As historic practice, the common cup subtly confronts racism

Lauren Winner, Assistant Professor of Christian Spirituality at Duke Divinity School and the author of Girl Meets God, wrote on H1N1 and the common cup for this week’s Wall Street Journal. The effect, she contends, is broad, and based, perhaps, more on fear than on available logic.

Still, she writes, there are historical echoes rooted in the politics of socioeconomics and race – footnotes that naturally rise to a level of attention when we speak of eliminating the common cup from our liturgy.

[I]f H1N1 is new, American Christians’ choice to let fears about hygiene and health shape Eucharistic practice are not. In the late 19th century, new knowledge about germs—and pastors’ keen desire to be regarded as, in the words of one New York clergyman, “thoroughly imbued with the scientific spirit”—prompted many clergy, especially in Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregationalist churches, to set aside the common cup in favor of individual communion cups (think shot glasses).


Those churches that did move from the common cup to individual cups lost something. They lost the imagery of the church’s being, to paraphrase Paul, one body because we drink of one cup. Indeed, fin de siècle advocates for reform understood quite well that the changes they were making were not just about the health of people’s physical bodies, but also about the ecclesial and social body. They urged adoption of individual cups not only because of new theories about germs but also, explicitly, because they were troubled by white, middle-class Christians becoming symbolically joined to other sorts of Americans.

Speaking at the 1899 Brooklyn meeting, Robert J. Kent, the pastor of Brooklyn’s Lewis Avenue Congregational Church, made the leap from physical health and moral and spiritual purity: “I would not have the cup pass from the lips of the unclean to the lips of innocence and purity.” An ear specialist present at the same symposium told a story of a (presumably white Protestant) woman who had made her home on the Hawaiian Islands for almost 30 years. This long-suffering woman and her husband were always served communion first at church, and, the physician noted approvingly, “had they not been, with the class of people who partook of the cup there, neither of them would have been willing to touch it in any circumstances.”

Add to this a report distributed on September 24 by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Titled “H1N1 Flu: A Guide for Community and Faith-Based Organizations,” it seems to begin a thread of conversation Ms. Winner picked up on last week. In Section G, “Mental Health and Stigma,” readers are advised that “Stigma during the spring 2009 H1N1 flu outbreaks placed blame on certain people who contracted the disease and misrepresented how the disease was spread.” Readers are urged to reduce incidents of stigma by

  • Delivering public health messages that address people’s concerns;
  • Dispelling rumors, misinformation, fear, and anxiety present in your community; and
  • Modeling respectful and compassionate behavior when interacting with members of communities that are being stigmatized.
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