Rabbis act over swine flu – and not like Archbishops!

The BBC reports that

A group of rabbis and Jewish mystics have taken to the skies over Israel, praying and blowing ceremonial horns in a plane to ward off swine flu.

About 50 religious leaders circled over the country on Monday, chanting prayers and blowing horns, called shofars.

The flight’s aim was “to stop the pandemic so people will stop dying from it,” Rabbi Yitzhak Batzri was quoted as saying in Yedioth Aharanot newspaper. …

“We are certain that, thanks to the prayer, the danger is already behind us,” added Mr Batzri …

There is even a short video of this, taken during the flight.

I’m not sure that I would endorse this way of tackling the swine flu problem. Why did they take to the air for their prayers, rather than pray on the ground where the problem actually is? (If anyone knows an answer to that question, please put it in a comment.) But at least they are doing what religious leaders should: praying and doing religious ceremonial actions. And it is not really for me, as a Christian, to criticise how religious Jews conduct themselves, except to long that they recognise their true Messiah.

By contrast, the Archbishops of the Church of England have hit the news not for how they have prayed for the swine flu danger to pass, nor for how they have urged their clergy and church members to pray, but for their panicked reaction and abandonment of biblical and traditional Christian practice.

Is swine flu more powerful than God, so that the blood of Jesus Christ is not able to protect us from its effects? That is the implication of the Archbishops’ advice. Or is God Lord over swine flu and every other kind of evil? The rabbis who took to the air clearly believe that. Would that the leaders of the Church of England also believed it!

Swine flu panic over – will anyone tell the bishops?

The latest news on swine flu confirms what I have always thought: the “pandemic” is little more than a pandemic of panic, plus a few people getting a nasty headache for a couple of days. Here is the latest news from the BBC:

Big drop in new swine flu cases

The number of new cases of H1N1 swine flu in England and Scotland has fallen significantly, latest figures show.

England recorded an estimated 30,000 cases last week, compared with 110,000 the week before. In Scotland estimated numbers fell from 1,500 to 1,050.

The Health Protection Agency said there was no sign that the virus was mutating into a more lethal form, or developing resistance to drugs.

I don’t like to say “I told you so”. But I did, at least in a comment on Paul Trathen’s blog. Paul showed that he was not much of a prophet when he wrote, on 24th July:

It is a matter of fairly inevitable exponential arithmetic that numbers of those contracting this illness will escalate very sharply indeed over the coming weeks …

I replied on the same day:

Continued exponential growth of swine flu is not inevitable. I understand that in some countries including Scotland its spread is slowing down.

We can only guess why this illness is no longer spreading. It could be the warm weather – but probably not as until today it has been quite cool here. It could be the school holidays. It could be people taking more care not to touch and breathe on one another. I doubt if it has much to do with the Communion cup no longer being offered in many churches.

To be fair, I can’t claim to be a prophet either, for the BBC is also reporting:

Officials have always predicted rates of infection would fall away in the summer before a large surge in the autumn to coincide with the normal flu season.

Well, we may see a surge, but also the main danger from swine flu will have passed, for

the first swine flu vaccines are likely to be licensed for use in the general population in September

– just in time to protect those who are vulnerable to anything more than a headache.

But when will the archbishops and bishops of the Church of England admit that they have overreacted and withdraw their theologically as well as medically flawed advice to clergy to withhold the Communion cup from their congregations?

Nazir-Ali out of line on the Communion cup

Not many people have read my blog series What Anglicans have not always held about Communion. I can’t say I blame the rest of you – it is heavy going. But if anyone wants to get the general idea I recommend reading just part 5: summary and conclusions.

Anyway, what this means is that not many people have noticed what I discovered and reported in part 4 of the series: that Michael Nazir-Ali, the Bishop of Rochester, together with his suffragan the Bishop of Tonbridge, have stepped out of line with the Archbishops of the Church of England. Not for the first time, of course, for Nazir-Ali, but this time it is nothing directly to do with GAFCON or the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans.

