Holy Communion in the Church of England in Light of the Coronavirus Pandemic
Photo / James Coleman / Unsplash
The coronavirus pandemic has had (and continues to have) worldwide implications. Quite apart from the tragic loss of life and the damage to economies, individuals have faced significant restrictions in their personal lives, which includes, but of course is not limited to, limitations on the extent to which they can manifest their religious beliefs. This article looks at the legal and theological issues which arise in the context of how the coronavirus pandemic has impacted the taking of Holy Communion in the Church of England.
Of Holy Communion
The Last Supper was Jesus’ last meal before His crucifixion. Having observed that He would be betrayed by one who was dining among them, Jesus shared two signs with His disciples; bread as a symbol for His body being broken, and wine as a symbol for His blood being spilled.1 See Matthew 26:17-30 Holy Communion in the Church of England pays heed to this act through the consecration of bread and wine which is then consumed by the presiding priest and those parishioners who choose to partake. It is to be noted that the practice of Holy Communion within the Church of England differs from that in the Catholic Church. In the case of the former, the consecration and consumption of the bread and wine is seen as symbolic whereas, in the case of the latter, the substance of the bread and wine is said to change into the body and blood of Christ — a process described by the Catholic Church as ‘transubstantiation’.2 See the Catechism of the Catholic Church at 1376
As the Canon Law of the Church of England makes clear,
No person shall consecrate and administer the holy sacrament of the Lord’s Supper unless he shall have been ordained priest by episcopal ordination in accordance with the provisions of Canon C 1.3 Canon B12.1
No person shall distribute the holy sacrament of the Lord’s Supper to the people unless he shall have been ordained in accordance with the provisions of Canon C 1, or is otherwise authorized by Canon or unless he has been specially authorized to do so in accordance with such regulations as the General Synod may make from time to time.4 Canon B12.3
There is a duty on those who have been confirmed to receive the Holy Communion regularly, and especially at the festivals of Christmas, Easter and Whitsun or Pentecost.5 Canon B15.1 The churchwardens of every parish are responsible for providing a sufficient quantity of bread and wine for the number of communicants who are to receive it.6 Canon B17.1 The bread, whether leavened or unleavened, shall be ‘of the best and purest wheat flour that conveniently may be gotten’, and the wine ‘the fermented juice of the grape, good and wholesome’.7 Canon B17.2 Further, there is a requirement that the bread ‘shall be brought to the communion table in a paten or convenient box’ and the wine ‘in a convenient cruet or flagon’.8 Canon B17.3 The Administration of Holy Communion Regulations 2015 authorises the bishop of the diocese, upon an application by the incumbent or priest-in-charge of the relevant parish, to authorise persons specified in the application to distribute the Holy Sacrament in that particular parish.9 Article 2(1). The bishop can also vest a general authority in the incumbent or priest-in-charge of the relevant parish under which the incumbent or priest-in-charge may authorize persons to distribute the Holy Sacrament in that parish — see Article 3(1)
The Coronavirus Regulations
The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020, as originally enacted, contained various provisions requiring certain premises and businesses to close during the height of the pandemic and imposed certain restrictions on movement and public gatherings. Regulation 5(5) provided that ‘A person who is responsible for a place of worship must ensure that, during the emergency period, the place of worship is closed, except for uses permitted in paragraph (6)’. Paragraph 6 contained certain specified exceptions — for funerals, to broadcast an act of worship, and to provide essential voluntary services or urgent public support services (including, for example, the provision of food banks or blood donation sessions). No exception was made for the provision of Holy Communion, although a priest could, him or herself, enter a church in order to broadcast a service. At the beginning of July 2020, a relaxation in the Regulations saw places of worship reopening for public service, albeit with some restrictions still in place.
The Church of England’s Guidance on the taking of Holy Communion during the pandemic
Whilst restrictions may have been eased, a particular problem remains in relation to the taking of Holy Communion. This is because, as a matter of practice, those who are administering Holy Communion will usually place the bread into the mouths of the communicants and the communicants will drink the wine from a common cup. There are obvious reasons why this practice is not appropriate during a health pandemic such as the present. The United Kingdom Government’s current Guidance (which is applicable only in England) provides that,
Where food or drink (‘consumables’) are essential to the act of worship, they can be used, however the sharing of food should be avoided, as should the use of communal vessels.
If it is necessary to handle consumables as a part of a faith practice, those giving and receiving food items should wash their hands thoroughly before and after consumption, or wear gloves.
The person distributing the consumable should release it, into the hand only, in such a way to avoid any contact between them and those receiving it, or wear gloves. If accidental contact does occur, both people should cleanse their hands immediately.
