Wineless and Wireless Communion in the UK

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Wineless and wireless communion in the UK

The four types of communion on offer at UK churches during lockdown. Can you enjoy the ancient rite even if it is wineless or wireless?  

Is it really the Lord’s Supper online or without wine? Deep in a third national COVID-19 lockdown, it is a question that many UK churches are answering not so much with theological reflection (though exceptions exist),[1] [2] but cold hard practicality. And for many denominations, the practical considerations mean making the Eucharist a wineless supper or communion a wireless share. Is a wineless or wireless rite what was instituted by Christ himself? Not in the least. But can you commune (hence the name) with Christ and His Church online or without the wine? Maybe.  

Lockdown Eucharist is on offer
During previous British lockdowns, all places of worship were shut by the government.[3] [4] After significant and united protest by many religious leaders and traditions after the second lockdown,[5] [6] the Prime Minister has changed the policy for lockdown number 3 by allowing for public worship.[7] This means that for the first time, British churches must now decide whether or how to offer the Eucharist during not just the COVID-19 pandemic but a full national lockdown.

There are basically four approaches taken by various Christian denominations in the UK: 1) No public Eucharist, 2) Public Eucharist with bread but without wine, 3) Public Eucharist with safeguards and with bread and wine, and 4) Digital Eucharist.

Mass excommunication or spiritual Communion
With the prohibition from public worship due to lockdowns amid the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly all churches were suddenly no longer offering communion to the public. Services were either cancelled or streamed. In effect, overnight every Christian in the UK had been excommunicated, cut off from access to Communion. In its place, the Church of England provided a short liturgy, ‘Spiritual Communion’. They explain it is a way to feed on Christ by faith spiritually in lieu of the physical bread and wine that offer spiritual nourishment in the Eucharist.[8] The Methodist Church has also offered it.[9] Both understand Communion to involve the physical gathering and consecration of the elements. 

Wineless Communion: “in one kind only”
Following the resumption of public worship between national lockdowns, many British churches moved to Communion “in one kind only,” a rather delicate way of saying “just the bread.” This is still the preferred solution for many churches in the UK, especially in the Church of England[10] and the Roman Catholic Church of England and Wales.[11] Yet, it obviously presents a theological problem, in that one of the essential two physical elements in the Eucharist is being intentionally left out, at least for public distribution, though the priest will usually still drink the wine.

So, why are the Church of England and the Catholic Church not offering wine in their COVID-19 Communion services, if both elements are essential to the rite? At least for the Church of England, the answer is that Church Canon Law only sanctions receiving the wine from a common cup. Normally, everyone either drinks from or dips the bread in the same cup. However, there is concern a common cup may spread COVID-19.[12] [13] [14] [15] So, the public cup is withheld for public health.   

Bread and wine in COVID times
Nevertheless, the Church of England has recently and quietly released a sanctioned method of distributing the Body and the Blood of Christ: the priest will very carefully dip the wafer into the wine ever so slightly and then give it to the communicant.[16] This method obviously would be more time consuming to get right. But there is an easier way to distribute the wine, and it is even time tested: individual (and COVID-hygenic) disposable thimble-sized wine cups. This is the standard way that communion has been served in Baptist churches for years, but in addition to them it has also been endorsed with some extra precautions by the Methodists and the Church of Scotland as a COVID-safe solution.[17] [18] [19]

Digital Communion
Finally, Baptist and United Reformed Churches (URC) churches have started offering communion online. Both denominations offer qualifications, however. While ultimately promoting it, the Baptists still offer two perspectives, one for and one against,[20] while the URC notes the importance of being sensitive to Christians who come from a different view.[21] In this virtual Communion, the online viewer at home prepares the bread and wine for themselves before watching and participating in the livestream service.[22] Methodists offer a very similar service (complete with a cake and a cup) but distinguish it from communion, calling it a ‘Love Feast’.[23]

Good or just good enough?
We started out asking “Can you commune (hence the name) with Christ and His Church online or without the wine?” As we have seen, some churches say yes. But during the UK’s third national lockdown, churches are offering more than just wineless and wireless communion. There are at least four options. One can choose from partaking it only spiritually. One can also wear a mask, go to church, santitise one’s hands and receive only the bread. Alternatively, one can partake of both the bread and the wine, as long as one is willing to drink the wine from a small cup at church or from home while online. Are any of these options ideal? Probably not. But in COVID times, arguably they do offer Christians looking for the spiritual nourishment of Communion at least a taste of the means of grace they remember.

R. Anthony Buck

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[1] Holy Communion: Responding Pastorally in the light of Covid-19

[2] The Baptist Union of Great Britain : Virtual Communion

[3] Keeping the faith: religion in the UK amid coronavirus

[4] Church of England suspends all services over coronavirus

[5] New tech, politics, and old religion: What is the future of technology in religion?

[6] Faith leaders challenge England lockdown ban on communal worship

[7] COVID-19: guidance for the safe use of places of worship and special religious services and gatherings during the pandemic

[8] 1 Guidance on Spiritual Communion and Coronavirus The term ‘Spiritual Communion’ has been used historically to describe the

[9] Spiritual Communion

[10] COVID-19 Advice on the Administration of Holy Communion

[11] Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales

[12] Religious festivals cancelled or scaled back due to coronavirus

[13] Is sipping from the Communion cup a hazard to your health?

[14] Coronavirus: Impact on UK Churches

[15] However, there is little actual research on transmissibility rates of COVID-19 via a shared Eucharistic cup. cf. N. Spantideas, E. Drosou, M. Barsoum, and A. Bougea, “COVID-19 and Holy Communion”, Public Health 187 (2020): 134–35. doi:10.1016/j.puhe.2020.08.012. What research has been done suggests there is a possibility of coronavirus transmission through a common cup. Spantideas, et. al. note that most research focuses on bacterial transmission and thus call for more rigorous and large-scale research to be done on viral transmission.

[16] COVID-19 Receiving Holy Communion in both kinds by simultaneous administration

[17] GUIDE FOR HOLY COMMUNION

[18] Reshaping Church Life

[19] The Baptist Union of Great Britain : Virtual Communion

[20] The Baptist Union of Great Britain : Virtual Communion

[21] Virtual Communion in the URC?

[22] The Baptist Union of Great Britain : Scattered yet gathered

[23] A Methodist Love Feast