Individual Cups at Holy Communion: Practical Guidance

Andrew Atherstone writes: As part of the Church of England’s Covid Recovery, the practice of Holy Communion remains a pressing concern, especially as the latest lockdown ends and parishes prepare for Christmas. At November’s General Synod, seven written questions to the House of Bishops and the Legal Advisory Commission focused on this topic, though once again there was no time allowed for supplementary questions to equivocal answers.

Jesus commands us to eat and drink in remembrance of him (1 Corinthians 11:23–25), but how can we do so in pandemic conditions? These questions will not dissipate in 2021, even when the Three Tiers are dismantled and a government vaccine programme is rolled out. Many congregation members, especially older or vulnerable members, will never again feel confident to share a common drinking vessel in church, or not for some years to come. So what is the way ahead?

Despite persistent interrogation, the House of Bishops continues to advocate ‘communion in one kind’ as the only option for the foreseeable future – or rather ‘communion in one kind’ for the laity, while the clergy receive both bread and wine. This is unhelpful for two main reasons. First, it destroys the priesthood of all believers by granting to the clergy special sacramental privileges which are denied to the laity. Second, it ignores the command of Jesus that when the Christian family is gathered, all are invited to eat and drink, not just the privileged few. Holy Communion is a gift for all the people of God. None is to be excluded.

Many parishes, of course, are now finding their own solutions to this dilemma by introducing individual cups at Holy Communion, now increasingly widespread. The theological case for individual cups has been repeatedly made in recent months, including articles on this blog by Andrew Goddard, Andrew Atherstone, and Ian Paul. Half a year has been spent in discussing the theological and legal implications, and the time has now come for the House of Bishops to retreat from their earlier position and provide practical guidance on the best and safest way to use individual cups. While we keep waiting for that guidance, this article offers a draft framework which parishes can begin to use immediately.

Before coming to the guidance, let us briefly recap other options which have been suggested.

Option A: No Communion

Some parishes have decided not to celebrate Holy Communion at all, until such a time as the whole congregation can receive bread and wine together as usual. Communion services have therefore been suspended since March 2020, replaced by Morning Prayer or a Service of the Word. The principle is that either all of us are invited to eat and drink, clergy and laity alike, or none of us do. Fasting is a demonstration of our grief and distress at living in this dislocated, death-ridden world. This makes good biblical sense in times of emergency. And when Holy Communion finally returns in those parishes it will be a wonderful celebratory, thankful occasion!

Unfortunately, over-zealous archdeacons have begun pressurizing parishes to reinstate Holy Communion immediately – in effect, trying to force parishes to adopt ‘communion in one kind’, against their theological conscience. Canon B14A allows ministers, by agreement with their PCCs, to dispense with Holy Communion on ‘an occasional basis’. But only bishops can give permission for it to be suspended on ‘a regular basis’. Therefore, we need a corporate guarantee from the House of Bishops that this permission will be granted, so that it is not a postcode lottery depending on diocese, and archdeacons can spend their energies elsewhere.

Option B: Spiritual Communion

A second potential option is “spiritual communion” – in other words, a Holy Communion service which uses the full liturgy, including the institution narrative recalling the death of the Lord Jesus on Calvary for our sins, but without the physical eating of bread or drinking of wine. Again, this makes good biblical sense in times of emergency. We do not feed on Christ in our mouths, but in our hearts. We do not grab hold of him with our teeth and our tongues, but by faith. So we can feed on Christ, and enjoy communion with Christ, whether or not we actually eat bread and drink wine. That principle is laid out clearly in the Book of Common Prayer which explains that if a communicant is unable to receive bread and wine, through sickness or other impediment, nevertheless

if he do truly repent him of his sin, and stedfastly believe that Jesus Christ hath suffered death upon the cross for him, and shed his blood for his redemption, earnestly remembering the benefits he hath thereby, and giving him hearty thanks therefore; he doth eat and drink the blood and blood of our Saviour Christ profitably to his soul’s health, although he do not receive the sacrament with his mouth.

