As historic practice, the common cup subtly confronts racism

Lauren Winner, Assistant Professor of Christian Spirituality at Duke Divinity School and the author of Girl Meets God, wrote on H1N1 and the common cup for this week’s Wall Street Journal. The effect, she contends, is broad, and based, perhaps, more on fear than on available logic.

Still, she writes, there are historical echoes rooted in the politics of socioeconomics and race – footnotes that naturally rise to a level of attention when we speak of eliminating the common cup from our liturgy.

[I]f H1N1 is new, American Christians’ choice to let fears about hygiene and health shape Eucharistic practice are not. In the late 19th century, new knowledge about germs—and pastors’ keen desire to be regarded as, in the words of one New York clergyman, “thoroughly imbued with the scientific spirit”—prompted many clergy, especially in Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregationalist churches, to set aside the common cup in favor of individual communion cups (think shot glasses).


Those churches that did move from the common cup to individual cups lost something. They lost the imagery of the church’s being, to paraphrase Paul, one body because we drink of one cup. Indeed, fin de siècle advocates for reform understood quite well that the changes they were making were not just about the health of people’s physical bodies, but also about the ecclesial and social body. They urged adoption of individual cups not only because of new theories about germs but also, explicitly, because they were troubled by white, middle-class Christians becoming symbolically joined to other sorts of Americans.

Speaking at the 1899 Brooklyn meeting, Robert J. Kent, the pastor of Brooklyn’s Lewis Avenue Congregational Church, made the leap from physical health and moral and spiritual purity: “I would not have the cup pass from the lips of the unclean to the lips of innocence and purity.” An ear specialist present at the same symposium told a story of a (presumably white Protestant) woman who had made her home on the Hawaiian Islands for almost 30 years. This long-suffering woman and her husband were always served communion first at church, and, the physician noted approvingly, “had they not been, with the class of people who partook of the cup there, neither of them would have been willing to touch it in any circumstances.”

Add to this a report distributed on September 24 by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Titled “H1N1 Flu: A Guide for Community and Faith-Based Organizations,” it seems to begin a thread of conversation Ms. Winner picked up on last week. In Section G, “Mental Health and Stigma,” readers are advised that “Stigma during the spring 2009 H1N1 flu outbreaks placed blame on certain people who contracted the disease and misrepresented how the disease was spread.” Readers are urged to reduce incidents of stigma by

  • Delivering public health messages that address people’s concerns;
  • Dispelling rumors, misinformation, fear, and anxiety present in your community; and
  • Modeling respectful and compassionate behavior when interacting with members of communities that are being stigmatized.
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  1. Gregory

    It’s sad to hear that racism would condition how people serve and receive the eucharist, that great sacrament of unity — which unifies us not only vertically with Christ, but also horizontally with each other (1 Corinthians 10:16-17). So much for believing “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). As for not having “the cup pass from the lips of the unclean to the lips of innocence and purity,” who is ever innocent and pure enough to receive Christ in communion? Saint John Cassian hit the nail on the head: “We must not avoid communion because we deem ourselves to be sinful. We must approach it more often for the healing of the soul and the purification of the spirit, but with such humility and faith that considering ourselves unworthy, we would desire even more the medicine for our wounds. Otherwise it is impossible to receive communion once a year, as certain people do, considering the sanctification of heavenly mysteries as available only to saints. It is better to think that by giving us grace, the sacrament makes us pure and holy. Such people manifest more pride than humility, for when they receive, they think themselves as worthy. It is much better if, in humility of heart, knowing that we are never worthy of the holy mysteries we would receive them every Sunday for the healing of our diseases, rather than, blinded by pride, think that after one year we become worthy of receiving them.” People who think their lips are innocent and pure enough to receive Christ in communion — and those of others are too unclean to do so — would do well to remember that he dined with sinners and shared his table with tax collectors and prostitutes — the outcasts of his day and age.

  2. John B. Chilton

    Interesting letters to the editor on “The Pathology of the Common Cup” here,

    Some favor the common cup: an M.E. pastor, and an Episcopal priest.


    Minneapolis, Minn., May 10, 1900. To the Editors of The Medical Dial:

    Dear Doctors:—While I admit that there are some objectionable and possibly unsanitary features connected with the use of one cup, yet I am not prepared to advocate the change from one to the individual cup. Jesus doubtless used the one cup in common when He instituted the sacrament.

    I could wish that men would quit wearing the indecent and decidedly ‘ unsanitary mustache. The most objectionable feature in the use of the one cup would then disappear, but if they will persist in using that microbe breeding thing then I wish they would have the goodness to wait until the last table before coming to the altar to partake of the holy sacrament.

    Your Brother, T. F. Allen. Pastor Thirteenth Avenue M. E. Church.

    Holmes Hotel,

    Minneapolis, Minn., Apr. 26, 1900. To the Editors of The Medical Dial:

    Dear Doctors :—With reference to the “pathology of the common communion cup,” I appreciate the considerations which are urged in your editorial in The Medical Dial. My practice is to cleanse the chalice with a purificator frequently during the communion. But my reasons, in the briefest form, for not advocating the individual communion cup are:

    1st. The present method is one adopted at the Divine Institution of this sacrament.

    2nd. I have not heard of any malady being traced to the common use of the communion cup though I have been long interested in this subject.


    It is quite in accordance with the spirit of the Bible to take hygienic precautions. A few of our clergy cleanse the rim of the chalice with a purificator after each participant. Would not that suffice?

    Respectfully yours, Frederick T. Webb. Pastor St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.

  3. John B. Chilton

    One Sunday at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, a well-dressed, lone black man, whom no one in the community—white or black—had ever seen before, had attended the service, sitting unnoticed in the last pew. Just before communion was to be distributed, he rose and proudly walked down the center aisle through the middle of the church where all could see him and approached the communion rail, where he knelt. The priest and the congregation were completely aghast and in total shock. No one knew what to do…except General Lee. He went to the communion rail and knelt beside the black man and they received communion together—and then a steady flow of other church members followed the example he had set.

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