Andrew Atherstone writes: As the Church of England undertakes its “Covid Recovery” planning, the question of individual cups at Holy Communion continues to gather pace. As is widely known, the House of Bishops have taken refuge behind a 2011 paper from the Legal Advisory Commission (LAC) which summarily pronounced individual cups to be “contrary to law”. Important questions about this at General Synod in July 2020 were dismissed, and Andrew Goddard was first into the ring two weeks ago with a protest on this website, building on the arguments of veteran campaigner and liturgy expert Bishop Colin Buchanan. That was Round One.
Readers of the LAC’s advice are in for a shock. It is obtuse, illogical, and evasive. The fact that Bishop Buchanan’s important essay on individual cups (published in the Ecclesiastical Law Journal in May 2010) is not even referenced by the LAC paper (published in September 2011), and none of its arguments considered, is symptomatic of the LAC’s rush to pre-judge the issue. We need a second legal opinion as a matter of priority. Therefore, in recent days, members of the House of Bishops, and the legal department of the Church of England, have been lobbied to re-open the question. The result is a new paper, just published, Holy Communion and the Distribution of the Elements [HCDE]. It is certainly a major advance on the LAC’s efforts – much more serious, sober, respectful, and deserving of careful weighing. Alas, it is still on the wrong track. So begins Round Two.
There is a very simple reason why we want both bread and wine at Holy Communion: because Jesus commands it. Twice over, when instituting the Lord’s Supper, he says: “Do this in remembrance of me” (1 Corinthians 11:23-25). And yet now the Church of England is intent on forbidding one of those instructions. This is not a trivial matter – it concerns an explicit dominical command.
The medieval Western Church restricted the cup to the priesthood on theological grounds, encouraged by Thomas Aquinas and confirmed by the Council of Trent with anathemas. But the Reformers rightly pushed back, insisting on the restoration of apostolic practice. John Calvin, for example, asserted that the medieval church had “snatched or robbed a half of the Supper from the greater part of the people of God” and had made it “the peculiar possession of a few shaven and anointed individuals” (Institutes 4.17.47). All the Reformation churches agreed that Communion must be in both kinds, for the whole congregation, as laid down explicitly for the Church of England in the 1547 Sacrament Act and the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion. Jesus commands, “Drink ye all of this” (Matthew 26:27). He didn’t say, “Drink ye clergy of this.”
So for a church in Covid Recovery, when a shared cup is a health risk, how should we fulfil the command of Jesus? There are two obvious options and, as this paper will argue, both should be accepted as legal and permissible. Some congregations may choose to suspend the cup (an exemption to the Sacrament Act in times of “necessity”). Other congregations may choose to use individual cups. And yet now the House of Bishops have taken it upon themselves to force the issue – the first permission they want to turn into a command for every congregation, the second permission they want to ban for every congregation. What is permitted by the Sacrament Act is now mandated by the House of Bishops, for the entire Church of England. This is authoritarian over-reach.
This sudden laying down of the law is particularly startling given the way the House of Bishops have bent over backwards to accommodate liturgical flexibility and variety during the pandemic. Their earlier guidance document, COVID-19 Advice on the Administration of Holy Communion, even permits the practice of solo Communion, with only the priest present. Solo Communion is out of step with classic Anglican theology and is expressly forbidden by the Book of Common Prayer rubrics. But in our current disrupted circumstances, the House of Bishops nod sagely and let it pass, on the basis that sometimes “exceptional actions” are needed “to preserve a greater principle”. And yet breathe a word of “individual cups” – an entirely innocent practice – and it seems the sky has fallen in.
Holy Communion and the Distribution of the Elements is an attempt to bolt and bar the liturgical door, before any cup touches Anglican lips – unless the communicant happens to be an ordained priest, in which case drinking from an individual cup is not only permitted but obligatory. It also introduces some new red-herrings, which need to be dispatched before we come to the substance of the matter.
Red-Herring No.1: Purification Rituals
The House are Bishops are concerned about “any consecrated wine that may remain in individual cups after the communicant has received” (HCDE §4). How could this be safely consumed by the priest? But this is a needless worry. The whole point of an individual cup, containing an individual portion of wine, is that it is all consumed by the communicant, in one or two gulps – there is none left.