This is standard Reformation teaching. “Spiritual communion” might, in theory, be enjoyed not just by those on their sickbeds but by an entire congregation. But it is strange to see the doctrine twisted by the House of Bishops as justification for denying wine to the laity on the grounds that drinking is not necessary. That is by no means what the Anglican Reformers intended by allowing “spiritual communion”. Again, either all of us should be invited to eat and drink, clergy and laity alike, or none of us do.

Option C: Individual Wafers and Individual Cups

The third option is to find a practical and safe way to celebrate Holy Communion with bread and wine. One suggestion is to infuse each wafer with a few drops of wine, so that both are consumed together in the same mouthful, but that it a paltry proposal. Instead, by far the best solution in time of pandemic is to use individual wafers or individual pieces of bread (instead of a single loaf) and individual cups (instead of a single cup). This is the best, safest, most practical way to fulfil the command of Jesus to eat and drink in remembrance of him.

Individual cups are entirely legal. This has been shown conclusively by Mary Durlacher’s Six Barristers whose fully-argued legal opinion was published on 12 August 2020, in reply to the flimsy and foolish opinion of the Legal Advisory Commission, and remains unanswered. The LAC have penned further advice for the House of Bishops, refusing to alter their judgment, but it remains secret, not open to scrutiny. If the LAC now have a coherent case, let us hear it! As the Six Barristers convincingly demonstrate, there is nothing in the formularies, canons, or rubrics of the Church of England to prevent individual cups being used by parishes who choose to do so.

Individual cups are also entirely Anglican, and indeed are used in other parts of the Anglican Communion (like the Province of Kenya, for instance). The English House of Bishops have made the surprising mistake of trying to ban individual cups before finding a theological rationale for doing so. They are now playing catch-up, with theological seminars for the College of Bishops in October 2020 and the House of Bishops in January 2021. Some bishops will always resist the practice, on the Tractarian principle that there may be miniscule droplets of wine left unconsumed, because individual cups cannot be ritually cleansed. But this has never been the mainstream teaching or practice of the Church of England – at least not since the Reformation – and it is wrong for a few bishops to hold the rest of the Church of England in hostage to their personal liturgical preferences. No one has been able to produce a coherent Anglican case against individual cups, because there is none. On the contrary, the Anglican case in favour of individual cups has been laid out repeatedly and at length.

Because individual cups are properly Anglican, both legally and theologically, they are currently being adopted by numerous parishes across the country. We urgently need practical guidance from the House of Bishops on how best to do so. But while we await that guidance, the rest of this article begins to fill the gap, offering draft guidance for parishes which have already introduced individual cups, or for those who plan to do so in the next few weeks for their celebrations of Holy Communion at Christmas.

Two main methods of using individual cups have begun to emerge in parishes across the Church of England in recent months:

Method 1: Cups Provided for the Congregation

1.1 If individual cups are provided for the congregation, careful thought should be given to the cups’ size and composition.

1.2 Small stainless steel cups are best – they can stand alone, do not topple over, are easy to clean, durable, and uniform in appearance when laid out together on the Lord’s Table. They maintain the usual Church of England experience of drinking from a metal cup (see Canon F3).

1.3 Small stainless steel cups are an economic investment. Twelve cups, capacity 30ml or 45ml, can be purchased for less than £10.

1.4 Cups should be placed on the Lord’s Table at a sufficient distance from each other, so that there is no danger of them touching each other or being touched by accident. They should not be packed closely together on a tray.

1.5 Cups should be pre-filled before the Holy Communion service begins. It takes time, and a steady hand, to pour wine into small cups. They can be filled to, say 15-20ml, which is an individual portion, though more than the tiny sip most communicants take from a communal cup.

1.6 To avoid contamination, those who prepare the Table should wear face masks and gloves as they do so. For the same reason, cups should then be covered with white A4 card (in place of the usual pall) until the Communion prayer begins.

1.7 During the service, cups must not be touched by the minister, or by the distributors, but only by individual communicants. As the congregation approach the Lord’s Table, they are each handed a piece of bread (or a wafer) and then pick up a cup from the Table. It is important that they take a cup closest to them, and do not reach across other cups.

