Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Communion and the Swine Flu*

Tuesday after Advent 4
December 22, 2009

The Lord be with you

Is it safe to receive the Lord’s Supper from a silver chalice in light of the Swine Flu, or other infectious diseases? A review of the material available on-line is not as helpful as one would hope. That is because the vast majority is based either on fear, “common sense,” or just plain ignorance. As much as I value the opinions of ministers, to be frank, they simply are not specialists in infectious diseases. Even many doctors who give their opinion do not consult the available research, but appeal to “common sense.”

It comes as no big surprise that this is not the hottest subject among researchers that specialize in infectious diseases. However there has been some quality research done. While I was at the seminary we received copies of such research done at Columbia University Medical Center back in the 1950’s. It demonstrated that there was no detectable danger in spreading disease via a common cup when traditional practices were followed. But that was then. What about now?

With the fear of AIDS growing in the 1980’s another extensive series of studied was done and reported in The British Society for the Study of Infection prestigious Journal of Infection, in 1988. I have a copy of this article, but it said in part:

    "Bacteriological experiments have shown that the occasional transmission of micro-organisms is unaffected by the alcoholic content of the wine, the constituent material of the cup or the practice of partially rotating it, but is appreciably reduced when a cloth is used to wipe the lip of the cup between communicants. Nevertheless, transmission does not necessarily imply inoculation or infection. Consideration of the epidemiology of micro-organisms that may be transmitted via saliva, particularly the herpes group of viruses, suggests that indirect transmission of infection is rare and in most instances a much greater opportunity exists for direct transmission by other means. There is substantial evidence that neither infection with hepatitis B virus nor HIV can be transmitted directly via saliva so that indirect transmission via inanimate objects is even less likely. ..Currently available data do not provide any support for suggesting that the practice of sharing a common communion cup should be abandoned because it might spread infection." (Emphasis added)

So you can’t get AIDS, or a cold from the Common Cup when traditional practices are followed, but what about the Swine Flu? A letter to the Annals of Internal Medicine earlier this year suggested that the Swine Flu could indeed be transmitted through the use of the Common Cup, even when traditional practices were followed. However, another doctor responded, after checking the available current research, and wrote the following:

    “The letter by Furlow and Dougherty about the common communion cup needs comment, given the media attention it has received. The presence of bacteria on the common cup has been established previously, albeit not necessarily after a Eucharistic service. No study, however, including theirs, has shown transmission of these organisms from one communicant to another. More important, I can find no evidence after searching the literature that establishes inoculation and infection through this religious custom. As outlined by Gill in his exhaustive 1988 review, Disease attributable to the shared common communion cup has never been reported.” (Emphasis added)

This letter can be found by clicking here.

I have referred to “traditional practices” several times. Those practices are:
  1. A chalice made from a precious metal like silver or gold.
  2. Wine, not grape juice – preferably a port because of its high alcohol content.
  3. Turning the chalice after each communicant.
  4. Wiping the rim of the chalice after each person communes.
Precious metals have been shown to retard the growth of bacteria, so much so that you can now purchase band-aids with silver in them. Port is a fortified wine with the highest alcohol content of all wines. Turning the chalice ensures each communicant receives wine from a fresh part of the lip of the cup. These three elements are good, but by far the greatest benefit is achieved when the rim of the cup is wiped with a cloth (the purificator). That is why I wipe the chalice after each communicant, and again after each rail.

To be honest, I do not expect this article will change the minds of anyone who is a die-hard individual cup supporter. However, if you prefer the Common Cup, there is no scientific reason to give it up. There is no scientific reason to fear the transmission of disease, even if the person receiving the Lord’s Supper right before you has some kind of influenza. It seems the Lord God has guided tradition to provide us with a meal that is safe.

Blessings in Christ,
Pastor John Rickert
(* In looking over this post I noticed a number of spelling errors, most notably I had the wrong "flu." These errors have been corrected.)

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