seems no different theologically than reservation of the sacrament that is then distributed for home communions. I’d be interested to hear other Anglo-Catholic perceptions on that particular method.

    • Quite a few Anglo-Catholics will still not accept this on the grounds of the problem with ablution—even though that question is actually dealt with in the booklet, and in previous articles here.

    • That’s a very interesting distinction between consecrating individual cups (which is what I thought was being recommended) and consecrating a flagon the contents of which is then distributed. I have severe problems with the former but the latter doesn’t seem contentious

      Out of interest why do you have ‘severe problems’?

      (In your answer refer to the facts that:

      (a) often even when a common cup is used the wine will be in two or more chalices when consecrated, so not all the wine will be in physical contact

      (b) when wafers are used, or when leavened bread is used but in more than one loaf or when chunks have been broken or sliced off beforehand, then not all the host will be in physical contact

      (c) there is no change in the essence of the bread or the wine at the moment of consecration, ie, there is no such thing as transubstantiation or the ‘real presence’ except insofar as Christ is always really present in the heart of every believer)


  4. Interesting.

    It seems to me that partaking of both bread and wine is necessary for the concept of a meal. The wine of course also speaks of the blood of the new covenant and implies our membership in it. We have individual cups but I don’t think they convey the communion of believers like a communal cup. Congregation sizes and awareness of disease through shared a cups has probably scuppered communal cups for the time being.

    A real danger is making communion so formal and ceremonial that the symbolism of a fellowship meal is lost. My background is Brethren and the Breaking of Bread was a service I really enjoyed. I enjoyed the quiet meditative element. I enjoyed the all member participation (or all men in those days). It meant that every week we focussed on the Lord devotionally but also theologically. His death was always a focus and often his resurrection. Most had a great loyalty to the meal. We found that the last service likely to be given up was the Lord’s Supper.

    Of course, they were not perfect. Some people had the same liturgical prayer each week. Reading of Scripture before the Breaking of Bread was forbidden in stricter circles – the Lord’s portion (worship) comes first. The quality of the service was governed by the quality of the contributions.

    Unfortunately in Brethren churches today things tend to become so highly structured that spontaneity is lost… if any one has a psalm etc.

    Many open Brethren churches have an ‘open table’. The Baptist church I am in has this. I suppose all do. It means you partake of the Lord’s supper as you see fit. It may be announced it is for believers. This is useful for someone coming occasionally on holiday or the like. However, I think it is a mistake for people to be regularly breaking bread without any kind of vetting.

    These are some of the experiences of a free and low churchman. It will be interesting to hear the experience of others.

    • We have individual cups but I don’t think they convey the communion of believers like a communal cup.

      Do you not? It has always seemed to me that drinking at the same time — as in a toast — is a far more communal experience than repeatedly shuffling forward in a queue to drink sequentially, as if at a water fountain in a park.

      • Yes, I would agree with you that simultaneous consumption is a clear sign of communal unity, and there is a good chance that this is exactly what Jesus did at the last supper.

        • I would agree with you that simultaneous consumption is a clear sign of communal unity


          The worst I ever encountered was at a URC church where they had both individual glasses and a common cup for those who wanted it, so the front row sipped in sequence and everyone else just knocked back their slugs as they got them. There was absolutely no sense of communality at all, indeed, quite the opposite as the ‘those who want to use the communal cup please come to the front’ rearrangement made a very visible symbol of disunity by explicitly spatially dividing the congregation!

          At least they all ate simultaneously, so clearly they knew what they were meant to be doing. But… (shakes head)

          • Actually that wasn’t the worst. the absolute worst was a PCI church I was in recently where on entry everyone was issued with a little plastic container with a double-layered foil lid, the first layer of which was peeled back to reveal a wafer, the second of which then gave access to the liquid.

            No problem theologically, it just felt so antiseptic and dehumanising, like living in that horrible dome from the beginning of Blakes 7.

            Still at least there was the essential communal experience as we all shared simultaneously in the horror.

            Normal can’t come back soon enough!

  5. I meant to mention that in one of the Brethren churches I belonged to there was a sincere but slightly eccentric brother who interpreted ‘Drink ye all of it’ to mean that the communion cup(s) must be entirely drained. My memory is if he officiated he would finish the cup.

    • Yes, I remember that poor chap. He took a baptism once and at the end he accidently turned to that page in the service book (they were high church Brethren and they used service books.)

      It took us three hours to pump him dry.