With one exception, all of the dioceses and bishops whose recent swine flu advice I have seen have closely followed the line recommended by the Archbishops:

In the light of this advice, we recommend those presiding at Holy Communion suspend the administration of the chalice during this wave of pandemic flu.   For those who still wish to offer in both kinds, we recommend the practice whereby the presiding minister … personally intincts all wafers before placing them in the hands of communicants.

Not all of the dioceses and bishops have suggested the intinction alternative, but all that I have seen, with the one exception, have recommended withholding the Communion cup from the lay people, in contravention of the Thirty-Nine Articles.

This doesn’t imply that all bishops agree with the advice. The blogging Bishop Alan Wilson (not a diocesan bishop) has in fact indicated some severe misgivings, in this comment and this one on this very blog. But they are surely under strong pressure to defer to the Archbishops and to government health advice – even though that health advice is seriously flawed, as is the church’s reaction to other parts of the same advice. I note by the way that in its latest advice on swine flu (which they insist on calling “Influenza ‘A’ (H1N1)”), the Diocese of Oxford, in which Alan Wilson is a bishop, avoids issuing its own advice to “suspend the chalice” but simply reports the Archbishops’ recommendation.

But, as far as I have seen, it is only the Diocese of Rochester which has officially, if subtly, stepped out of line on this matter. The advice which it has issued to all its clergy, in the name of Bishops Nazir-Ali of Rochester and Castle of Tonbridge, closely follows the wording of the Archbishops’ recommendation, but adds to it in a way which gives clear priority to the Archbishops’ alternative of intinction, with communion in one kind downgraded from the main recommendation to “possible” (points of difference from the Archbishops’ advice in italics):

Accordingly we recommend that those presiding at Holy Communion suspend the usual administration of the chalice to others during this wave of pandemic flu. The consequence of this is that it will be possible for communicants to receive in one kind. However, St. Paul reminds us of the importance of the common cup (I Cor.10.16) and so for those who […] wish to offer in both kinds, we recommend the practice whereby the President … personally intincts (dips into the wine) all wafers before placing them in the hands of communicants.

The appeal to the Bible added in Rochester is followed up by an added appeal to the Thirty-Nine Articles:

the Anglican tradition places high spiritual and theological value on sharing in the common cup and, therefore, in Communion in both kinds (Article 30).

The clear implication is that the Rochester bishops, like Bishop Alan Wilson and myself, have strong theological reservations about withdrawing the common cup, based on the Bible and the Thirty-Nine Articles. These two bishops have taken there reservations seriously enough to dissent from passing on the Archbishops’ advice to suspend the Communion cup.

Well done, Bishops Nazir-Ali and Castle! I wish that more bishops and archbishops would have the courage to question the flawed advice from the government, and from their own advisers, to recognise the theological importance of the common cup (which I explained in my series), to stop panicking, and to recommend that (here quoting the Oxford Diocese advice) “As in any crisis, the Church should remain open for business as usual” including in the way that it offers the Communion.


The easy solution to the swine flu communion problem

Disposable Communion Cups per 1000Disposable Communion Cups per 1000 

A disposable plastic cup. Sold in packs of 1000. Will fit all JM Supplies trays. Base 18mm dia, top 32mm dia, height 30mm. NB No minimum order online, but a minimum order of 3 boxes (3,000 cups) by phone unless ordered with a tray. Our most popular cup.

This item is usually dispatched within 7 working days

Price: £19.28 inc VAT.

Instead of withdrawing the communion cup, as advised by the Archbishops and the Bishop of Chelmsford, why not distribute the wine in these, until the swine flu panic (or should I say “pandemic”?) is over?

I don’t intend to promote any one company’s products over alternatives. This is just the first such product I found, here.

Churches who use these can continue to offer communion in both kinds, using alcoholic or non-alcoholic wine, without any concerns about swine flu. They can be handed out in such a way that each communicant touches only their own cup. All at a cost of less than 2p per person. There is probably no need to buy the special, and quite expensive, trays into which these cups fit.

