By Hannah Bowman
As we approach two years since the first lockdown of the COVID-19 pandemic, pressing questions remain for how changes in worship practices have unintentionally shaped our eucharistic theology — and what we might learn from intentional and creative changes to our eucharistic practice. The reality, two years into the pandemic, is that offering Communion in both kinds from a common cup is deeply challenging. For many communicants, including myself, Communion has only been offered in one kind, when it’s been offered at all, for two years. Communion in both kinds was a cause for which reformers of the Church such as Jan Hus died: it should not be lightly set aside. The ongoing reality of the pandemic means the Church must consider solutions to provide real access to Communion in both kinds to all communicants, and I believe doing so thoughtfully has the potential to renew our eucharistic theology, as well.
Some dioceses still disallow offering the common cup to the people entirely. Even where the common cup is being offered, to what extent is Communion in both kinds actually being made available to the people, if they are afraid to receive from a common chalice? A situation where those who are immunocompromised (for example) choose for their own safety to receive in only one kind, while others receive in both kinds, does not provide equal access for those whose disabilities or other risk factors guide their decision-making around a common chalice. Access needs a central place in eucharistic theology. Disability theologian Nancy Eiesland writes in The Disabled God that “the eucharistic practices of the church must make real our remembrance of the disabled God by making good on body practices of access and inclusion…. Eucharist as a body practice of justice and inclusion welcomes us [disabled people] and recognizes the church’s impairment when we are not included” (115).
The question of access, in fact, provokes even harder questions about those who may not be receiving in either kind: those who do not yet feel safe returning to in-person worship. The places where in-person Sunday attendance has shrunk points again to a lack of access to the Eucharist, unless our churches are making extensive and proactive efforts to continue to offer at-home delivery of the eucharistic elements, in a way commensurate to the numbers of people who are not present in church. (My experience is that while eucharistic visitation has been made available by this point in the pandemic, it is certainly not the case that all those not attending on Sundays are being reached by eucharistic visitors.) We cannot just assume that people who are choosing not to come to in-person worship right now are making a free choice to refrain from the Eucharist; as the body of Christ we have a responsibility to reach out to them and make the sacraments available in ways accessible to them.
Practical solutions to increase access to Communion in both kinds, for those present on Sundays, will likely need to include a move toward some kind of individual communion vessels. I love the common cup, and I share the hesitation of many in our church to move away from a common cup entirely, as it presents an essential symbol of the unity promised by the Eucharist. However, practices such as a “pouring chalice” — a chalice with a spout from which wine can be poured into individual cups for consumption — are already common in denominations with which we are in full communion, such as the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America). Offering the option of individual cups to be filled from a common chalice, is a practical and feasible solution that all our churches should be embracing to make access to Communion in both kinds possible. If leaders still feel that at this time a common cup is impossible to offer, a pouring chalice alone would provide a way to offer communion in both kinds now, though I’d suggest that once the common cup is again offered, a pouring chalice can and should be offered alongside it. Individual cups can be washed and reused, or communicants can be encouraged to bring their own small cups to be filled, to reduce harmful environmental impacts of using disposable cups.
Furthermore, offering these options provides fruitful new avenues for deepening our understanding of what the Eucharist means for the Church.
Every question about how we provide access to the Eucharist is also a question about our eucharistic theology — and changes to our eucharistic practice have theological implications, whether or not they are intentional, and whether we acknowledge them or not. The question is not to what extent we should let circumstances, like the pandemic, affect our theology of the Eucharist — our understanding of our theology will inevitably evolve due to these circumstances! — but rather what new dimensions of the Eucharist we can recognize being revealed and constructed by the realities of our current practices. We need to do these new things, and we need to talk about and interpret them. If we don’t intentionally interpret our theology in light of changing context, we risk unintentionally changing it through unexamined changes in practice. In this light, our goal should not be to preserve the practices we had pre-pandemic, but instead to re-interpret new practices in a way that makes evident the central meaning of the Eucharist: Christ, crucified and risen, made present in our midst.