In some Anglican parishes, every chalice is ritually cleansed during the service, with rinsing, and wiping, and more drinking, to ensure that every drop of wine is removed. Some priests may therefore quail at the prospect of purifying a table-full of cups. But these purity rituals are not universal Anglican practice. The Book of Common Prayer only directs that surplus consecrated bread or wine must be “reverently” consumed after the service has finished. Any wine in an individual cup touched by a communicant will already have been reverently consumed by that communicant. There is no difficulty here. Ritual ablutions are a red-herring.
Red-Herring No.2: Public Health Risks
The House of Bishops are also concerned that individual cups pose “significant public health risks” (HCDE §4, 13-17) – for example, the use of small glasses packed closely together on a small tray, or the pouring of wine into cups brought from home. What about spillages, or accidental touching? But there are other possibilities of course, such as a banqueting table laid with wine glasses, spaced out from each other. Yes, these practical questions certainly need “very careful consideration” (HCDE §15). The health of the congregation is paramount. But similar concerns might be raised about sharing individual wafers – every wafer is touched by the fingers of the priest as it is dropped in the hands of the communicant. And yet on a balance of risks, individual wafers are allowed during Covid Recovery. It is not beyond human wisdom to find a safe way to distribute wine also. This is an important practical question, but another red-herring for the issue at hand. The central claim of the House of Bishops is not that individual cups are unsafe to use in time of pandemic, but that individual cups are illegal, everywhere and always.
The Central Question: Are Individual Cups Illegal?
Let us return to the matter at hand: are individual cups illegal in the Church of England? Is the House of Bishops right to try to ban them? It is the contention of this paper that individual cups are already legally permissible. If individual cups are illegal, then individual wafers should be illegal also. If individual wafers are legal (as is now widely accepted), then on the same theological, historical and liturgical grounds individual cups must be legal. The cases are directly parallel.
For the sake of comparison, let us consider the legal case against individual wafers. This question dominated the destructive “worship wars” of Victorian Anglicanism and was argued at great length in the courts. In the middle of the nineteenth century, Tractarians began to innovate with Communion wafers, and the case against them rested on the following six points:
- Individual wafers were “not customary” in the Church of England.
- Individual wafers were “not envisaged” by the Anglican Reformers.
- Individual wafers undermined the symbolism of “one loaf”. Indeed, as St Paul writes: “we who are many are one body, because we all partake of one loaf” (1 Corinthians 10:17).
- Individual wafers were associated with other denominations, especially those scary Roman Catholics.
- Individual wafers were deliberately excised from the Book of Common Prayer by Thomas Cranmer. The 2011 LAC paper claimed the fact that wafers were permitted in the 1549 Prayer Book as evidence in their favour. But the LAC read this history the wrong way around. Wafers were deliberately omitted from the 1552 Prayer Book. To understand the theology of our Prayer Book we need to pay attention not only to what is added in, but also to what is left out.
- Individual wafers were explicitly prohibited by the Book of Common Prayer rubrics, which insist: “And to take away all occasion of dissension, and superstition, which any person hath or might have concerning the bread and wine, it shall suffice that the bread be such as is usual to be eaten; but the best and purest wheat bread that conveniently may be gotten.” Not many people usually eat wafers, and you won’t find them in the bakery.
On these six grounds, individual wafers were widely resisted in the Victorian Church. But today they are permitted, because we have learnt to tolerate a variety of liturgical practice. Some of us prefer to use a loaf of bread from the baker’s shop, others prefer individual wafers. There is no fundamental doctrine at stake here. Everyone now agrees that the Church of England has capacity for both types of practice, and the House of Bishops would be foolish to go around trying to ban individual wafers like their predecessors did.
And yet the case currently being constructed by the House of Bishops against individual cups is directly parallel to the old case against individual wafers, as follows:
- Individual cups are “not customary” in the Church of England (HCDE §4).
- Individual cups were “not envisaged” by the Anglican Reformers (LAC 2011).
- Individual cups undermine the symbolism of “one cup” (HCDE §4).