Theologically I would prefer the wine to be offered from a common cup as Jesus certainly envisaged – and for the bread to be offered from a common loaf, not as wafers or pre-cut squares. But especially during the current situation I would consider wine served from separate cups an acceptable alternative.

There is of course an issue about what to do with the cups after use. In my evangelical tradition we could simply throw the cups into the bins for disposal of tissues which, according to advice from the government and from the Diocese of Chelmsford (I missed this advice when I wrote my open letter to the Bishop of Chelmsford, but referred to it in a comment), should have been placed in every church – but have not yet been placed in mine. No doubt some Anglo-Catholics would object to this and want to clean the cups in a special way before disposing of them – well then, they are welcome.

The only problem I see is that this is not an environmentally friendly solution. So if this is intended as more than a very temporary measure, I would suggest that churches invest in a set of non-disposable plastic, glass or stainless steel individual cups. But of course these will certainly need to be washed after each use.

So let’s have no more talk in the Church of England about withdrawing the communion wine from the lay people, going against the historic formularies of the Church and the teaching of Jesus and the Apostles. Instead, let’s use the simple method I have described here of avoiding any health risk while obeying Jesus’ command to “Do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me” (1 Corinthians 11:25).

Bishop John, we are not assured, give us back the cup!

An open letter to Rt Rev John Gladwin, Bishop of Chelmsford, who will retire on 31 August but for now is still in charge of his diocese:

Dear Bishop John,

As an active and theologically educated lay Anglican, I am concerned by the advice you have issued recommending “temporary suspension of the chalice”. I have serious theological issues with this advice, which appears to be in direct contradiction to Jesus’ Words of Institution and to apostolic teaching (1 Corinthians 11:25-29), as well as to Article 30 of the Thirty-Nine Articles and the Book of Common Prayer which both prescribe communion in both kinds.

You write to your clergy:

Congregation members may need to be assured that receiving communion in one kind in no way diminishes the fullness of Christ’s presence in the sacrament of Holy Communion.

But you give no guidance to your clergy about how they should assure us congregation members of this. Personally I do not see how I could be assured, because communion in one kind clearly goes against Jesus’ commands and so his presence in it cannot be expected. I would be very interested to see any proper theological advice on this issue which you could issue to clergy and lay people like myself. I and I am sure many others are not prepared to accept such teaching simply on your personal authority, especially when it seems to contradict biblical teaching and the historic doctrine of the Church of England.

I understand that you have taken this step according to advice from the Archbishops. Indeed (from the dated copy of your letter forwarded to me by one of your clergy; the online version is undated) you seem to have passed on this advice on the same day, 22nd July, that it was issued, suggesting that little reflection was given to its implications. I have responded at some length to the Archbishops’ advice in an article which I have posted on my blog at http://www.qaya.org/blog/?p=1196.

I note one change you have made to the Archbishops’ advice: you have omitted their recommendation of intinction by the presiding minister. But this omission makes things worse. I do not appreciate intinction, which is not a biblical practice, nor one envisaged by the founders of the Church of England, but it does somewhat mitigate the theological wrong of withdrawing the communion cup.

I accept that this step has been taken in the light of swine flu. However, the proper medical advice is that this flu is no more dangerous than the regular flu which does the rounds every winter, and which has not prompted withdrawal of the communion cup from the laity; also that the risk of catching swine flu from a shared cup is less than the risk from all of the other interaction that takes place at any public gathering. I note also that in the summary of Department of Health advice linked to by the Archbishops priority is given to advice that

churches need to ensure that bins for the disposal of tissues are available at all public gatherings, that surfaces are frequently cleaned and that hand-washing facilities, including disposable towels, are well maintained.  Churches should also consider supplying tissues at services and other meetings as well as providing hand-washing gel.