I have previously raised this challenge in relation to the question of virtual or online Communion, and what it may make visible about the ways in which the body of Christ given in the Eucharist is not only glorified but also crucified and broken, separated from the Father in solidarity with all people who feel separated from God and one another. Practices related to Communion in both kinds raise similar questions to transform our eucharistic theology and its implications for how we understand the body of Christ.
What would be made visible by a practice in which communicants brought forward their own cups — whether provided at church or, as a friend of mine suggested, brought from home — to receive the blood of Christ from a single chalice adapted for pouring? Such a practice would be a visible sign of the body of Christ “gathered from the ends of the earth” (Mark 13:27) into unity. The Didache says that “we who are many are one body.” Every statement about the Eucharist is also a statement about the body of Christ, as we “discern the body” (1 Cor. 11:28). New eucharistic practices remind us of realities about the nature of the Church, the body of Christ. Especially if people brought vessels from home to fill, this could show even more vividly the ways in which, especially after so much time away due to the pandemic, people are bringing their own histories and stories to the Lord’s table. How have we been changed during this time? What are we carrying with us now?
I imagine the potential for this practice beyond those who are physically present in worship as well. What would it mean to bring a cup or bottle from those who are unable or uncomfortable being physically present in worship under current pandemic conditions, to fill with the blood of Christ and return to them? This practice would move the symbolism of eucharistic visitation away from a one-way communication — the presence of Christ in the gathered congregation sent out to those who are absent — and instead make evident the ways that those who are absent are nonetheless part of the congregation, bringing their own offerings into the presence of Christ in order to return that eucharistic presence to them.
This expresses a key ecclesiological point: we bring from those who are absent in order to return to them. The margins are constitutive of the body of Christ, Christ the one who was crucified “outside the camp” (Heb. 13:3) along with those who are marginalized. The body of Christ finds its source in Christ its head, but we do not find Christ the head only at the holy table at the center, but also wherever members of the body are most isolated, marginalized, and oppressed. Members of the body bring their experiences — which are the experiences of Christ, per Matthew 25:31-45 — to meet the presence of Christ in the center of the gathered community. This inherently dialectical nature of the body — Christ from the margins meeting Christ at the center — is represented by eucharistic practices that highlight what is brought from the congregation, present or absent, and then returned to them. The offering of gifts at the beginning of the eucharistic liturgy makes this ritually visible. The bringing of cups or vessels, from those present or absent, to be filled, would offer another sign of this essential nature of the sacrament and the body.
In this way, the accommodation of offering Communion cups to be filled from a common cup or pouring chalice presents the opportunity for a deepening and re-inscribing of our eucharistic theology. This new interpretation is consistent with the understanding of the sacrament that has been commonly held — the unity of a common cup is visible — but is also new in its prioritization of the ways the body is built up from its membership and from those absent.
The unity of the body of Christ is different than the unity of the Trinity. The fellowship of the Trinity derives from its common source of being in the Father. The unity of the body of Christ derives from its source in Christ — which is ultimately also from the source of being in the Father — while simultaneously being built up by the members of the body through our participation in Christ. The body of Christ takes its life from Christ its head, but the body of Christ takes its concrete reality from the lives of its members — our gifts, stories, and realities brought together to make meaning and offered up in our participation in the life of Christ. When Jesus prays of his disciples and those to come “that they may be one as we are one” (John 17:11), he points to this reality: as Jesus, the Father, and the Spirit are one, so all Christians come to be one, through the process of bringing ourselves to God to be filled.
The reality of the pandemic is that we must make changes to our eucharistic practice. Our choice not to make accommodations has led to changes by necessity (first, denying Communion to the laity for weeks or months, and now in some places denying the cup to the laity for years, and with no immediate end in sight). Instead, we can make intentional changes to our eucharistic practice and recognize that the gift of doing so is the opportunity to see new dimensions of what the Eucharist says about the body of Christ. We should look for creative ways to offer the blood of Christ to all communicants, and in doing so, pray for our understanding of how we come together as one body, from our very multiplicity, to be renewed and revived.
Hannah Bowman is a graduate student at Mount Saint Mary’s University, Los Angeles; a literary agent at Liza Dawson Associates; and the founder of Christians for the Abolition of Prisons (christiansforabolition.org).