1.8 Depending on the architecture of the building, if the Lord’s Table is inaccessible to communicants, because railed off or elevated up steps, then a forward Table should be used which allows the congregation to approach.

1.9 Communicants should be reminded to drink all the wine in their cup. After eating and drinking, the empty cup is placed on a side table.

1.10 The minister should drink from a small cup like the rest of the congregation, not from a chalice.

1.11 After the service, surplus bread and surplus wine in filled cups is ‘reverently consumed’. All the cups are then thoroughly washed in the usual way.

Method 2: Cups Brought by the Congregation

2.1 If individual cups are brought from home by the congregation, they will typically be larger (the normal size of a cup) and of various shapes and colours. This variety can be celebrated.

2.2 If members of one household are willing to share the same cup they may do so.

2.3 The Lord’s Table is laid with bread, and wine in a flagon, covered by a lid or pall. The minister may lay hands on the flagon during the Communion prayer.

2.4 As the congregation approach the Lord’s Table, they are each handed a piece of bread (a wafer) and then a small portion of wine is poured from the flagon into their cup.

2.5 Communicants should be reminded to drink all the wine in their cup. After eating and drinking, they return to their places with their empty cup.

2.6 The minister should drink from a cup brought from home like the rest of the congregation, not from a chalice.

2.7 After the service, surplus bread and surplus wine in the flagon is ‘reverently consumed’. Empty cups are taken home by those who brought them, to be washed at home.

Further Practicalities

a. Spare Cups

It is, of course, not always possible to predict how many people will attend Holy Communion. If cups are provided for the congregation, those preparing the Table will need to over-estimate. If cups are brought from home by the congregation, there may be unexpected guests who did not know that instruction, and even some regular members may forget. Therefore, it may be necessary to keep a few spare cups in reserve (laid on the Lord’s Table), so no one misses out.

b. Empty Cups

Communicants should be instructed to drink all the wine in their cup. This is essential, to ensure that all the bread and wine is ‘reverently consumed’, because once they have touched the cup it will not be possible for their portion to be finished by another. Remember the apocryphal story of the new Christian, recently baptized, who came to Holy Communion for the first time. Brimming with excitement, he was the first out of his seat when the congregation was invited to the communion rail. And having heard the command of Jesus in the Book of Common Prayer liturgy, “Drink ye all of this” (Matthew 26:27), that is precisely what he did and drank the cup down to the last drop so there was none for anyone else! That Prayer Book ingénu is a good model for those drinking from individual cups.


Revd Dr Andrew Atherstone is Latimer research fellow at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, and author of The Anglican Ordinal: Gospel Priorities for Church of England Ministry (Latimer Trust, 2020). He is a member of the Church of England’s Liturgical Commission.


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12 thoughts on “Individual Cups at Holy Communion: Practical Guidance”

  1. To note that if the congregation bring their own cups, the wine is consecrated (however that is understood) in a single vessel – or multiple vessels in the case of large numbers – and is distributed/received into the individual vessels. There seem to be opinions and rubrics on how the wine is to be consecrated, but very little I could find which constrains how it is to be distributed. The wedding at Cana is perhaps also a Biblical point of reference. Anyway I would argue that the two methods described for individual cups are rather different from each other.

    Reply
  2. The Methodist Church has used individual cups for years, as have some free churches. Although I am now ordained in the Anglican church I much prefer individual cups and I just can’t ‘buy into’ the idea that silver in the chalice will kill off all bacteria or viruses… I know it will shock some people to hear that I think sharing the chalice is a mucky business even pre-Covid 19, although of course I had become used to doing it and needing to drink the dregs… I’m sure you are correct in saying it will not be accepted as safe practice for elderly congregations and their elderly clergy to resume consuming the wine in that way, I for one will certainly not be doing it!

    It seems the usual Winter flu /cold epidemics have not occurred due to the precautions most people are currently taking, so let the Church follow the science and introduce individual cups, appropriately administered, as soon as possible.

