Coronavirus Diaries: I’m a Priest. Should I Stop Giving Communion?

No one wants their lips to touch the cup of salvation these days.

A priest blesses the salvation cup, with a sign that says "coronavirus diaries" written over it.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

Coronavirus Diaries is a series of dispatches exploring how the coronavirus is affecting people’s lives. For the latest public health information, please refer to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website. For Slate’s coronavirus coverage, click here.

This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with the Rev. Dan Spors, assistant to the rector at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Arlington, Virginia. The conversation has been transcribed and edited for clarity by Dan Kois.

We have had some guidance—maybe not the right term—that came from our bishop, who oversees the Diocese of Virginia. It’s maybe more along the lines of suggestions. Two different things that she has been focused on: the passing of the peace, where we all shake hands, and communion.

When it comes to the passing of the peace, if people instead of shaking hands want to do things like do a fist bump, or bump elbows, wave the peace sign at one another, priests should communicate that that is acceptable. We should maybe even make it part of the practice. Personally, I am a big fan of, if you’re not going to shake a hand, a nice solid wave. Fist bumps in the middle of church? That seems a little out of place, but there are good and fitting ways of symbolically passing the peace without necessarily making hand-to-hand contact.

There are plenty of people in our congregation who already didn’t like the peace. They don’t like shaking hands in general, and they’ve said, “Why don’t we just get rid of it altogether?” Well, because we have theology behind it. And I love the peace. The theology that goes behind it is fun and fantastic, too, it goes back to Jesus.

Then the other one is the communion cup, because in our tradition, we use a shared cup. We could have a hundred people at church, all drinking from two cups together. At least it’s cleaner and safer to drink from the cup than it is to take the communion bread and dip it with your fingers into the cup—there’s too much risk of transferring what’s on your hands into the cup. Drinking straight from the cup is preferred.

I deal with the bread and not distributing the cup to people, but we have a seminarian here, and he said as he was going around with the cup on Sunday, there were some people who had a look of fear in their eyes that he thought was entirely ironic. Here he was saying to them “the cup of salvation,” as people are afraid to get within five feet of him.

The church for a long time has said it’s fine to take the bread only and not the wine, that you still get all of Jesus, even if you’re not drinking the cup. The bishop told us she hosted an ordination service last week, and they left the chalice on the altar and nobody drank from it. They just distributed the bread, the host. Even she didn’t drink from it. She didn’t want to give the impression that this is something that the priests do, but the people aren’t permitted to do. That’s been done before in the Middle Ages, where only the clergy drank from it and the low common folk weren’t permitted to.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what role my own physical health and hygiene practices have. I try to be really careful and I try to use the hand sanitizer before I’m going to be touching the bread that everybody uses. But there are things that I’ve realized just this week that I need to be a lot more mindful of. One that got me is, as I’m standing at the altar and the cup and the bread are in front of me and I’m picking them up and holding them in front of my face, I’m breathing all over these things. Droplets from my mouth could be coming out and landing in the chalice and hitting this bread that we’re all going to eat. I don’t know if the day will come that I have to stand at the communion table with a surgical mask or a N95 mask on. There are many older people, or sick people, who come to church. I visit sick parishioners in the hospital. I don’t know. How do I safeguard the health of other people that I’m not even aware I’m putting at risk? This has challenged me quite a bit.

I think there’s also another aspect of it, beyond the congregation’s physical health, the psychological and the spiritual part of it, too. Psychologically, doing what we can do to help people to feel safe in the midst of anxiety. And then comforting people who are scared and worried about what’s going to happen to the world if this keeps going. One of the great attributes that a church has is that it brings people together, shares the message of hope, especially in the midst of difficult circumstances, and can very much help people to cope through adversity.

And if there’s a quarantine that forces us to close down services? We’ve done things that we’ve streamed online in the past. In Lent in the past few years, we’ve streamed a nightly prayer service over Facebook Live, so there’s certainly ways we could make that available to people. We haven’t talked about that yet.