By Drew Nathaniel Keane

In response to the continued risks posed by COVID-19, many churches have restricted all communicants except the presider from reception of the sacramental wine. This expedient has been recommended by the Presiding Bishop and by Matthew S. C. Olver in an essay from March of last year. The current pandemic is far from the first time churches in the Anglican fold have faced outbreaks that disrupted regular church practice — indeed, the century after the promulgation of the Book of Common Prayer saw nearly annual plague outbreaks in London — but withholding the cup is a novel expedient. Considering this, the question naturally arises, how does this response line up with our historic doctrine and practice?

The 2009 swine flu seems to be the first time since the Reformation that Bishops of the Church of England restricted access to the cup, a decision they grounded on a little-known 16th-century law. An early measure of the Edwardine Reformation, the 1547 Sacrament Act preceded the prayer book, the Thirty-Nine Articles, and the Book of Homilies. It asserts that reception of both the bread and the wine by all communicants answers to the dominical institution and accords with church practice “by the space of five hundred years and more.” Further, it requires an exhortation prior to the administration of the sacrament, advising the people to prepare by explaining the benefits of worthy reception and the grave danger of receiving unworthily. Nevertheless, the Act allowed for Communion to be administered in one kind when necessity required. It is notable that the Act provides no theological justification for this exception, simply presenting it as an emergency option. Because communicants were not yet required to receive more than once annually and non-communicating attendance at Mass was common, the circumstances envisioned by this emergency option would have been quite limited. It was likely written for a sickbed administration.

The omission of a theological justification for the exception is notable. It is not grounded on concomitance, though in 1547 many clergy still accepted this doctrine. Concomitance teaches that although as signs bread corresponds to Christ’s body and wine to his blood, “the Eucharist contains more than it signifies,” as James Megivern puts it, so that both the body and the blood of Christ are received under both signs. The earliest witnesses to this teaching come from the 11th century, deducing it from transubstantiation and providing justification for what had already become normative custom in the West: withholding the cup from the laity. Though condemned by Pope Gelasius in the fifth century and Paschal II in the 12th, the custom spread. Protested by the Wycliffites and Hussites, the custom was mandated by the 1415 Council of Constance. The 1547 Act moved decisively away from this medieval development by insisting that all communicants receive both sacramental signs, but the law focused on ritual action, leaving the underlying doctrine unaddressed. Explicit articulation of a doctrine of the Lord’s Supper came in stages under Edward VI.


The 1549 Book of Common Prayer furthers the aims of the 1547 Act by scripting the required preparatory exhortation of the people and providing instructions for administration in both kinds. Non-communicants are instructed to exit after the Offertory lest “mere gazers” provoke divine wrath by disobeying the verba Domini, “take, eat…” and “drink ye all of this.” Unlike the 1547 Act, the 1549 prayer book makes no provision for Communion in one kind, even for sickbed administration where, if anywhere, one might most expect it.

The prayer book provided a special form for Communion of the homebound with family and neighbors. In 1552 an exception was added, allowing the sick person to communicate with the priest alone “in the time of plague, sweat, or such other like contagious times of sicknesses or diseases, when none of the parish or neighbours can be gotten to communicate with the sick in their houses, for fear of the infection.” The 1547 expedient of Communion in one kind was not included in any revision of the Book of Common Prayer until the 1979 American revision. Instead, another option was provided. In cases where inadequate notice was given to the minister to prepare for administration, or extreme illness made eating and drinking impossible, the minister is instructed to assure the sick person that if he or she repents, clings by faith to Christ’s cross, and gives sincere thanks for the same, “he doth eat and drink the body and blood of our Saviour Christ, profitably to his soul’s health, although he do not receive the Sacrament with his mouth.” Medieval divines called this a “spiritual Communion.” Thus, after 1549 Communion in one kind would have violated the rubrics of the only legal use for administering the sacrament.

