I’m an Episcopalian. In almost every service at our church, we receive Communion this way: The priest tears a morsel off of a round, flat bread and places it in the palm of your hand, and you eat it. The chalice-bearer holds the silver cup of wine as you sip from it, then wipes the rim of the chalice with the purificator, which is just a fancy name for a cloth napkin. There are two chalices, and in our typical service maybe 30 people drink from each one.
Why would I share a drink with 30 other people? Isn’t that just asking for trouble?
Honestly, I’ve never worried about it much, for three reasons:
- By attending church, I am spending time near those people anyway. They exhale germs into the air. They touch things with their germy hands that I might touch. At coffee hour they pick up food with their fingers and might brush against the piece of food I’m going to eat. I’m likely getting some exposure to their germs anyway.
- The ritual of Communion has powerful spiritual significance for me. I’m not going to skip it out of fear. I trust that God will take care of me, which doesn’t mean I will never get sick at all, but if I do it’s not a punishment for doing this in remembrance of Jesus.
- Communion is an act of sharing. Yes, there is some risk in sharing, but I accept that risk.
When I am sick or feel like I might be getting sick, I do abstain from the wine. (Note to novice Episcopalians: To avoid being served wine, after you take the bread fold your arms over your chest and bow your head until the chalice-bearer has passed by–or as you pass the chalice-bearer, if the Communion arrangement is one where you walk by instead of kneeling for them to come to you.) Either the bread or the wine is considered full Communion; you don’t have to have both, which is good news for gluten-free people and recovering alcoholics. Normally I prefer to have both, but it’s considerate to avoid sharing germs when I know I have a contagious illness.
Recently, I did a little research and learned that an Episcopal microbiologist has studied Communion chalices as a germ vector and determined that we have little to worry about. Here are four more reasons:
- “People who sip from the Communion cup don’t get sick more often than anyone else,” she found. If the common cup increased our risk of illness, we would get sick more often than other people who have similar lifestyles but belong to a separate-cups or no-Communion religion. Her study found that we don’t, and in fact we don’t even get sick more often than people who don’t attend religious services at all.
- The alcohol content of the wine, though lower than some alcoholic beverages, kills some germs.
- The silver chalice also discourages bacterial growth.
- Wiping the chalice after each person sips removes some of the saliva.
That article was published in 2005, but this article from less than a year ago indicates no new research and quotes another health authority who takes Communion herself and says it’s very low on her list of worries. This article also makes the important point that intinction (dipping the bread into the wine with your fingers, or having the chalice-bearer dip it for you, instead of drinking from the cup) is not more sanitary because it gets germs from people’s hands into the wine.
During the H1N1 flu epidemic a few years ago, my church set up bottles of hand sanitizer along the aisle so we could all clean our hands before Communion, but we still drank from the chalice. I appreciated this recognition that our hands are at least as dirty as our mouths. That got me thinking about the Peace, the part of the service (before Communion) when we shake hands with each other and wish each other the Peace of the Lord. I am touching all those hands and then using my hands to receive the bread.
Now I use hand sanitizer (I carry it in my purse) during the announcement time after the Peace. This kills not only the germs I picked up when shaking hands but also whatever germs got on me on the way to church. If I might be contagious, I also sanitize my hands before the Peace so I don’t pass germs to others–and if I am in such disgusting condition that I can’t stop handling my hanky long enough to exchange Peace, then I don’t touch other people at all but only smile and say, “Peace be with you,” and maybe explain that I’m sick if they seem puzzled. I make sure my nine-year-old son follows the same rules.