AIDS Curbing Use of Common Communion Cup

Associated Press

For centuries, Christians have shared the cup of consecrated wine in celebrating the Lord’s Supper, and studies have found no evidence of any disease being spread by the practice.

But new worries have arisen because of the deadly immune system disorder, AIDS.

Only a few congregations have been reported ceasing to use the common cup, and no evidence has been found that AIDS, or other infections, are transmitted by the practice.

Nevertheless, there are signs that some congregations--Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Episcopal--are modifying ways to receive the sacrament.


Can Use ‘Intinction’

These include receiving only the consecrated bread or using “intinction,” taking the wafer and dipping it in the wine instead of sipping from the chalice. “A lot of parishes are pointing out the alternatives,” an Episcopal Church spokesman said.

Beyond that, gradually, here and there, a scattered few congregations have abandoned use of the common cup, shifting to other methods, such as pouring from the chalice into small individual glasses.

This resembles the custom used in some Protestant churches.

Such changes have been rare in liturgical-style congregations, and church leaders generally have sought to allay anxiety. But they say that concern is growing and that they have instituted no fixed approaches to it.

However, they have pointed out the alternative means of receiving communion, which people are free to choose, and while no widespread swing to those forms is apparent, clergy observations suggest that they are more frequent.

Central Worship Act

Celebration of communion, re-enacting Christ’s Last Supper, is the central act of Christian worship.

Recognizing the new concerns, New York’s Episcopal Bishop Paul Moore, who also chairs the governor’s advisory committee on AIDS, recently told the diocesan convention:


“There is absolutely no reason to be anxious about receiving from the common cup. However, if someone is nervous about it, they may receive just the bread, and be assured of the full benefit of the sacrament.”

The U.S. Catholic bishops’ liturgy office in Washington says inquiries have come from more than 20 dioceses asking if the common cup is safe, but that an absolute answer cannot be given. That has always been so, even before AIDS.

When church offices put the question to the National Centers for Disease Control, it replied that there is no evidence that utensils transmit viral infections nor linking the common cup to any outbreak of illness.

Risk Not Ruled Out

However, lack of evidence “should not imply that there is no risk,” said center physician Thomas A. Leonard, even though none has been determined.

AIDS, the fatal infection that cripples the body’s immune system, has spread mainly among homosexuals and drug users in this country, but cases have been reported among others.

In the current situation, congregations that have ceased using the common cup include two Roman Catholic parishes in the Columbus, Ohio, diocese, St. Mark Lutheran congregation in San Francisco and a seminary in St. Paul, Minn.


Luther Northwestern Theological Seminary of St. Paul has begun pouring from a common chalice into individual cups. The seminary says the change was for general hygienic reasons, and not a result of AIDS fears.

In the suburbs of Columbus, the St. Pius and Seton parishes stopped using the common cup, although the pastor of Seton said the change was not specifically because of AIDS, but a general fear of viral infection.

Pastoral Letter Circulated

In San Francisco, the office of Episcopal Bishop William Swing said his pastoral letter on the subject in August has been circulated by bishops in more than half a dozen dioceses across the country.

“There certainly is general concern,” said the Rev. Victor Wei, executive officer of the San Francisco diocese, but noted “heightened attention” to it in that city because of its large homosexual population.

Swing, in his letter, said the AIDS virus had been found in saliva but pointed out that no case of AIDS had been traced to saliva. He added:

“The church is aware, on the one hand, that AIDS is not transmitted through the common cup, and on the other hand, that many people are uneasy about saliva and the common cup.”


Urges Understanding

He urged understanding “for the cautious person who now only receives bread,” but noted that when he celebrates communion, he receives from the common cup after everyone else has drunk from it.

While the Episcopal Church and most Lutheran churches historically have used the common cup, Roman Catholic dioceses generally began using it only in recent years, having previously distributed only the consecrated bread.

Most Protestant denominations, such as Methodists, Baptists and Presbyterians and some Lutherans, use small, individual glasses. Eastern Orthodox churches distribute from the chalice with a spoon.