The theological rationale was spelled out in Articles of Religion. The Article on the Lord’s Supper (XXIX in 1553; XXVIII in 1563/71) explicitly rejected transubstantiation (a rejection already implicit in the final rubric of the 1552 Communion), thus excluding the basis for concomitance. In 1563 a new article was added that, like the 1547 Sacrament Act, required administration in both kinds. Unlike the older Act, however, the Article does not allow an exception and explicitly forbids ministers from denying laity access to the cup. The new article underlines what was already required by the prayer book and implicit in other Articles, probably in response to the Council of Trent, which upheld Communion in one kind and anathematized anyone who denies concomitance. Also in 1563, this article was further underlined in the homily on the Lord’s Supper in the Second Tome of Homilies: “This we must be sure of especially, that this supper be in such wise done and ministered, as our Lord and saviour did, and commanded to be done, as his holy apostles used it, and the good fathers in the primitive church frequented it.”

Despite the frequency of outbreaks of the Black Death in the 17th century (to say nothing of the other grave illnesses), clergy did not resort to the expedient allowed by the 1547 Sacrament Act (never repealed by statute). Perhaps it was forgotten — ministers had the prayer book and Articles to hand but not statues. Those familiar with the statute probably believed it was obsoleted or overturned by the prayer book and Articles. Of course we now know a great deal more about how illness spreads than did early modern people; perhaps if they knew what we do, the expedient would not have fallen into disuse. This supposition rests on misunderstanding. Early modern people understood contagion, and from the 14th century European governments imposed quarantines and other restrictions during major plague outbreaks. In a 1602 sermon given during an outbreak in London, Lancelot Andrewes noted that the risk of contagion

[Quote]is clear by the Law, where the leprous person for fear of contagion from him was ordered to cry that nobody should come near him… Solomon saith, “A wise man feareth the Plague and departeth from it, and fools run on and be careless.” A wise man doth it, and a good man too.[/End]

We cannot conclude that, if only the causes of infection were better understood, Communion in one kind would have been widely practiced. The risk of infection was treated seriously, but misuse of the sacrament was treated with comparable seriousness as the above passage from the Homilies indicates. The same concern is voiced in a Communion exhortation added in 1552 (retained until 1662): “It is said unto all, take ye and eat; take and drink ye all of this, do this in remembrance of me.” If the hearer then refuses to obey these words, “What will this be else, but a neglecting, a despising, and mocking of the testament of Christ?”

The seriousness of this concern continued down through the late 19th century. In 1865 high church Bishop E. H. Browne called Communion in one kind a “mutilation of the ordinance,” further noting that, while we rightly hope that God will mercifully give to those who are denied the cup the full benefit of the sacrament “even through imperfect means… this does not prevent us from saying that the Eucharist without the cup is not the Eucharist ordained of Christ.” Given the serious concern for “rightly and duly” administering the sacraments, not holding a Communion service at all was undoubtedly regarded as a better expedient than withholding the cup. The Prayer Book required Morning Prayer, Litany, and Ante-Communion every Sunday morning, but Communion was not required every Sunday; thus, if the rector deemed the risk of contagion high enough, he could wait to administer Communion until the risk had sufficiently diminished.

Morning Prayer as the main Sunday service remained a norm well into the 20th century. As a service that requires no physical contact it offers an alternative to Communion during epidemics. It may be argued that offering Morning Prayer in place of Communion violates a rubric of the 1979 Prayer Book, which requires that Holy Communion be “the principal act of Christian worship on the Lord’s Day” (p. 13), but, of course, withholding the cup also violates the rubrics. While the 1979 Prayer Book allows for Communion in one kind “if the sick person cannot receive either the consecrated Bread or the Wine” (p. 457), that is quite different from denying communicants access to either sacramental sign.

Nevertheless, Morning Prayer is far from the only alternative. In a 2010 paper responding to the 2009 advice from Canterbury and York to withhold the cup during the swine flu epidemic, Bishop Buchannan observed that insistence on the (otherwise laudable) custom of the common cup had obscured other low-risk alternatives. While a departure from the common cup model is less than ideal, such is the nature of emergency measures. When choosing between two less-than-ideal means of administering Communion, the one that requires the least departure from the essentials of the dominical institution should be preferred. While the common cup has substantial symbolic value, Buchannan notes that a single cup is not required by the rubrics and that two or more chalices as a practical measure to speed-up distribution has already become the norm.

