Skip to main content

A woman diagnosed with deadly meningitis after attending a New Brunswick village funeral has reignited debate in the Anglican Church over whether the common communion cup is unhygienic and spreads disease.

About 80 people who drank from the same cup as the woman at a service in the tiny community of Bay du Vin have been told by public-health officials to visit their family doctors or community clinics. Many of them have been prescribed antibiotics.

The woman, from Quebec, was diagnosed with meningitis shortly after the funeral.

David Assaff, medical officer of health for New Brunswick's northern Miramichi region, said the chances of contracting meningitis from the shared cup are extremely low but theoretically possible.

The research supports Dr. Assaff. No case of communion-cup infection has ever been documented. But Anglicans -- and to a lesser degree Lutherans and Roman Catholics -- have been arguing about the issue ever since bacteria-born diseases have been known about.

They have divided into two camps: those who sip and those who dip -- the latter practice (known as intincture) being to dip the communion bread in the wine contained in the chalice rather than to sip the wine from the cup.

Interestingly, Sault Ste. Marie cardiologist David Gould, whose study for the Anglican Church on common cup hygiene was reported in the Anglican Journal late last year, declared dipping to be more unhygienic than sipping. His reasoning was that fingers (which hold the bread being dipped) carry more bacteria than lips (whose point of contact with the cup is wiped clean by the person administering communion after every use).

Dr. Gould's conclusions, in fact, have set off another debate within the church about shaking hands during the liturgical greetings of peace in the worship service -- a practice some Anglicans still do not like.

"I have sat in front of, beside and behind parishioners who have been sneezing [into their hand] coughing [into their hand]and blowing their nose into non-disposable tissues," S. H. Jackson of Unionville, Ont., wrote in a letter to the editor of the Anglican Journal.

"Although I realize the handshake is voluntary, I would be reluctant to humiliate anyone or embarrass myself by refusing to shake his/her hand. And so the germs are spread from hand to hand to hand and ultimately to the communion bread."

Intincture also has been criticized because it leaves crumbs in the bottom of the wine cup.

In Bay du Vin, the rectory of St. John the Evangelist Church was inundated with calls from worried parishioners after the public-health warning.

But the parish priest, Rev. Alan Reynolds, said he had no intention of taking antibiotics that doctors urged on him.

"I've been to the hospital, but I guess I'm an obstinate Englishman. I thought they were going to take a swab and tell me if I had something but when I found out that they were going to put me on these drugs I just said I was not going to do that."

For more than 19 centuries, the common cup has been part of the Christian church ritual of eucharist -- or communion, or mass -- commemorating the supper Jesus shared with his disciples before he was crucified by the Romans. Today, in the West, it is most commonly used in the Anglican, Lutheran and Catholic churches.

For the past two decades, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has declared there to be a "theoretic risk" of transmitting infectious diseases by using a common communion cup "but the risk is so small that it is undetectable.

"Were any diseases transmitted by this practice they most likely would be common viral illnesses such as the common cold."

In 1998, the American Journal of Infection Control reported that a study of 681 individuals found that people who receive communion daily are not at higher risk of infection than those who do not receive communion or who do not attend church at all.