In many Roman Catholic churches across the country, lay people no longer receive wine at Communion, and some Catholic clergy have advised congregants not to shake hands or hug at the moment of the liturgy known as "the passing of the peace," when parishioners typically greet someone in, and offer embodied signs of, the peace of Christ. In my own Episcopal parish, I was greeted by a neighbor last Sunday with an elbow bump. At a United Church of Christ congregation in the suburbs of Chicago, Communion servers now slice up bread into bite-sized bits before distributing Communion; they no longer offer congregants a loaf from which to tear a hunk of bread. In the interest of keeping fingers away from communion wine, communicants at All Saints' Chapel in Sewanee, Tenn., are now instructed not to dip their Eucharistic bread into the cup but rather to sip the cup directly, since hands are often more infectious than mouths.
At Cornell University, the Episcopal chaplain, Clark West, has reminded worshippers that they will receive the fullness of the Eucharist if they receive only "one kind"—that is, the wafer and not the wine. "We have alcoholics among us for whom this has been the practice for years without any noticeably adverse effects," quips Mr. West. To emphasize this, he has, on occasion, used a longer liturgical formula, which names the host as itself both "the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ." Less reverently, Mr. West has taken to calling the bottle of Purell hand sanitizer, which now sits prominently on the credence table, the post-modern lavabo. (A lavabo is the bowl a priest uses to wash his or her hands in the Eucharist.)
These liturgical modifications are, of course, all being undertaken in response to H1N1—or, perhaps more precisely, in response to fears about H1N1. But if 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).
That change did not come easily or without debate and old-fashioned organizing on the part of both clergy and physicians. In November 1899, the Brooklyn Pathological Society convened a symposium called "The Pathology of the Common Communion Cup." Doctors and ministers gathered to review what they knew of epidemiology and to urge the use of individual cups at communion. The ministers in attendance did not take much convincing: "My own feeling in regard to the common cup is one of positive repugnance," said one.
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.
My own church continues to use a common Communion cup, and congregants are encouraged to drink directly rather than intinct (i.e. dip the bread in). We also minister to a large number of homeless folks, many of whom attend service. Episcopal and Roman Catholic churches typically use port wine, which is high enough in alcohol to be fairly safe to drink. In light of the swine flu, perhaps we could pour some whiskey into the wine as well...