Sunday, August 2, 2009

Q&A #1 - Communion Cup(s)

From time to time I’ll post a question asked of me, my answer, and some related questions for further discussion.

QUESTION: When did Protestants start using individual communion cups?

This was posed a while back at a gathering of clergy. We muddled around a bit and guessed at an answer, and, as it turns out, we were fairly good guessers.

Nancy Tomes, a historian, has written a book called The Gospel of Germs: Men, Women, and the Microbe in American Life (Harvard University Press, 1998), wherein she writes about “The Debate over the Common Communion Cup” (pp. 132-134).

The rise of tuberculosis at the turn of the twentieth century, she says, presented a dilemma for Protestants (not, however, for Roman Catholics, since only the priest drank the wine) that began the great debate.

Starting in 1887 physicians in Rochester, N.Y., brought pressure on churches to use separate cups since the common cup had been named the culprit in passing around TB and other “loathsome diseases.”

Tomes says, “The proposal to abolish the common communion cup initially met with deep resistance. For many Protestants, the fact that Jesus and his disciples used one vessel at the Last Supper was sufficient reason to forbid any change in practice…. When the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church was first queried on the issue in 1895, it agreed that the hygiene issue was insufficient reason to alter ‘the primitive and historic method of administering the Lord’s Supper.’”

We all know how it finally came out. Mini-shot-glass-sized cups became the usual means of delivery of the wine—or often grape-juice, since there was also at this time the rise of the Temperance Movement. Diced bread, rather than a whole loaf to be handled and broken, also became the norm for hygienic reasons.

With that answer, some other questions are raised for all of us, such as:

As a liturgical rite, which is most appropriate—common cup or individual glasses?
Does the common cup work better when people come forward, or can it be passed hand-to-hand in the pews?
Which is preferable, people served in pews or coming to the Table?
Is it better to serve wine, grape juice or both? Why?
How much do the floor plan, furnishings and architecture of your worship space contribute to or inhibit the serving of Communion? What could you do to make it better?
And, finally, what theology is communicated to the worshippers by the different methods of serving and forms of the elements?


  1. As a lay person, I don't know about the theology of these things, but I do know what I prefer. I've done the communion many ways - seated: cups and cubes, and tear off loaf and cups; and 'get in line': tear and dip, tear and sip, wafer.

    I personally don't like the get in line thing. I have to spend mental energy being aware of who's around me so I don't step on someone, butt in line getting out of the pew, walk around the people kneeling at the rail without tripping on someone's foot, keep an eye on my children so they don't to any of the above.

    I'd rather sit with my thoughts as I wait for the trays to get to me, and be able to drink and eat with the group at one time. I enjoy the little island of quiet, and the communal consumption makes me feel more a part of a group effort. I don't care about the tear or not tear, though I think real bread (not cubes) feels more nourishing. Something about a yeasty, crusty loaf smells alive and more meaningful than flavorless wafers or cubes.

    Just my two cents - maybe not theologically sound, but that's what works for me.

  2. During the summer months, when church attendance in the Northeast is down, we have often skipped communion because there was no way to determine how many little pieces of bread to cut nor how many little cups to fill.

    Rather than let the logistics determine the sacrament's availability during July and August, I brought a boule of bread and a goblet filled with grape juice to the service. People came forward and we celebrated Communion by intinction.

    Personally, I like a common loaf and cup. I think they are a better visual reminder that it is the Lord's cup that we share and that we are nourished by a common source: Him.

    I've had congregants mention how much they like the simultaneous consuming of the elements - makes them feel more connected to each other - and I appreciate the value of that. However, I do look forward to the summer months when Communion becomes simpler, more like a meal, and less like a "production."


Thanks for joining in the conversation!