    Reply
    • Dear minister, ( and any reader who may be interested),
      “‘EXPERIMENTS ON THE COMMUNION CUP’ -1968 Public Health article, by 3women researchers. PDF online, (summary on line 2008 )(Cambridge Core).
      Experiment with silver chalice and 14% proof Communion wine .
      Conclusions – Effect of silver negligible ( as you surmise) , effect of undiluted wine does destroy ( partially) a quantity of bacteria measured, on rim of chalice, but time needed is c. 3 minutes between each communicant.
      It is a detailed measured assessment, but surely it is time for a similar up to date study?
      “The most effective method of reducing transmission is either intinction, or individual cups.”
      Kind regards, and very good luck in the weeks ahead,
      Miss H.F.T. ( Anglican).

      Reply
  3. I’d never heard of Method 2, I think as Revd Mark Bennet says that really does seem to answer for most (apart from the Tractarians).

    Option B seems like a fudge to me. We’re not in a state where we’re unable to do it, we’re in a state where we think it would be unloving to do so. That’s different. If you’re going to make the sacrifice then a sacrifice should be made. And, in my opinion, a congregational spiritual communion is an attempt to have the cake and eat it too.

    The fasting option does seem to be most reasonable to me in the current times. But I suppose the worry is is whether one then has to fast longer than the rest of society due to people finding a shared cup more worrying than most other things. That being said, it is for the particular place to decide. I’m praying for the corporate guarantee.

    This was a very interesting article.

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  4. Ian – off topic here but you may be interested in a brief podcast on YouTube called Exegetically Speaking where Peter Williams of Tyndale House gives more examples, mainly from the Sermon on the Mount, for the thesis that Jesus taught in Greek as well as Aramaic, relying mainly on assonance and alliteration that works only in Greek, as well as the mixed nature of Galilee and the Decapolis.

    Reply
    • I see now that Stanley Porter did an essay on this in Tyndale Bulletin 1993. His arguments are largely about prevalence of Greek in Lower Galilee and the Decapolis in the first century, as well as a number of encounters that Jesus had with Greek-speakers who were unlikely to speak a Semitic language. Peter Williams has taken this further with actual linguistic analysis of Jesus’s teaching for linguistic evidence of it being delivered by him in Greek. WWBS? What would Bultmann say? Imagine collapsing further the gap between a (sometimes) Greek- speaking Jesus and Greek-writing Gospel writers. Maybe Ian will write a piece on this one day? Peter has done some interesting talks on the historical nature of the Gospels, developing Richard Bauckham’s insights, by looking at the onomastic evidence of the Gospels (personal and placenames).

      Reply
  5. In the later 1980’s, in the ‘Protestant Church of Oman’ where the lead pastorate was shared between the CofE and the Reformed Church in America (of Samuel Zwemer fame) we offered a single chalice on one side of the sanctuary step and individual cups (with Vimto) on the other side. Surely a good compromise? When travelling to the ‘interior’ (hospitals, workcamps etc had many South Indian and Filipino workers) we stuck to Vimto because of regulations about carrying alcohol around. Sadly now, only individual cups are offered.

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  6. Firstly, thanks to Dr Atherstone for his article- it is good that people care passionately about the sacrament!

    However I must disagree with some of the conclusions reached, on entirely different grounds that haven’t really been discussed. A key question as to whether individual cups should be used (or not) is related to authority. The bottom line is that as a priest in the CofE, I have been asked to suspend the chalice for the congregation, by those I promised to obey in all things lawful and honest. I don’t want to have to do this, and it feels awkward that I can receive the wine but everyone else may not. Individual cups work, and I believe you can administer them safely (and I have done before I understood it was not allowed, although not using the methods outlined above).

    But I’m not sure my feelings give me the right to disregard the biblical injunction of obedience to those in authority, especially in matters that are not directly ones of ethics. The absence of the sharing of the chalice- and despite the fact clergy may drink the wine, there is still no physical communion with everyone else- is something we have to bear with during this time of COVID. For me, that absence is a reminder that the world still lies under a particularly heavy pall right now- and embracing it is an identification with the lack of normality, the discomfort and the pain of this pandemic.

    Reply

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