By Blake Adams
As discussed in my recent article on its history, the broad rejection of the common cup in favor of individual cups was a result of new hygienic sensibilities in America in the last decade of the nineteenth century. Germ theory was new and just gaining acceptance in the popular imagination. As our understanding of how sickness spread improved, this brought with it a new hygienic sensibility. Suddenly, things we had done for centuries made us recoil in disgust. Things that were “normal” before became “gross.” In general, this new sensibility was a great boon for public health, but it also relied on a working knowledge of how germs populated and spread, which could be far removed from the facts.
The common cup is a case where hygienic sensibilities are often out of step with actual hygienic facts. Our germ-theory-informed intuitions immediately suspect the chalice is teeming with germs, particularly for the poor souls partaking at the end of the line. However, a study by the Center for Disease Control and the Journal of Infectious Diseases reports that the risk of contracting an illness from the common cup is “so small as to be undetectable.” Many factors keep the propagation of germs at bay: the alcohol in the wine is a modest sanitizer, and silver chalices are naturally antibacterial. Most churches, including Church of the Resurrection, also wipe the rim of the cup with a purificator (a cloth designated for this purpose) after each use. But more than these countermeasures, data reveals that many lips touching the same cup simply isn’t as unhygienic as we might suppose.
Studies also show that people who partook of the common cup daily were not sick more frequently than those who abstained. “People who sip from the communion cup don’t get sick more often than anyone else,” said Anne LaGrange Loving, a microbiologist who has done studies on the subject. “It isn’t any riskier than standing in line at the movies.” No disease outbreak has ever been traced to the common cup, despite being in practice for nearly two millennia.
When relying primarily on our sensibilities alone, it is easy to exaggerate how unhygienic the common cup really is (and how hygienic individual cups are—especially for those who must do the cleaning up afterward). Actually, the common cup is about as hygienic as shaking hands. As long as we don’t mind greeters and the Sign of Peace in our churches, we shouldn’t fear the common cup either. That said, considerate worshipers should abstain if they have an illness adept at traveling through saliva—such as a cold, flu, strep throat, meningitis, COVID, or cold sores.
¹ Lilia P. Manangan et al., “Risk of Infectious Disease Transmission from a Common Communion Cup,” American Journal of Infection Control, 26.5 (October 1998): 538–39.
² Quoted in William Lobdell, “Does Communion Cup Runneth Over With Germs?,” Los Angeles Times, January 1, 2005. https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2005-jan-01-me-beliefs1-story.html.
³ Manangan et al., “Risk of Infectious Disease Transmission,” 538.
Blake Adams (M.A., Wheaton) is a copy editor at Logos Bible and a trained historian. He serves as Lead Sacristan at Church of the Resurrection and is enrolled in St. Paul’s House of Formation. You can find Blake on Substack.
Top photo by Michael Johnson