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Leona Wood
Leona Wood

Should churches forego Communion to protect against coronavirus?

by Heather Preston

As the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 jumps to 40 in the UK, the Government is setting out plans to protect against further infection, which are due to be published on Tuesday.

Many churches are also taking precautions to curb the infection.

The Church of England has encouraged those with coughs and sneezes only to receive Communion "in one kind" (bread only), while the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales has advised Catholics with cold or flu symptoms to refrain from receiving Communion on the tongue or from the chalice.

Premier Christian News caught up with Tim Jones, head of preaching and theology at Emmanuel Church, Brighton, to find out more about the theological importance of communion and whether it's something Christians can reconsider in light of the current virus outbreak.

PCR: Why is it so important for us to take communion together at church?

TJ: It has to be seen in its historical context, it is the centrepiece of Christian worship throughout the whole history of the church. It's the gospel being ministered. So, as much as evangelicals like ourselves are interested in the preaching and having the word spoken and ministered to us, communion is actually meeting with the Lord Jesus Christ in the sacrifice. For our congregations that's absolutely vital, it is why we gather.

PCR: Does it matter if we refrain from taking the wine if we're still taking the bread?

TJ: Yes, I think it's a point of obedience. The Lord said, 'it's my body and my blood'. It's the bread and the wine and that's not just insignificant. That's not an optional thing. It's not something that we are enslaved to either, it's a provision for us but that is what the provision is - the bread and the wine.

PCR: How important is the way in which we practice it - is it vital to drink from a communal cup? 

TJ: I've got a lot of sympathy for those who want to have a communal cup and I understand why that would also be a risk in times where we've got epidemics that we're concerned about. For us in Brighton we've gone through different variations. Around the time of the swine flu about a decade ago we were using a shared cup and we moved to dipping the bread into the wine. Now, we use individual cups and bread. I don't think it's a problem - in the same way that if you were having a shared meal with someone you wouldn't necessarily share every single item in the meal in a very direct way, you share the meal, you share the event together. I think that's what's meant by the shared cup, the shared loaf. It's very much about this gathered body being ministered to - so we are happy to have individual elements that people take and still have the shared event.

PCR: How do we strike the right balance of observing communion and being aware of health risks to church members?

TJ:  Just looking at what's happening in northern Italy and where Catholic churches have suspended communion, I think that there's just a wisdom and care that goes into that which doesn't come into conflict with the question of faithfulness. There's a realisation there that we are not slaves to the communion and we're not slaves to the Lord's Supper - it is given for us and in the same way that the Lord speaks of the Sabbath being for man and not man for the Sabbath. I think that the same applies with the Lord's Supper, it's a gracious provision that the Lord gives to us and it's just wise pastorally that where there is an outbreak things are suspended wholesale and not just piecemeal.


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