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‘No fingers in the cup’: Coronavirus prompts Maryland Episcopal Church leader to suggest communion changes

The leader of the Episcopal Church in the diocese of Maryland is asking congregants to alter some of their worship practices to minimize the chances of contracting or spreading COVID-19, the coronavirus first reported in China in December that has spread to more than 50 countries, including the United States. The Rt. Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton is shown in this 2018 photo at University Parkway and North Charles Street.
The leader of the Episcopal Church in the diocese of Maryland is asking congregants to alter some of their worship practices to minimize the chances of contracting or spreading COVID-19, the coronavirus first reported in China in December that has spread to more than 50 countries, including the United States. The Rt. Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton is shown in this 2018 photo at University Parkway and North Charles Street. (Algerina Perna, Baltimore Sun)

The leader of the Episcopal Church in the diocese of Maryland is asking congregants to alter some of their worship practices to minimize the chances of contracting or spreading COVID-19, the coronavirus first reported in China in December that has spread to 70 countries, including the United States.

The Rt. Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton issued a statement encouraging the more than 44,000 members of his 117 congregations to refrain from shaking hands while “passing the peace” during services.

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And he discouraged the practice of “intinction,” a ritual observed in many Episcopal churches in which congregants dip a piece of communion bread into a common cup. The process poses a risk “especially when the bread is handled with unwashed hands of children and adults," he wrote.

“No fingers in the cup!,” Sutton wrote. “If intinction is an important offering for your congregation to practice, we recommend only one hand in the cup, i.e., one clergy person or eucharistic server shall intinct each wafer and place it in the hands of the communicant or on their tongue.”

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Sutton said he was issuing these and other recommendations to “maximize the safety of all worshipers.”

“In an effort to encourage confidence during this time, we issue these guidelines for human interaction during worship, especially around the Holy Eucharist,” he wrote in the statement, which was distributed Saturday throughout the diocese’s parishes in central, western and Southern Maryland.

He emphasized that it is not necessary to take both bread and wine during Holy Eucharist "to make a full communion” if people aren’t comfortable with that for health reasons.

One practice he did not discourage was the sharing of the common cup — the use by worshipers of one chalice for the drinking of the eucharistic wine. He pointed out that the practice, established centuries ago in imitation of the Last Supper, has been observed through multiple disease outbreaks, including the 1918 influenza pandemic, AIDS and SARS, and been proven by scientists not to spread disease. He emphasized that chalice bearers should “be sure to wipe the rim of the cup and turn it after every person is served.”

Sutton urged clergy members and eucharistic servers to wash their hands and to consider using an anti-bacterial gel before offering worshippers communion, the bread and wine believed to reflect or manifest the presence of Christ.

In the peace, clergy and worshippers greet each other, shake hands and say “peace be with you” or a similar phrase. Even though the handshake is traditional, Sutton said it “is not mandated by the church, and is especially discouraged during this time.

“Continue to verbally share the peace of the Lord with those around you,” he wrote. “Making eye contact, slightly bowing your head, or offering a friendly wave are good substitutes.”

According to the World Health Organization, COVID-19 is spread from person to person through small droplets from the nose or mouth which are shared when a person with the virus coughs or exhales. The droplets land on objects or surfaces and are picked up when others touch those places, then touch their eyes, nose or mouth. The organization has also said it’s important to stay more than 3 feet from an infected person to avoid directly breathing in any exhaled droplets.

More than 90,000 people across 70 countries have been infected during the outbreak. The global death toll is more than 3,000. Six have died from in the U.S., both on the West Coast.

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