This essay was first published with Public Orthodoxy.
The Eucharist or communion is one of seven sacraments at the heart of the Coptic Orthodox faith. The sacrament takes place during the Liturgy of the Faithful—the “Anaphora,” which concludes with receiving communion. Copts consider communion as a “mystery.” They favor the older verbiage of “change,” meaning that the elements of communion literally turn into the body and blood of Christ, and avoid terms more commonly used in Western traditions such as “transubstantiation” (Catholicism) and “consubstantiation” (Lutheranism). But like many other Christians, Copts believe in the doctrine of the “Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.”
Communion wine in the Coptic Church today, as in most Orthodox churches, is distributed by a long-handled spoon which scoops the wine from the chalice into the mouth. Not too long ago, a Coptic parishioner expressed concern about this shared spoon that might be placed inside the mouths of dozens, if not hundreds, of parishioners during a single liturgy. In response, the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of Southern United States stated that “[t]he holy body and holy blood of our Lord Jesus Christ is a burning fire that purges and cleanses us from all sin. There is no documented evidence of any communicable diseases anywhere in the world stemming from partaking of the Holy Eucharist in this manner.” The Coptic Church is certainly not alone in this position: on the common spoon, the Orthodox Research Institute has also indicated that “from a purely microbiological perspective, the sweet red wine used in communion is typically high in alcoholic content” and therefore “invisible microbes that may enter our mouths from the previous communicant are harmless.”
No extensive scientific study has been undertaken to link communion practices to the spread of infectious disease. One should remember, however, that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Perhaps following expert analysis that suggests sharing food utensils should be minimized and that the alcohol level in communion wine is likely insufficient to kill the COVID-19 virus, some Episcopal and Anglican churches have recently suspended communion wine altogether. The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem has instructed its parishioners to receive communion “by hand only.” And following the confirmed illness of the rector at the Christ Church, Georgetown Episcopal in Washington D.C., who had provided communion and shook hands with over 500 parishioners on March 1, the church cancelled all its activities. The Romanian Orthodox Church gave parishioners the option of bringing their own spoons should they wish though they also declared congregants who did so as “those whose faith is weak.” However, not all churches have embraced change. In Greece, a debate has raged over social media, with parishioners expressing serious concern about disease transmission through the common spoon. In response, officials from the Greek Orthodox Church insisted that communion will not change as “it has the power to heal.”
How has the Coptic Church dealt with this growing crisis? In the first week of March, an edict issued by the Coptic Orthodox Churches of Chicago and Affiliated Midwest Regions recommended its congregants wash their hands frequently, “bring their own communion napkin,” and for women to “bring their own head scarfs.” It also suggested that congregants showing any flu-like symptoms should “avoid coming to the church until their symptoms subside.” At the same time, within its own circulations, the Coptic diocese in California echoed those precautions but added—in all caps—that there will be “no change in administration of the communion.” In Egypt too, and in response to an investigative article published in a known Arabic newspaper, an official Church spokesman was quoted as saying that the “church will not change its communion rituals.”
Similar to authorities in other churches, Coptic clerical leaders seem aware of the infectious nature of COVID-19 and of its potential harms to parishioners who stand in close quarters for long liturgical services, singing prayers and shaking hands. They have asked attendees to be vigilant about objects they handle and use during the liturgy and specifically during communion. Given this awareness, stopping short of making changes in the communion raises questions as it muddles two distinct elements of the Eucharistic sacrament: its theological meaning and its practical application. While the faithful may deem the bread and wine as impossible vectors of illness, the practice as it is performed in the current circumstances gets too close to putting “the Lord your God to the test” (Matthew 4:7).
Administering the Eucharist in this specific way is not a timeless tradition in the Coptic Church. Indeed, the Church’s canons, history, and current practices offer multiple ways by which communion could be given, ways that reveal flexibility and adaptability that could be valuable in the context of the COVID-19 crisis. According to various accounts, for instance, in the height of Roman persecution, early Christians in Egypt and North Africa, who were unable to participate in daily liturgical prayers, often took home the Host “tinctured in the Blood” and consumed it throughout the week. In his Letter 93.1, Basil of Caesarea noted that “All the solitaries in the desert, where there is no priest, take the communion themselves, keeping communion at home. And at Alexandria and in Egypt, each one of the laity, for the most part, keeps the communion, at his own house, and participates in it when he likes.” Moreover, in the fifth century, St. Shenouda—Abbot of Egypt’s White Monastery and author of a revered Coptic corpus of writings on monasticism and praxis—instructed his monks to receive the Eucharist in the hand.
Some sources suggest that the use of the common spoon among Copts was uncommon before the early fifteenth century. Also, throughout the Ottoman period, Western travelers noted that in those rare instances during which the Coptic laity partook in the wine, it was mixed with the Host. In the early twentieth century, various observers indicated that in the Coptic Eucharistic tradition, “a spoon is not always used.” Finally, in the past and present, the Eucharist—the bread intincted in the wine—has been individually given to the Coptic sick and elderly at home.
To be clear, according to public health experts, intinction or communion in hand should also be reconsidered in this climate. But these examples reflect the dynamic nature of historical Eucharistic practices in response to challenges of travel, work, illness, or political hardship, which should now be considered in the age of COVID-19. The Coptic Church has survived through centuries of difficulty in great part because of its ability to adapt. Should its clerical leadership devise alternate means of administering the Eucharist, its own rich past shows how this rite has changed over time and how different approaches might protect the health of clergy, parishioners, and community without compromising its core beliefs.
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Febe Armanios is Professor of History at Middlebury College and the author of “Coptic Christianity in Ottoman Egypt” (Oxford University Press).