  6. How easily human endeavours drift from something which is benign and efficacious into an exercise of domination and control. (We have all seen a spectacular example of this over the last two years, during which the response to Covid-19 rapidly descended from a long prepared pandemic response which would preserve normal life while shielding vulnerable people into a CCP type project of fear and social control and which has ended up with the morally bankrupt policy of vaccine mandates and the entry mechanism of vaccine passports leading to a potentially permanent system of control. At least some of what was once dismissed as the wild speculation of conspiracy theorists is now happening for all to see.)

    When it comes to the Lord’s Supper, that which the Bible presents as the simplest of narratives has been reinvented as a complex set of directives: the biblical ‘what’ and ‘why’ of the New Passover meal have become the church’s ‘must’ and ‘how’ of the obligatory ‘Great Central Service’ of the week. Celebration of a solemn and life saving Covenant between God and his people has morphed into a set of church hierarchy directives which have bureaucracy written all over them. How sad is that?

    If we are talking here about remembering God’s supreme act of deliverance, once for all, we certainly cannot be flippant and take lightly Jesus’ words at the Last Supper about how it should be remembered. But the context was obvious: the New Passover meal was instituted during a celebration of the first Passover meal – the great deliverance from Egypt. And that original, annual act of celebration and remembering was not ordered by God to be a priestly ritual conducted by the Levites or a mass liturgy of the assembled people. Its setting was that of the family home and its point was for all the individuals within families to look back in gratitude and remember what God had done, and forward in faith because he would continue to be there with them if they continued to be faithful to him.

    What we non Jewish Christians have been given is about the simplest act of remembering that it is possible to imagine. Of course flippancy should have no place in it, but there is thanksgiving and joy, renewed peace and strength for the future; the essence is not the detail of cups or recipes for bread and wine. It’s communal in the family sense, not a mass ritualistic sense. The simplicity suggests the same kind of informality (but obedience to God’s wishes) as would have been followed in the first Passover meals. Its frequency was never prescribed but the context of when it was instituted gives an obvious hint of one time in the year when it should happen. There is no alter, it is not sacrificial (Christ has done that, once and for all, and it wasn’t at the Last Supper), there is no ‘priest’ necessary – except that all Christians are priests.

    I do wonder how some of our church leaders perceive what outsiders to our church would think if they were to be presented with the concerns which seem to absorb our thinking. I know people are called by God and miraculously manage to hear that call despite the eccentricities and trivialities in which we indulge. But how will he judge that self indulgence? Perhaps he is judging it at the present time. And how far does it make our voices in the public square fall on deaf ears to the detriment both of our mission and the wellbeing of society in general? And that might even have a bearing on our nation’s response to Covid!

      • Ian Paul – I agree with Don Benson, but if *you* agree with it, then what on earth are you doing in the Church of England?

        Don Benson – This is a very good point you raise about the original act not being a priestly act, but I get the impression from 2 Chronicles 30 that, by the time of Hezekiah, the priests had an awful lot more control over the Passover than we saw in Exodus.

        I concede that the priests *only* killed the passover lambs for those who were ceremonially unclean, but nevertheless I get a strong whiff of the priesthood taking over the ceremony and adding an unwelcome degree of formalism and ecclesiastical control.

        I think that one of the messages that God is trying to communicate to us in the Old Testament, culminating in the racism of Ezra, is precisely the malign influence of the priesthood that you point to – which reaches its fulfilment in the New Testament, where Caiaphas (the high priest) is supportive of Jesus being put to death.

  7. Yes… Excellent summary.

    For me queuing up, receiving a wafer, slightly soggy having been dipped in the wine, hugely empties Holy Communion of meaning. It reduces the symbolism and moment to the mere “efficient” passing on of the constituent components.

    “Anglican debate about “chalice hygiene…” came up again with the Aids crisis in thec80/90s. Some people stopped receiving the wine.

  8. Was Andrew particularly qualified to advise us on drinking wine correctly given the initials you assigned him in your interview above?

  9. It seems to me illogical that it is the norm to have separate wafers consecrated and distributed (what about one bread) and yet there appears to be a problem with distributing wine in separate vessels. It seems to me to be entirely logical to consecrate separate vessels of wine if we consecrate separate wafers. My preference would be the suggested one of consecrating a flagon (or other vessel) and then pouring into individual vessels for consumption. This also means that the priest does not have to consume any remaining wine after everyone else has drunk from the vessel.


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