Sunday, March 18, 2018

Passing the Peace and Passing the Germs: Can You Catch a Cold at Communion?

One hundred years ago, the Spanish Flu struck North America.

One theory has it that the outbreak started with soldiers in Kansas. Another suggests it began in China and was spread to North America by Chinese labourers who were ill with the disease, and who traveled across Canada to join the Chinese Labour Corps in Europe.

However it began, the outbreak killed between 50 million to 100 million people around the world, including between 30,000 to 50,000 in Canada.

Panic was widespread; nobody knew how to battle or prevent it except to try to limit exposure to those who were sick. 

In Winnipeg, schools, theatres, churches and other public gatherings were shut down for more than five weeks in an effort to control the spread of the disease.

Thoughts about that long ago pandemic came to mind during our current flu season. 

Unlike a century ago, we know how to limit the spread of the virus: stay home if sick, cover when you cough, and wash your hands often.  

That, and get a flu shot!

Despite taking all these precautions, sometimes I wonder if churches might not be ground zero for the flu, what with all the shaking of hands in the foyer, the ushers passing out bulletins and the passing of the peace—which is also usually accompanied by shaking hands.

Then there’s communion, also known as the Lord’s Supper or The Eucharist, depending on your tradition.

The practice varies. In some churches, the celebrant breaks off a piece of bread and puts it directly into the hands or mouth of each participant.

This is followed by drinking wine from a common cup. After each sip, the celebrant wipes the cup and turns it a bit before offering it to the next participant. 

At other churches, worshipers don’t drink directly from the cup. Instead, they dip their bread into it, a practice known as intinction.

I don’t know about you, but this all seems ripe not just for passing on a blessing, but also passing on germs—lots of them.

But what do I know? I’m not an expert in epidemiology. So I decided to ask one. I contacted Dr. Allan Ronald, Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba and Senior Advisor for the International Centre for Infectious Diseases.

According to Ronald, “infection from shared vehicles like a common communion cup are difficult or impossible to prove.”

Influenza, he says, tends to be most commonly spread by respiratory means—inhalation—not sharing a communion cup, along with coming into contact with surfaces that have the virus on them, and then touching mouth, nose or eyes.

To back up his comments, he cites a 1988 study from Great Britain titled “The hazard of infection from the shared communion cup.”

The study found that “the occasional transmission of micro-organisms is unaffected by the alcoholic content of the wine, the constituent material of the cup or the practice of partially rotating it.”

It was, however “appreciably reduced when a cloth is used to wipe the lip of the cup between communicants.”

It went on to say that “no episode of disease attributable to the shared communion cup has ever been reported” and that there is no evidence to suggest the “practice of sharing a common communion cup should be abandoned because it might spread infection.”

Although the study is 30 years old, Ronald says he has heard of nothing since to contradict it.

Then again, he doesn’t have to worry; the church he attends uses tiny individual cups for communion, like the ones I grew up using in church.

It turns out the invention of those cups can also be traced back to worries about disease. In this case, it goes back to the late nineteenth century in the U.S.

During that time of rapid urbanization, when millions of people were flocking to cities and sanitation and sanitary practices were less well developed, fears arose about what kind of germs might be lingering in the common cup during communion.

Today, it’s not fear of disease that keeps the little cups in use at some evangelical or Protestant churches; it’s more likely just tradition or convenience.

In the end, it appears we don’t need to worry about getting the influenza from communion. 

We may still want to be wary when passing the peace, though.

From the March 17, 2018 Winnipeg Free Press. Photo at top from the Daily Beast.

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