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A useful booklet on the current debate on using individual cups

A review by Daniel Kirk on Andrew Atherstone's and Andrew Goddard's book 'Drink This All of You' Individual Cups at Holy Communion. Grove books ltd 2022.

Atherstone and Goddard have done the church a great service by publishing a short Grove booklet on the use of individual cups at Holy Communion. Whilst not all will agree with their view, gently but evangelistically pressed, it will contribute to an important discussion in the Church of England (and beyond) of whether it is feasible or indeed desirable in times of pandemic to return to the use of a single cup.

The book kicks off with an introduction explaining why the issue of permitting the use of individual cups is a current hot potato, with some currently only taking communion in one kind (bread/wafers) or dipping the bread in the wine (intinction). It outlines the argument of the paper, that as eating the bread and the wine is a ‘joyful Christian celebration’ and ‘an explicit command of Jesus’ that we need to find ways of encouraging all God’s people to fully take part ‘in the sacrament, without exclusion’ (3) and does so by exhorting the use and acceptance of individual cups.

The second section called ‘One Loaf, One Cup’ emphasises the corporate experience of Holy Communion as a shared family meal, as opposed to an individualised experience, and explains how the use of one communal cup became standard practice in the Western church. It honestly explains how the Prayer Book didn’t envisage ‘the modern practice of individual cups’. Later on the authors explain that in the sixteenth century more than one cup would have been complicated and prohibitively expensive. Fixed tables and communion queues, multiple cups, wafers and pre-cut bread are examined. This section concludes by asking ‘if we can embrace individual wafers, why not individual cups?’ (9)

I wasn’t totally convinced by this argument; as an evangelical who regards wafers as a step away from the practice of the early church and an accommodation to the medieval doctrine of transubstantiation. However, their conclusion here: ‘it would be a very sad irony if, in an attempt to preserve our symbolic unity by only offering a communal cup, we thereby exclude some Christians from fully sharing in Holy Communion because of their vulnerable health’ (10) gives the ‘one cup’ advocate pause for thought.

The longest section entitled ‘Eating and Drinking’ looks at the relevant passages from the gospels and 1 Corinthians and comprehensively shows that we should obey Jesus and take the communion in two kinds. Jesus’ commands about ‘breaking bread’ and ‘pouring wine’ in remembrance of his upcoming sacrifice is a compelling argument that the symbolism that they involve is a necessity in our communion services. Indeed the possibility that the medieval Roman Catholic Church moved to the taking of communion in one kind by the laity, because of frequent plagues, is intriguing. The exception clause in the Sacrament Act of 1547 ‘except necessity otherwise require’ interestingly far from mandating communion in one kind during pandemics (15) went alongside an encouragement for more frequent communion taking during times of plague.

Section four looks at alternative proposals; ‘no communion’, ‘spiritual communion’ and ‘simultaneous distribution’ and argues that though these might be viable on a temporary basis they are far from ideal. It admits that individual cups are ‘a departure from normal Anglican practice, but much less is lost thereby than any other option’ (19). The fifth section looks at objections to individual cups. Are they lawful? They haven’t been officially declared unlawful. Are they racist? No. Are they reverent? Yes. The booklet then finishes by looking at practical guidelines for introducing individual cups: Who supplies them? How are they filled? And how are they received? For many this is where the rubber hits the road and pastoral and practical considerations come to the fore. There is much to meditate on here.

As someone who has always supported drinking the wine from one cup, I wasn’t totally convinced by all the arguments (perhaps I’m too firmly wedded to the tradition of a lifetime), but was shown that the alternative, though practically more complicated, doesn’t break canon law or biblical mandate, and may well be more pastorally sensitive. I warmly recommend reading this very timely booklet whichever side of the debate you might currently find yourself on.


Andrew Atherstone is a Research Fellow at the Latimer Trust. Daniel Kirk is vicar of St Michael and All Angels, Gidea Park



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