Moreover, the objection to multiple cups applies equally to the use of wafers rather than a common loaf. A common loaf is the historic Anglican practice envisioned by the prayer book rubrics and more closely aligns with the symbolism of the sacrament (“Since there is one loaf, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one loaf” 1 Cor. 10:17). Nevertheless, using individual wafers is now common, suggesting that multiple cups need not be viewed as a bridge too far, particularly if the use of multiple cups would allow all communicants access to both of the signs instituted by the Lord for his holy supper without serious risk of spreading infection. There are several ways in which the use of more than one cup could meet this aim.

One way suggested by Buchannan would be to consecrate a single flagon of wine and pour from it into cups that communicants bring forward with them to receive. If pouring consecrated wine into a vessel not intended for that purpose was deemed too inappropriate even for an emergency measure, there are variations on this option. The church could provide enough cups for each household present and, through a sign-up process, limit the number of households present at each Communion to the number of available cups. Done in combination with Morning Prayer, this would ensure that every household could attend Sunday morning service, whether or not a given household was scheduled to receive Communion on that occasion.

Another expedient discussed by Buchannan involves a tray of small, individual cups for each communicant. Last year a lay member of the Church of England’s General Synod argued for just this expedient. The House of Bishops responded by citing an 2011 opinion of their Legal Advisory Commission, which maintained that the use of a separate cup for each communicant is illegal, a conclusion the LAC based (strangely) on the 1547 Sacrament Act. This opinion was severely (and rightly) criticized in a legal opinion prepared by six barristers and members of the Queen’s Counsel, which finds the use of individual cups to be legal.

The 1547 Sacrament Act says nothing regarding the number of cups used for distribution of communion. Indeed, insofar as the Act requires Communion always to be administered in both kinds except when (and only when) necessity otherwise requires, if using more than one cup — or as many as one cup per communicant — eliminates the necessity, it could be read as encouraging that expedient. Moreover, it has gone unnoticed that the Act also requires an exhortation be given prior to each Communion service, warning of the grave dangers of receiving unworthily; yet, reading the prayer book exhortations (of similar warnings) is now extremely rare. If concern for obedience to this 16th-century law was the true motivation, why have bishops not insisted on pre-Communion exhortation? Regardless, however, this English legal debate has no bearing whatsoever on American Episcopalians.

Virtually no one regards restricting access to the cup as ideal. All agree our Lord instituted two dynamic signs, eating bread and drinking wine, enjoining all his followers thereby to eat his flesh and drink his blood “that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body and our souls washed through his most precious blood.” Moreover, a prima facie reading of the 1979 prayer book indicates that withholding the cup exceeds the authority of priests and bishops. Those who have imposed this restriction acted out of a godly concern for the safety of others, particularly the most vulnerable, but their decision rests on the mistaken belief that there is no safe alternative. If dioceses and parishes decide that Communion as required by the rubrics (i.e., in both kinds) remains too risky under present conditions, they have a number of low-risk alternatives to consider. Though each of these alternatives involves some degree of departure from custom (though Morning Prayer returns to an older custom), denying access to the cup not only departs from the rubrics but the dominical institution. Wherever possible, expedients that only depart from custom should be favored over those that also require departure from the verba Domini.

One Response

  1. Trevor Cowell

    Being in agreement that communion should be in both kinds and (preferably) from a common cup- where individual cups are used I have noted that priests consecrate wine in a cup for their use- but do not perform an act of consecration over the individual cups- and the BCP 1662 rubric at the Prayer of Consecration clearly states : “And here to lay his (sic) hand upon every vessel (be it Chalice or Flagon) in which there is any Wine to be consecrated.(by extension every ‘single cup…?)
    For the term of COVID-19 restrictions- over 2 years in Australia- ‘communicants’ have not been receivng a ‘consecrated’ sacramental wine.
    And I will not go into a discussion about any statistics that might show
    a direct link -or none-of serious illness or death as a direct result of receiving from the Commnon Cup during medical crises- -eg COVID-19!-


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