November 13, 2016
Why do Episcopalians drink communion wine from one or two cups? Does that not increase the risk of passing germs? Some churches use small separate cups for communion, why do we not do so as well?
The most compact answer is that the Prayer Book calls for there to be one cup on the Altar during the Great Thanksgiving (BCP "At the following words concerning . . . the cup, [pp. 334, 342, 362, 368, 371, and 374]), and that the blessed wine is to be distributed from this cup and, possibly others, to the gathered congregation.
It is true that some traditions, Presbyterians and Methodists among them, do use small cups. Theologically both these traditions, and others, hold a view of the Eucharist as a memorial meal, symbolically one step removed from the Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Orthodox, and Anglican views of the Eucharist being the "real presence" of Jesus (variously defined by each tradition).
This belief that the Eucharist involves Christ, really present, has focused the liturgical action on emphasizing the sharing of the bread and wine from a common table, common plate, and a common cup, or at least as close to this standard as possible. This accords with the Biblical reality and symbolism described by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:14-17 that we share the cup of blessing, singular (v. 16) and one bread (v. 17). It is a powerful visual and spiritual reminder of our being one community in Christ and that it is the sharing of Eucharist that mystically connects us every time we celebrate.
As to the traditions that use very small individualized cups, I cannot comment on their theology any further than was done above, although I can state that it appears that individual cups were introduced in the United States of America in the late 19th Century during a period when diphtheria and tuberculosis were problematic. There was no evidence then that the drinking from a common cup exposed the communicants to greater dangers than those drinking from individualized cups. Looking at the Roman Catholic and Anglican parishes, there was no marked pattern of increased illness with traditions of the common cup.
Further, especially when one is ill, there are ways to avoid possible contaminating or contamination. The two species of Christ, the bread and the wine, have transitive properties. That means that taking in one kind means taking both kinds. This was the practice of the Roman Catholic Church, where the communicants only received the bread, from sometime in the mediaeval period until the late twentieth century. In fact, one of the great points of contention in the Reformation was the desire on behalf of the people to receive communion in both kinds. The transitive property has not been eliminated or disproved, it is just that communicants were so taken by the reforms, they did not want to give them up. One kind or both kinds, your choice. Risks are small and the potential joy is unlimited.
The Rev. David Lucey