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Communion crisis

Klao Bell, Staff Reporter

SOME churches in Jamaica have abandoned the custom of sharing one cup during communion, for fear of contracting diseases including HIV.

Several Protestant churches, including the Seventh Day Adventist, United Church and some Brethren churches, have thought it unwise to share the cup, also called a chalice, and have stopped the practice.

"We made the move about two years ago when members expressed concern, especially with the on-going debate about HIV," said Gordon Russell, an elder at the Mona Heights Chapel, one of the Brethren churches.

He added that, "when two medical persons raised the matter independent of each other, we felt it was the Lord talking to us, so we changed our practice."

These churches do not see their practice as theologically incorrect, but practical and safe.

"We do not see a theological difference in using one chalice or individual cups," said Arlington Woodburn, secretary of the East Jamaica Conference of the Seventh Day Adventist Church. "...Health reasons are important factors to consider with drinking from one chalice."

But denominations such as the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Ethiopian Orthodox and some assemblies of the Brethren have preserved the practice of partaking of one vessel, in strict adherence to the scriptures.

"We use one cup, which is the symbol of fellowship and community," explained Reverend Ernle Gordon, an Anglican minister. "If you go to Luke you will see where Jesus took one cup and shared with the disciples."

At the Ethiopian Orthodox church, one spoon is used to serve the wine to each member.

These churches scoff at the possibility that the common cup could pose a health risk to their members. Instead, they maintain that faith in God and the sacredness of the vessels repel diseases.

"Having asked the Lord to bless it, we believe that the Lord will help us not to get diseases," explained a senior member at one of the Brethren churches that still share a communal cup.

Although medical doctors warn persons carrying such diseases as tuberculosis, influenza, flu, hepatitis B and some sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) to abstain from sharing utensils to avoid spreading the virus, the Ministry of Health (MoH) endorses having communion with only one cup, stating that it is very unlikely that one can contract disease in this way.

"Public Health does not condemn the practice, it is very unlikely to acquire any infection from sharing communion cups," said Dr. Yitades Gebre, a senior medical officer at the Ministry.

Dr. Gebre explained that there were certain conditions under which viruses thrive and the metallic communion cup, plus the limited contact time that each person has with the cup, minimises the risk.

"The contact time is limited, so the amount of bacteria present would be very, very low," he said. "Infections thrive on numerous bacteria."

The churches said that the cups are metallic. But this has not convinced Marie Saunders, who attends St. Richard's Catholic Church on Red Hills Road, St. Andrew.

"Me, I will give money and anything to the church. In fact, I love my church, but there is no way you're going to get me to drink from that cup," she said. "I just don't think it safe."

Members of the church who abstain from sharing the communion cup are not condemned. According to those who share, including the Anglicans and some Brethren members, those unwilling to share are not exercising adequate faith.

However, Anglicans have instructed members with colds or other communicable diseases to indicate this to the priest by reaching for the wafer (the bread) with their hand. A cloth, is also used to wipe the mouth of the chalice in the Anglican and some Catholic churches. None is used in the Brethren and Ethiopian Orthodox churches.

Another medical practitioner, Dr. Eileen Gordon-Lopez warns though, that "drinking from the common cup is safe once persons don't have a broken surface or any sign of bleeding on the lip."

There is an estimated 120,000 Catholics in Jamaica, 39,000 Anglicans, 30,000 Ethiopian Orthodox, and 6,500 Brethren.

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