'Can you drink the cup that
I must drink...'
'...and be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?'
'We can,' they answered.
At a crucial moment in his ministry, Jesus teaches his followers about the sign that will mark his disciples. In choosing his path they will share a common destiny of a sacrificial servant-ministry for others.
The Eucharistic cup is the continuing sign in worshiping communities of people who have been baptized with his baptism pass from death to life, and who drink together of one cup on the servant-journey of Christ. Together with Eucharistic bread, the community glimpses "the heavenly banquet," the reign of God, the meaning and purpose and goal of all creation. In this one act, the unity in Christ is re-enacted as an illustration of our common destiny.
Issues about the common cup
Since the beginning of the AIDS pandemic, "concerns" have periodically surfaced regarding the possible spread of HIV/AIDS through the practice of sharing the cup at the administration of the Eucharist. Unfortunately, this concern is sometimes manifested as blatant discrimination. In several instances, HIV-positive Episcopalians have been asked not to drink from the cup out of misguided fear they might infect their fellow parishioners.
Furthermore, individuals have refused to drink from the cup after someone whom they thought was, or could be, HIV-positive. Despite considerable evidence to the contrary, there is still a prevalent fear that the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the virus which causes AIDS, may be spread through the use of the common cup.
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The common cup in faith and tradition
The common cup is not only a principal symbol of our Christian life; it is also a formative element in our identity as Episcopalians. At the time of the Reformation, a major principal of Anglicanism was the restoration of the common cup to all the faithful. It is a basic mark of our tradition.
When the Church gathers around the Lord's Table for worship, as loaf and cup are shared, the Church is reminded of what it means to gather as God's people, and to welcome all persons as members of God's household. Splintering the corporate image of the Eucharistic assembly into individual acts of devotion destroys the element of corporate wholeness at the center of the Church's Eucharistic theology.
Scientific and public experience
Since the first reported cases of AIDS in 1981, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has carefully documented and tracked the means by which HIV is transmitted. Because HIV is carried in the blood and the semen or vaginal secretions of an infected individual, the virus is primarily transmitted through sexual contact and among intravenous drug users who share needles. CDC has reported that ". . . no person-to-person transmission has been identified other than through intimate contact or blood transfusion." Also, "there continues to be no evidence of nonspecific transmission through casual contact; insect bites; or foodborne, waterborne, or environmental spread among AIDS cases."
The CDC reports that while it is not possible to prove that HIV cannot be transmitted via a shared communion cup, there is abundant scientific evidence that such transmission would be extraordinarily unlikely. None of the nearly 600,000 cases of AIDS in the United States recorded since the early 1980's has been attributed to a common cup or any other shared drinking vessel.
Because the mode of transmission is not always immediately known, the CDC, in collaboration with state and local health departments, has conducted more than 60,000 investigations to determine how HIV-positive individuals became infected. According to these reports, none of the individuals "were ever found to have been infected with HIV through sharing a communion cup or any other drinking vessel...." Moreover, the frequency in which HIV is detected in the saliva of infected individuals is "extremely low." Thus, "we [the CDC] would predict that the potential for transmission of HIV/AIDS via the communion cup or any other shared drinking vessel is remote, if any risk exists at all."
"No reasons for fear"
Time and again the CDC reports that there are no reasons to fear that HIV/AIDS may be transmitted through the practice of sharing a common communion cup. The Book of Common Prayer tells us what is required of us when we come to the Eucharist: "we should examine our lives, repent of our sins, and be in love and charity with all people." The fact remains that many of us still respond to this pandemic with fear. Many remain fearful of infection or the risk of it, and still others hold their fear of association--the fear of being with, or close to, a person living with an infectious disease. These fears are unfortunate but they are nonetheless real.
Yet, as Christians, we believe that "perfect love casts out all fear." While our love for one another may often be imperfect, God's love is not. We are challenged to love God and our neighbors with the same unconditional love God bestows on us. Our baptism and the common cup symbolize our choice to share a common destiny. Our congregations can be sanctuaries of love and healing for all those rejected by the world, as well as the place for celebrating our wholeness and common destiny in Christ.
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The issue of the common cup and its safety arises every time a disease threatens to become an epidemic. However, a worse epidemic would be the spread of unwarranted fears about imagined risks. The common cup reminds us that we share a common life in Christian community, and that the benefits of that common life far outweigh any risks.
Standing Liturgical Commission counsels
"Because of the theological and scientific claims upon us," the Standing Liturgical Commission of the Episcopal Church "counsels against any practice which diminishes the sign value of the common cup by providing other vessels, or withdrawing the chalice altogether."
Our hope and prayer
Our hope is that the fear and discrimination that accompanies this unfortunate pandemic may be curtailed through appropriate HIV/AIDS education and awareness as we "seek to serve Christ in all persons." Our prayer is that through such education and awareness we, as a Church, may no longer fear the transmission of HIV/AIDS and the association with those infected through sharing the common Communion cup. May we drink from the chalice together as one Body, one Church, as we work and pray for the cessation of this awful global plague of AIDS.
"AIDS and the Common Cup" Statement from the Standing Liturgical Commission of the Episcopal Church, September 1986.
The Reverend Clayton Morris, "The Common Cup--Issue of health or theology?" The Episcopal News Service, April 15, 1993.
CDC. Prevention of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS): report of inter-agency recommendations. MMWR 1983;32:101-103.
CDC. Update: acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS)--United States. MMWR 1983;32:465-467.
CDC. Update: acquired immunodeficiency syndrome--United States. MMWR 1986;35:757-766.
CDC. HIV/AIDS Surveillance Report. U.S. HIV and AIDS cases reported through December 1996. Year-end edition; 8(2):26.
Friedland GH, Saltzman BR, Rogers MF, Kahl PA, Lesser ML, Mayers MM, and Klein RS. Lack of transmission of HTLV-III/LAV infection to household contacts of patients with AIDS or AIDS-related complex with oral condidiasis. N Engl J Med 1986;314:344-349.
Friedland GH, Kahl PA, Saltzman BR, Rogers MF, Feiner C, Mayers MM, Schable C, and Klein RS. Additional evidence for lack of transmission of HIV infection by close interpersonal (casual) contact. AIDS 1990;4(7):639-644.
The National Episcopal AIDS Coalition
1925 K Street NW
Washington, DC 20006
The National Episcopal AIDS Coalition works collaboratively for effective HIV/AIDS ministry on and by all levels of the Episcopal Church. The ministry is rooted in our faith and hope in the risen Christ as expressed in the Covenant established at our Baptism.