The Church of England has issued an Advice Note which seeks to help facilitate Holy Communion in a ‘safe and appropriate way’. In relation to the bread, the use of individual communion wafers, or bread that has already been divided, is recommended. It is further advised that the presiding priest be the only person to handle the wafers or bread and that individual communicants should not pass the same around. In relation to the wine, the Advice Note provides that,
At present, Communion should be administered in one kind only with no sharing of the common cup. The president alone should always take the wine, consuming all that has been consecrated; other communicants should receive the bread only, in the hand. As the Liturgical and Faith and Order Commissions have made clear, this is still ‘complete communion’. In order to minimise overall risk, intinction (dipping the bread into the wine) should not be practised.
As the Advice Note suggests, the efficacy of taking Communion ‘in one kind’ has been the subject of prior debate and discussion — long before the present pandemic. The starting point is Section VIII of the Sacrament Act 1547, the relevant part of which provides:
Therfore be it enacted by our saide Souvarigne Lorde the King with the consent of the Lordes spirituall and temporall and the Commons in this present parlament assembled and by thauctoritie of the same, that the saide moste blessed sacrament be hereafter commenlie delivered and ministred unto the people, within this Churche of Englande and Irelande and other the Kings Dominions, under bothe the Kyndes, that is to saie of breade and wyne, excepte necessitie otherwise require.
This provision is commonly cited as authority for the proposition that there exists a legal presumption that the holy sacrament will be delivered in both kinds, bread and wine, unless necessity requires that it be taken in one kind only.
It may be wondered why the solution to the problem presented by the present pandemic is not simply that the wine should be divided into individual cups. If that is acceptable, then there would surely be no necessity for Holy Communion to be taken in one kind only? Whilst there exists authority for the proposition that more than one chalice may be used (with multiple communicants receiving from the same chalice) where the number of communicants justifies such a course, the prevailing view is that it is nevertheless contrary to law for individual cups to be used for each communicant—even if each cup has been individually consecrated and delivered to the communicant by the presiding priest.10 See Legal Advisory Commission of the General Synod, ‘Holy Communion: Administration of the Sacrament’ This is largely because of the rubric in the Book of Common Prayer which provides that ‘And the Minister that delivereth the Cup to any one shall say…’, ‘Cup’ being in the singular. A similar point can be made in respect of Canon F3.1 which provides that, for the celebration of Holy Communion, ‘a chalice for the wine’ will be provided. Accordingly, dividing the wine among individual cups is not considered to be a solution to the problem.
An appeal to necessity, under the 1547 Act, is therefore viewed as the appropriate course, justifying the taking of Holy Communion in one kind only. As the Legal Advisory Commission of the General Synod has explained:
Delivery in one or other kind alone is lawful provided that a true necessity can in law be demonstrated. In the first instance, the responsibility for deciding whether such a ‘necessity’ exists rests within the discretion of the president but s/he should not deviate from the general law except in a case of genuine necessity. Relevant examples are where an alcoholic is unable to drink the wine however small the quantity, or where no gluten free wafer is available for a communicant suffering from coeliac disease.11 Ibid., paragraph 6
The Commission recognised that necessity is not confined to individual cases but can also cover large numbers of communicants ‘if there is a reasonable fear of contagion from use of a common cup or chalice.’12 Ibid., paragraph 7 Such is the case with the current pandemic.
Accordingly, the taking of Holy Communion in one kind only, in this instance the bread, is considered lawful in cases of necessity. The bread, however, must be consecrated and distributed in accordance with the canon law, taking into account the extra health precautions set out in the Government’s Guidance and the Church of England’s Advice Note. Anecdotally, there have been accounts of priests seeking to ensure the health and safety of communicants by encouraging them to bring their own bread to church. Such a practice, however, cannot be lawful, particularly in light of the requirements of Canon B12. Instead, as the Advice Note alludes to, the use of individual wafers, or bread that has already been broken, is to be encouraged, with the priest ensuring that the bread is appropriately covered, and placed into the hands of individual communicants rather than their mouths.
In the grand scheme of things, the problems presented in relation to the administration and distribution of Holy Communion may not seem grave. However, it is an important part of the faith for many Christians, a number of whom are likely to have been caused distress by being unable to attend church during the height of the pandemic. The current arrangements for the taking of Holy Communion are considered to be both theologically and legally sound. Providing the relevant guidance and advice are followed, the practice should also be safe for those wishing to participate in it. Of course, as with other areas of life in general, it is incumbent upon everyone to behave responsibly in order to minimise risks to their own health as well as the health of others. ♦
Christopher Grout is a barrister who holds a LL.B degree from Newcastle University and a LL.M degree in Canon Law from Cardiff University. He was called to the Bar of England and Wales by the Honorable Society of the Inner Temple in 2007.
Grout, Christopher. “Holy Communion in the Church of England in light of the Coronavirus Pandemic.” Canopy Forum, August 31, 2020. https://canopyforum.org/2020/08/31/holy-communion-in-the-church-of-england-in-light-of-the-coronavirus-pandemic/