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When germs divide the Body of Christ

October 11, 2009

I’ve been hearing a lot about how churches have tried to minimize the spread of germs at services — using various creative ways to administer communion wafers and wine and discouraging folks from shaking hands during the exchange of peace. But this tactic shared in the weekly Houses of  Worship column in the Wall Street Journal tickled me. How appropriate that it involves the funny bone. Lauren F. Winner writes:

In my own Episcopal parish, I was greeted by a neighbor last Sunday with an elbow bump.

Of course, the recent swine flu scare doesn’t mark the first time churches have taken measures to protect the flock from germs (not to mention those less desirable folks in the pews). Long before H1N1, many churches abandoned  the communal wine chalice for individual cups. I remember the first time I saw Protestants drinking grape juice from a Dixie cup. Pretty shocking for someone who grew up in the Catholic Church. Anyway, Winner notes that in trying to sanitize the worship experience, something very important can be lost.

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.


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