The Bishop of Gloucester
The use of non-alcoholic wine at Holy Communion
I have been asked by some clergy to give some guidance on the use of non-alcoholic wine at Holy Communion.
The starting point has to be canon law. Here Canon B17 is very clear.
The bread, whether leavened or unleavened, shall be of the best and purest wheat flour that conveniently may be gotten, and the wine the fermented juice of the grape, good and wholesome.
Canon law does not, of course, give its reasons for such a rule. There are, I suppose, three reasons.
Alcoholic wine is what will have been used at the institution of the Lord’s Supper on the night before Jesus died;
Alcoholic wine kills the germs that might otherwise pass on infection through the use of the common cup.
These three arguments support the provision in the canon for the use of alcoholic wine. I am not aware of churches in the diocese abandoning the use of alcoholic wine, but I am aware of churches that provide a second chalice, with non-alcoholic wine or grape juice for those who do not wish to drink alcohol. This is usually a pastoral provision with those with addiction to alcohol in mind.
This does, however, create difficulty, beyond the fact that it is contrary to scripture, tradition and canon law. The Church of England holds strongly to the concept of the common cup, best expressed by a single chalice on the altar and, if that is not sufficient, a single flagon alongside it from which other chalices can be filled.1 The common cup (free of danger of spreading infection because of both the alcohol and the semi-precious metal) witnesses to our unity in Christ. 2
The Church of England has consistently advocated communion “in both kinds” as the norm. The cup that holds the wine that has become for us Christ’s blood underlines our sense of participating in Christ’s sacrifice of himself once for all upon the cross. A Eucharist where only the priest receives the chalice (as has been common in the Roman Catholic Church, though for practical, rather than theological reasons) is alien to our tradition. Nevertheless our theology also teaches us that the full benefits of Christ’s saving death and resurrection are offered to us fully in both the consecrated bread and the consecrated wine. We have not received anything less than everything Christ gives to nourish us when we receive in one kind.
That being the case, if someone is unable or unwilling to drink from the common cup, it seems better for them to associate themselves with it by hearing the words spoken to them at the distribution and perhaps touching the chalice as a sign of the acceptance of Christ’s gift, rather than by receiving something different and from a separate chalice.
For much the same reason the apparently growing habit of intinction - dipping the bread into the chalice - is also to be discouraged. Drinking from the common cup is an important sign of communion. Hesitancy about receiving because of a fear of infection is based on no medical evidence. As expressed above, alcohol and semi-precious metal both protect against infection. Grape juice in a pottery chalice would be a different matter.
Canon law is not, of course, the last word. I do not believe that the use of non-alcoholic wine renders the Eucharist invalid. Tentatively I would say “irregular” but not “invalid” providing it is genuinely a product of the grape. Our gracious God will come to us with grace in response to our prayer even if we act in an irregular way. But I do encourage observance of the canon because behind it lies sound theology and practical common sense.