[Episcopal News Service] The common cup is back – at least in some dioceses of The Episcopal Church.
It’s another sign of the growing eagerness across the church to return to pre-pandemic liturgical practices after two years of disruptions. After a fall and winter surge in COVID-19 cases driven by the delta and omicron variants, dioceses and congregations are planning for a post-pandemic future that includes resumption of Communion wine from a cup shared by all communicants.
For most of the pandemic, New York was among the dioceses that had only allowed administering the sacrament “in one kind,” the bread. On March 14, Bishop Andrew Dietsche announced an update: “I am happy to authorize, effective immediately, the return to Communion in both kinds, and to permit, and encourage, the restoration of the Common Cup in the worship of our churches,” he said in a message to the diocese.
The Diocese of Southern Virginia made a similar announcement on March 15. It lifted what it said was its only remaining pandemic restriction on worship by again allowing distribution of Communion wine from a shared chalice.
Resumption of the common cup also was announced this week in the Diocese of Mississippi, and last week, the Diocese of Los Angeles said it would resume distribution of Communion wine, including by common cup, starting on Palm Sunday.
“As Episcopalians adapt to a world that includes COVID for the foreseeable future, gathering at the table to receive bread and wine made holy remains a source of strength and inspiration, as it has from the earliest days of the church,” the Diocese of Los Angeles’ Commission on Liturgy and Music said in its March 11 update.
Such announcements highlight how the church has had to adjust to an ever-evolving COVID-19 threat over the past two years, since the pandemic was declared in March 2020. In the early months of the pandemic, congregations across The Episcopal Church suspended in-person worship services to help slow the spread of the coronavirus.
At that time, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry offered his support to bishops who also chose to suspend administration of the common cup “in light of the public health situation in their diocese.”
Dioceses later developed plans for safely resuming gathering in churches by implementing precautions that included prohibitions on Communion wine. Communion, if distributed, generally was limited to the bread, sometimes with walk-up or drive-up options.
With vaccinations becoming widely available and easily accessible in 2021, an increasing number of dioceses and congregations relaxed precautions related to distributing wine. Some have distributed prepackaged, single-serving kits with wafers and wine. Others have arranged for wine pouring stations with worshipers receiving Communion in individual cups.
Wine in individual cups was allowed in the Diocese of Oregon until March 10, when Bishop Diana Akiyama updated that policy.
“Congregations should return to the use of the common cup and end the practice of individual cups,” Akiyama said in a message to the diocese. “It is up to each person to decide if they feel comfortable drinking from the cup. If they do not, or if they have cold/flu-like symptoms, they should be reminded that receiving Communion in one kind is still considered receiving full Communion.”
The latest changes to Communion practices come as the daily average of new COVID-19 cases in the United States has plunged to its lowest level since July 2021, before the delta and omicron variant surges. About 30,000 people now are testing positive each day, according to data tracked by The New York Times.
Hospitalizations also are approaching their pre-surge lows, though an average of more than 1,200 deaths still are being reported each day. Experts have warned against prematurely declaring victory against the coronavirus, especially amid uncertainty about potential new variants.
“The restoration of the common cup should not be interpreted to mean that COVID is over,” Dietsche said in his message to the Diocese of New York. “Rather, it signifies that we have come to a time when all of our customs in life must adapt to the reality that COVID is with us indefinitely or long-term, and we must learn how to live with it with the highest degree of safety possible.”
Another Communion practice is not yet being reintroduced as widely as the common cup. Some dioceses still won’t allow intinction by worshipers, the practice in which they dip the wafer in the wine rather than sipping it from the cup.
Los Angeles Bishop John Harvey Taylor continues to prohibit the practice, “for public health reasons,” the diocese said, though congregations may allow Eucharistic ministers to intinct the wafer and hand it to the communicant.
Dietsche detailed his concerns when he informed his diocese that intinction by communicants is still not permitted. “People dipping the host into the chalice with their own fingers carries a high likelihood of fingers touching or plunging into the wine itself,” he said. “Every eucharistic minister has seen this, and it is a certainty that this is an unclean and unsafe practice.”
The Diocese of Missouri also will continue allowing distribution of wine by individual portions or by wafers dipped in the wine and distributed by the eucharistic minister, but the common cup and self-intinction are still prohibited.
“In this transition time, we still wish to minimize the number of people breathing in close quarters over the chalice,” Missouri Bishop Deon Johnson said in his March 15 update.
And in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, St. John’s Episcopal Church announced that it, too, would resume use of the common cup along with other changes starting March 19, including making masks optional and returning to regular seating arrangements.
“While COVID-19 has not gone away, we can now enter a new phase regarding health and safety precautions,” the Rev. Adam Kradel, the church’s rector, said in announcing elimination of COVID-19 restrictions. “While many people have waited anxiously for this day to arrive, for others it may come with a deep sense of apprehension. We are fully supportive of anyone who still chooses to wear a face mask or keep their distance.”
As for intinction, Kradel said, it will be “eliminated forever” at St. John’s.
– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.