- Individual cups are associated with other denominations, especially those scary “Free Churches”, like the Methodists and Baptists (HCDE §14).
If these arguments were unsustainable 150 years ago against individual wafers, they are unsustainable today against individual cups. If individual wafers are permissible, then on the same basis and by the same logic, individual cups must be permissible too.
Indeed, the case against individual cups is even weaker than the case against individual wafers. The rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer stand against individual wafers, but open the door to separate cups. At Communion, the minister is instructed to “lay his hand upon every vessel (be it chalice or flagon) in which there is any wine to be consecrated”. This takes for granted that there may be more than “one cup” and that the wine may not actually be in a cup, but in a “flagon” or jug from which it is then poured out into smaller vessels. Holy Communion and the Distribution of the Elements admits this, and therefore tries subtly to shift the ground to a new line of argument. It no longer insists on “one cup” – because in many churches there is often more than one cup – but upon “shared vessels” (HCDE §4). So now multiple cups are to be permitted, an extension of the “common cup”, as long as they are all shared cups! This is vanishingly small ground on which to stand, riddled with contradictions.
It seems to be grudgingly conceded by the House of Bishops that the symbolic sharing of “one loaf” and “one cup” does not necessitate literally “one loaf” and “one cup”. To take a natural analogy, if my family share bread at lunch, it does not matter if it is one unbroken loaf, or pre-cut into slices, or baked as individual bread rolls – we are still sharing the meal together. If my friends share wine at supper, it is poured from the bottle into individual glasses – we are still sharing the wine together, even if we don’t pass around a single goblet. Congregations are intelligent enough to make these connections in a Holy Communion context. Yes, the symbolic sharing is visually enhanced if we share one loaf of bread and one cup of wine, but individual wafers and individual cups are still a viable form of sharing in the family meal. To insist that we are not sharing unless the vessels are shared is pedantic literalism. And the House of Bishops have already conceded the point by allowing that the “common cup” may expand to take the form of multiple cups! They are left clutching at straws.
Struggling to find any legal or liturgical grounds on which to ban individual cups, Holy Communion and the Distribution of the Elements invents a theological rationale. It acknowledges that during the pandemic some change to our normal practice is necessary, but then insists that any adaptation must take account of the “primary symbolic association” of each element (HCDE §4). We learn that the primary symbol of the bread is “broken”, and the primary symbol of the wine is “shared”. So it follows that individual wafers are permitted, provided one of them is “broken”, but individual cups are forbidden, because they cannot be “shared”. This is special pleading at its most extreme. It would be easy to argue the opposite case – that the primary symbol of the bread is “shared”, and the primary symbol of the wine is “poured out”. Therefore, the House of Bishops might as well ban individual wafers and permit individual cups! Bread and wine are both “broken” and “poured out”. Bread and wine are both “shared”. It is entirely arbitrary to give special weighting to different halves of the equation, and there is no biblical or theological ground for doing so.
Despite having failed to build any sort of coherent case against individual cups, Holy Communion and the Distribution of the Elements concludes:
The use of individual cups could be made lawful in the present circumstances only if they were lawful at all other times. Such a change can only be sanctioned by the House of Bishops or by the General Synod. In view of the above, such a change is likely to be highly contentious, and would generate significant controversy without the prospect of agreement being reached. (HCDE §19)
But this again misses the point. Individual cups don’t need to be made lawful. No law needs rescinding, no canon needs revising, no Prayer Book rubric needs glossing, no General Synod vote needs counting. If individual wafers are legal, then there can be no case against individual cups. Unless the House of Bishops is planning to ban individual wafers, then they must concede that individual cups are already lawful as things stand. Local congregations must thus be at liberty to use them immediately, if they can find a safe and practical way to do so.
It is not the duty of the House of Bishops to go around banning things. In the use of individual cups at Holy Communion, no biblical doctrine is impugned and no moral imperative is transgressed. These episcopal missives merely confuse congregations and generate the very controversy we all want to avoid. In this period of Covid Recovery they also place Church of England clergy in an invidious position, of seeking to obey the House of Bishops or seeking to obey the commands of Jesus, who said: “Do this in remembrance of me.”
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.