March 28: Bishops' expanded remarks on Holy Communion protocols

The following letter expands upon the COVID-19 guidelines sent by the bishops on March 7, 2022, which take effect on April 1, 2022.  A Spanish translation is available here; a language translation function is also available on this site.

March 28, 2022

Dear Colleagues in the Diocese of Massachusetts,

These expanded remarks are in response to questions and concerns we have received regarding protocols for the administration of Holy Communion.  In particular, questions have been posed regarding the permission given to resume use of the Common Cup.  We emphasize the following points:

Local decision:  We reiterate the statement at the outset of our March 7 letterWe stand with any clergy and local regathering teams who conclude that, in their local context, more cautious or restrictive measures are to be maintained.  No congregation or individual is to consider themselves pressured, expected, or required to reinstitute use of the Common Cup if they prefer not to.

Infection risk:  Our decision to permit (not require) use of the Common Cup has been based upon several medical studies, encapsulated in the following summary statements.

A global public health coalition concluded that:

Currently available data do not provide any support for the suggestion that the practice of sharing a common communion cup can contribute to the spread of COVID-19 because SARS-CoV-2 transmission from a patient with COVID-19 or asymptomatic carrier to other people has not been reported.

Likewise, an epidemiological study written for the Anglican Church of Canada concluded that:

While it's true a shared cup could transmit infection through saliva, the risk is extremely low, with no documented cases of any disease ever being spread that way.  In the case of COVID-19 the risk is even lower because it's spread by aerosols and droplets: the fact is, the risk of catching COVID is far greater from breathing air exhaled by an infectious person next to you than from sharing a common cup.

This final note explains what has been perceived by some as a contradiction in our current guidelines, in which the Common Cup is permitted while masking remains strongly encouraged.  While counterintuitive, both guidelines issue from the science pointing to aerosol transmission as primary.

The practice of intinction:  The option of intinction may seem a logical alternative during a pandemic.  However, intinction has long been discouraged by medical authorities due to its own risk potential.  Clergy and chalice bearers will testify to the frequency with which an individual who intincts will inadvertently extend their fingertips into the wine.  Thus, intinction becomes a higher risk activity than drinking from the chalice, because the fingertips and fingernails are a repository for pathogens not found in saliva.

Our current guidelines discourage, but do not prohibit, intinction.  If intinction is to be practiced, the use of a small intinction cup is safer, since it decreases the likelihood of the communicant making fingertip contact with the wine.  Having the chalice administrator intinct for the worshiper is not an ideal solution, since inadvertent contact with the mouth of the worshiper cannot be consistently avoided.  Wafers (and not more crumbly forms of bread) should be used if intinction is practiced.

Alternatives to the Common Cup:  While use of the Common Cup is now permitted, other alternatives remain authorized at this time.  Small, individually packaged wine cups are permitted as a pandemic accommodation.  Receiving the sacrament in one form only is, of course, historically understood to represent full participation in the eucharistic meal.

The familiar hymn reminds us of the unity which is both represented and furthered by the Holy Eucharist:

One bread, one body, one Lord of all,
one cup of blessing which we bless;

and we, though many, throughout the Earth,
we are one body in this one Lord.

We grieve the ways in which our pandemic adaptations have diminished the powerful symbols of that unity, and look toward the day we can more fully recapture those practices.  Meanwhile, we lay claim to the deep and ongoing truth that our Christian unity has been accomplished by our baptism into Christ's Body.

Faithfully and fondly,

The Rt. Rev. Alan M. Gates
The Rt. Rev. Gayle E. Harris