Making Communion Fully Available to People with Celiac Disease or Gluten Intolerance

by Tracy R. Merrick with Taylor Burton-Edwards

The Problem
While United Methodists rightly take pride in the openness of the Communion Table in our church, as a point of fact, we very often unintentionally and routinely exclude some members of our congregations from full participation. We are speaking of those among us who suffer from celiac disease or other forms of gluten intolerance.

Gluten is a protein present in many grains including wheat, rye, oats, and barley. For people with celiac disease, ingesting any amount of gluten can result in anemia, fatigue, bloating, diarrhea, intense abdominal pain, or the destruction of villi in the small intestines. People with intolerances to gluten or wheat products, but not full-blown celiac disease, may experience similar symptoms, though to a lesser degree. You may learn more about celiac disease and related sensitivities at www.celiac.org.

At the present time, the only "treatment" to avoid the unpleasant and sometimes life-endangering effects of ingesting gluten is the complete abstinence from gluten-containing foods, including any food items that may have become cross-contaminated by exposure to gluten-containing foods. This is why bakeries and restaurants that serve gluten-free food either prepare no foods that contain gluten at all, or prepare gluten-free and gluten-containing foods on entirely separate equipment. This is also why food labels now reflect warnings when processing plants that produce gluten-free products use the same facilities to process foods that include wheat or other grains that contain gluten.

Guidelines and Solutions
Surely we do not intend to exclude people with celiac disease or gluten intolerance from receiving both the bread and the cup.

The good news is there are solutions! Good tasting gluten-free bread and wafers are available from an increasing number of vendors. Check the internet for providers and products in your local area. Consider any extra cost an investment in being a more inclusive community. Or, even better, find people in your congregation or community who are willing to make their kitchens gluten-free so that they can bake totally gluten-free bread for your church!

Here are some guidelines to help your congregation.

  1. The simplest solution: Use only gluten-free bread or wafers.
    Serving everyone the same kind of elements keeps everything simple and singles out no one. However, even here, there are two precautions to take:

    1. Presiders, servers, or Communion stewards who touch the gluten-free elements should wash their hands thoroughly immediately before handling the elements to avoid possible cross-contamination.

    2. Only servers with thoroughly washed hands should serve the elements. They may place the bread or wafer directly into the open hands of those receiving, without touching their hands. People receiving Communion should not take the bread for themselves, since their hands may not be washed, and they could easily contaminate the elements for others.


  2. A second-best solution: Provide easily accessible alternative serving stations for gluten free elements (bread and cup).


    Serving both kinds of elements in the same service introduces additional issues you will need to address to ensure that gluten-free elements remain gluten-free.

    1. Be sure the gluten-free elements never come into contact with gluten-containing elements. They must remain physically separated at all times.

    2. The gluten-free elements must not be touched by anyone who has touched or handled bread with gluten, wheat, rye, oats, or barley. So, if it is the custom of the presider to touch the bread and the cup at Communion, the presider should refrain from touching the bread and cup reserved for gluten-free elements.

    3. If you serve by intinction, or make intinction available as an option, be sure to provide an entirely separate chalice for those receiving gluten-free elements.

However you choose to serve gluten-free elements, always make it clear you are doing so, and indicate where and how they may be received. This may be done in a bulletin announcement, onscreen, or by a brief verbal announcement at the beginning of worship. If your worship space is fairly large or you have a large number of worshipers, consider making multiple, clearly-designated gluten-free stations available.


Tracy R. Merrick is a lay member of the First United Methodist Church, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a congregation that serves only gluten-free elements. His wife, Karen, has celiac disease.
Taylor Burton-Edwards is the director of worship resources for the Discipleship Ministries.

Categories: Worship, Sacraments, Holy Communion

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