On the use of individual communion cups

There is evidently a fight going on within the Church of England on the potential use of individual communion cups as a Covid-safe way to celebrate the Eucharist. It’s not my fight, and I don’t want to say much about it. But in the last couple of days a new argument has emerged: that the use of individual communion cups is, historically, racist. That does bother me.

Each of the five churches I have been a member of have used individual communion cups as a regular part of their sacramental life. This is hardly uncommon in either the English Free Churches, or Scottish evangelicalism—I don’t actually recall the last time I celebrated or received the Eucharist at a church that did not use individual cups (although our collegiate celebrations use a single cup and intinction).

So the suggestion that the use of individual cups is pandering to racism worries me—or it would worry me if there were any plausibility to it; fortunately, there is not, or none that I can discover.

As far as I can see, there are two sources for this suggestion: a blogpost by Peter Anthony, which cites a podcast by Barak Wright, which in turn cites (unhappily without reference) the investigations of an American Methodist leader, James Buckley, in the 1890s; and a paper by Hilary M. Bogert-Winkler, which relies entirely (for this point) on Daniel Sack’s 2002 monograph, Whitebread Protestants: Food and Religion in American Culture.

Both sources are agreed that the presenting reason for the adoption of individual cups is the C19th sanitary reform movement. With the discovery that diseases were transmitted through ‘germs’ (at the time a rather unspecific term), ways of altering behaviour to prevent transmission were investigated and recommended. There was a general awareness that fluids were important in transmission, and so a concern about a shared cup where potentially, the saliva of the first recipient can enter the mouth of a later recipient.

The charge in both sources is that, in the USA, sanitary reform became entangled with racial prejudice, and so that in certain contexts the shared cup was given to whites first, so that they would not be contaminated by African-Americans, and then individual cups were introduced for the same reason.

Let us for the moment simply accept this. All that is then demonstrated is entanglement. But that is uninteresting. Suppose I were to campaign against a particular industrial development both because I believed that it would be damaging to the environment, and because I believed that there was a faerie castle that would be destroyed by it; the ridiculousness of the latter belief does not damage the cogency of the former one. Just so, someone who genuinely believes that it is unhygienic to share a single cup, and that non-whites are more likely to spread disease, cannot be criticised for the former belief just because the latter one is appallingly racist.

(Were there a demonstration that the former, sanitary, belief was not sincerely held, but merely a cover for the latter, racist, belief, then of course the criticism would stand. Sack is careful to avoid that implication in his monograph; in the absence of references I cannot be sure of all Buckley claimed, but from what I have been able to read, it does not appear that he essayed the stronger argument either.)

It is of course easy to survey the arguments around 1900—the material is all out of copyright, and so generally on the Web. What is striking is how much Buckley is an outlier—one can, for example, read through article after article opposing the use of individual communion cups in the old Lutheran Church Review and find no hint at all that there is any concern other than tradition and symbolism. (See, e.g., Drach, ‘Have Individual Communion Cups Any Historical Justification?’ vol. 26 (1907), pp. 567-574; Schuchard, ‘Individual Communion Cup Questions’ vol. 29 (1910), pp. 567-577; Michler, ‘Individual Communion Cups’ vol. 34 (1915), pp. 395-402). (Similar series are easily found in other denominational journals of the time.)

There is a second point, however: even if Anthony and Wright are simply correct in everything they assert, they only establish the point for North America. The introduction of individual communion cups in the UK is a separate history, and, as far as I can see, there has never been a single scholarly suggestion that this history has been driven by racism.

The medical point is of course to the fore; Dennis raised it in his System of Surgery (iii.803), and it was discussed repeatedly in The Lancet in the first decade of the twentieth century. A remarkable article, ‘The Patience of Job’ by Edward M. Merrins M.D., (in Bibliotecha Sacra 1907) , suggests both that syphilis can be contracted via the shared chalice, and that enough Anglican priests are syphilitic (as a result of ‘the stumbles of their college days’ pp.239-340) that this creates a real and present danger in the sacrament of the altar.

The English (and Welsh) Free Churches gradually adopted the use of individual communion cups through the early decades of the twentieth century. I know of no evidence for racial panic in this adoption; more, every bit of concrete evidence I do know, or have been able to access, suggests that the point borders on the absurd. Warwick Baptist Church adopted the individual cup in 1904 (so Goodwin, BQ 16 p. 63); there is no hint of any racial tension; Calfaria Baptist Church, Aberdare, introduced the individual cup in 1914,—it is hard to imagine significant racial tensions in Aberdare at that point (BQ 22, p. 365). Bewdley Baptist moved similarly in 1934 (BQ 13 p. 124), and again, constructing a racial motive seems simply implausible.

So, in the U.K. there is absolutely no evidence that the adoption of individual cups was driven by racism; extensive evidence that it was not; and compelling evidence that it was driven by hygienic concerns. In the U.K. context, objections to the use of individual cups on the grounds that the practice was racist are both demonstrably unfounded, and profoundly insulting to those Christian traditions who have habitually communicated like this for the last century.

I don’t want to defend the individual cup (or the largely concomitant use of unfermented grape juice). At the last supper, Jesus took a loaf of bread and broke it, and took a cup of wine, and shared it, and I would far rather that we did the same. My tradition has erred in using substitutes for wine, and in using individual cups; more ‘catholic’ traditions have erred in using strange wafers instead of common bread, and in failing to use one shared loaf. Neither error (in my judgement) succeeds in rendering the sacrament invalid, but both errors obscure the symbolism of the Eucharist, and so should be avoided.

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