The Church of England has always been clever at producing theology to suit itself. If we don’t start protesting, we may never get communion wine back again. Too many risk-averse clergy have discovered how efficient, hygienic and cheap it is just to give us a wafer each. They explain it away by reminding us that ‘Christ is sacramentally and equally present in both the bread and the wine, so if you receive only one, nothing is lacking’.
‘But it’s so unfair,’ I want to hiss at the presiding priest when I see him or her having a sip of wine ‘on behalf of the congregation’. ‘It’s one rule for you, another for us.’
How docile we’ve all become, as we tramp forward via the hand sanitiser to receive our Styrofoam-like circular wafer from the outstretched fingertips of a silent administrator, then walk back to our pew, chomping self-consciously as we go. What a prosaic, dismal and antisocial process it has turned into.
By that time in a Eucharist service — about 11.50 a.m. on a Sunday — I’m longing for a slug of sweet wine and the warm feeling brought on by its alcohol content. This is what Jesus intended, for goodness sake. ‘Drink this, all of you.’ Not just one of you.
Don’t try to theologise me out of my right to both kinds. With only a dry wafer for sustenance — a food item as far removed as can be from anything resembling a holy supper — I feel decidedly short-changed. I miss the whole ritual of kneeling on the oblong velvet cushion in front of the High Altar, waiting for the wafer and the wine to come along, administered with beautiful words spoken to each of us. I love watching the slowly rotating chalice, wiped after each sip with the purificator, otherwise known as the ‘holy hanky’.
Does that seem a revoltingly germ-spreading procedure now? Will we ever dare to drink from a shared cup again? Or will we start having to use separate disposable shot-style glasses as the Methodists and Baptists do, risking the theological disaster of discarding the sacred dregs into the bin?
Some clergy have, to give them their due, worked hard to find a way to get wine into our mouths. There’s a theological war raging on C of E forums about whether individual shot-style glasses are theologically sound. They’re not, say staunch Anglicans. The common cup is essential. Jesus didn’t pour from his cup into the disciples’ separate goblets. Some churches have resorted to pipettes as a way of keeping the ‘common cup’ going in a hygienic way. They provide their own, or they ask congregation members to bring a sterilised pipette or syringe with which to extract a sip from the chalice.
Is this really necessary? I was relieved to be assured by the Revd Sue Kipling, who worked for years as a scientist at Imperial Chemical Industries and has examined polished metal under an electron microscope, that a well-wiped silver chalice is pretty much germ-free and we should not be frightened of drinking from one. (Avoid ceramic chalices, she says, as they’re not as easily cleaned of germs.) Meanwhile, she has developed a method of intincting wafers with a drop of wine and drying them out in the bottom oven of her Aga. This works well if you’re administering communion in care homes, she says.
I chatted to Abraham Overvoorde, director at Grace Church Supplies in Hull, who told me that sales of communion wine are going up again after a terrible dip. (He’s kindly offering Spectator readers a 10 per cent discount.) In the depths of the 2020 lockdown, he said, sales of alcoholic communion wine were down by 95 per cent on normal levels. Now, they’re down by ‘only’ 65 per cent.
Meanwhile, sales of non-alcoholic communion wine went down by 65 per cent and are now down by only 15 per cent. Who on earth is drinking non-alcoholic communion wine, you might ask? Isn’t it a rule that it’s meant to be ‘the fermented juice of the grape’? The answer is that many are now going for the non-alcoholic option, especially in the USA, and they carried on drinking it at home during lockdown Zoom Eucharists. Grace Supplies sells pre-filled non-alcoholic communion cups with a wafer attached; you peel off the top film to get to the wafer, and the second film to get to the ‘juice’, rather as with a Müller Corner.
Talking to clergy, I dare to hope that the tide is turning. While many cathedral deans and chapters are still clinging to the wafer-only option, other priests and churchwardens are daring to move forward.
‘We’re having a parochial church council meeting to discuss it this week,’ Father Andrew Walker, parish priest at St Mary’s Bourne Street in London, tells me. ‘We’re thinking of giving the congregation a choice of going to one or both altars. There’ll be a standing station at the High Altar where they’ll be given the wafer, and then, if they like, they can walk over to the Altar of the Seven Sorrows where they’ll kneel and receive the wine from the chalice.’
My plea is that by Maundy Thursday, on 14 April, churches will have got their act together and we will be back to the old normal — just in time for the Last Supper.