Clean Hands and Pure Hearts: Hygiene and Holy Communion
"And who shall stand in his holy place? Those who have clean hands and pure hearts..." (Psalm 24:3b-4a)
"Oh no! The pastor wiped her hand across her nose, and she will be giving me the Communion bread!" Thoughts like that are common for hygiene-conscious people. Some simple steps can be taken for the health and comfort of all who share in the Lord's Supper.
- Ensure that the Communion stewards prepare fresh elements with clean hands. People who have any communicable illness, including colds, should not serve.
- Be sure that Communion chalices, cups, trays, cup fillers, and patens (plates) are washed as thoroughly as any other dishes you might use at home (very hot water, antibacterial dish soap or detergent) before and very soon after each use and stored in a dry, clean cabinet.
- Introduce hand-washing just before serving Communion. For example, have antibacterial soap, a pitcher of water, a basin, and towels on a stand near the Communion Table. (Liquid soap may be placed in the basin.) Just before the Great Thanksgiving, the pastor and other servers soap up, and an acolyte pours water over their hands for a rinse. Have separate clean towels available for each server. This is not ceremonial action as much as it is a practical and caring gesture for all who will come to receive the bread and cup. Neither is this a surgical scrub, so it need not take a very long time. Practice this action together so that you can do it smoothly and without attracting undue attention.
- If Holy Communion is received by intinction (dipping the bread in the cup), be sure to have only the servers touch the loaf. (The practice of individuals breaking off the bread for themselves greatly increases the risk for contamination). Instruct servers of the bread to provide pieces of bread that are large enough to be dipped into the cup without the recipient's fingers needing to touch the juice. Instruct servers of the cup to tilt the cup slightly toward the recipients to enable the juice to flow toward the bread, thus eliminating a perceived need to "plunge" the bread (and perhaps fingers!) into the cup. It is also helpful to ensure that the bread is able to hold together well enough not to crumble, drop, or fall off (when saturated) into the cup.
- If your congregation is still using individual cups, be sure to have a server who has washed his or her hands give the cup to each recipient, being careful not to touch the hands of the recipient. The server should not touch any used cups, nor should those receiving place used cups back into the trays. The use of disposable cups is not recommended for environmental, health, and aesthetic reasons. These cups may not be recyclable in some communities (despite the claims of vendors to the contrary), are not delivered in sanitary packaging, do not generally stand up well under washing conditions (those labeled "boilable" are nearly as expensive as glass and are not designed to last as long), and, by being disposable, are not designed for a reverent disposition of remaining juice.
Let the people know you are introducing these measures. Hospitality and hygiene go together so that all may share the meal without concerns about health.
Also see "Holy Communion and Concerns about Infection"
Information updated 3-23-06.
Daniel Benedict retired from the staff of the Discipleship Ministries in August 2005. Taylor Burton Edwards ([email protected]) is the Director of Worship Resources for the Discipleship Ministries of The United Methodist Church.