Swineflu, the chalice, words and the Church of England

Communion-cup If the population were ever to lose their powers of speech there would be various unpredictable consequences. One would be that immediately the Church of England would cease to exist. The core of the church is not its church buildings or its clergy but a set of beliefs and practices embodied in the liturgy.

There has been an amusing reminder of this in the flurry around securing churches from becoming viral agents in the spread of the swineflu pandemic. In July the Archbishops of Canterbury and York announced that the cup was no longer to be handed out. The response to this was varied – co-operation but also bluster, and (very Anglican this) disobedience – along the lines of If you won't tell the bishop neither will I. I have witnessed all of these reactions personally – and remember communion can only be carried out by the clergy.

What was never amended and couldn't be was the liturgy. Without which the church couldn't be the church. So every week words of Christ were solemly read out, words of Christ himself. That told us we were commanded to drink the wine (as often as you meet). And we ignored it in line with guidelines of health and safety. In the last few weeks most churches have found a way round it so we're back to drinking the wine in a way that won't wipe out the population. But it became clear to me that communion couldn't be communion in the Church of England unless those words were read. Even if we didn't drink. As peculiar as transubstantion must appear to those who don't mix their theology with Aristotelian science.  

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