But I see no record that you have passed this advice on to your clergy. Surely you should have ensured that these non-controversial steps are being taken in your churches before passing on, without proper reflection, advice from the Archbishops which has serious theological implications.

I’m afraid to say that the Archbishops’ advice and yours show all the signs of being prompted by panic as stirred up by the media. The proper reaction from church leaders to such panic should not be ill thought out measures with seriously bad side effects, but carefully considered advice about what would really minimise the risk of infection at church services and other meetings.

I regret that I am unable to consider myself a communicant member of the Church of England in the Diocese of Chelmsford, or any other diocese making similar changes to historic practices, until I see an acceptable theological justification for withdrawal of the communion cup, or until the administration of the Communion is restored according to the Lord’s command and the historic formularies of the Church of England.

Peter Kirk
Lay member of Meadgate Church in the parish of Great Baddow

Archbishops' communion advice contradicts the Thirty-Nine Articles

It is not just the Presiding Bishop of TEC who is compromising the Gospel message in what she says. Now, as reported with approval by Anglican vicar David Keen, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York are offering official advice to the Bishops of the Church of England which directly contradicts the teaching of Jesus and the Apostle Paul, as well as Article 30 of the Thirty-Nine Articles:

In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

27 So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves.

1 Corinthians 11:25-29 (TNIV), emphasis added

30. Of both Kinds.
The Cup of the Lord is not to be denied to the Lay-people: for both the parts of the Lord’s Sacrament, by Christ’s ordinance and commandment, ought to be ministered to all Christian men alike.

(I presume that “men” here is intended in the older gender generic sense.) But today I read:

The Archbishops of Canterbury and York have today written to Bishops in the Church of England recommending the suspension of the sharing of the chalice at communion.

On what authority have these Archbishops taken it upon themselves to recommend their bishops and clergy to go against the teaching of Jesus and Paul and disobey the clear instructions in one of the “historic formularies” of the Church of England? Doug Chaplin has recently suggested that these articles might be consigned to the scrapheap. But if so, this needs to be done by an official decision of the church authorities and after wide consultation, not through unilateral advice from the Archbishops. And I trust no one is suggesting that the teaching of Jesus and the Apostles is similarly destined for the scrapheap.

Note that this is a theologically important issue because the mediaeval western church, and the Roman Catholic Church until recently, withheld the communion cup from lay people. The Reformers insisted on communion in both kinds because this was clearly taught by Jesus and Paul, as quoted above, and was the practice of the worldwide church up to the 13th century.

So the Archbishops, through the advice they have issued, are attempting to reverse one of the key advances made in the English Church at the Reformation, ironically one which the Roman Catholic Church has also made since Vatican II. By changing this practice, they are also, by the fundamental Anglican principle of lex orandi, lex credendi (explained by Doug Chaplin as “”The rule of praying is the rule of believing”, or, more colloquially, “If you want to know what we believe, look at how we pray””), changing the doctrine of the Church of England.

The Archbishops have recommended as an alternative “personal intinction by the presiding minister”. This is also an ancient alternative, having been used in the mediaeval western church before being condemned by a Council. It is not explicitly condemned in the Thirty-Nine Articles, but does seem to go against their teaching, and that of Jesus and Paul, about drinking from a cup. It also clearly goes against the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, also one of the “historic formularies” of the Church of England: in the rubrics (instructions) for The Communion in the BCP there are separate words for two separate distributions of the bread and the wine to the people:

And, when he delivereth the Bread to any one, he shall say …

And the Minister that delivereth the Cup to anyone shall say…

The Archbishops justify intinction as “a practice widely observed in Anglican churches throughout Africa”. But since when does the practice of other Anglican churches take precedence over the Book of Common Prayer?

At this point at last I need to mention the excuse which is being used for this attempt to change the practice of the Church of England: a slightly variant form of a fairly mild disease which is currently doing the rounds in the UK and elsewhere in the world. Yes, you’ve guessed it: swine flu. For the vast majority of those who get it, it means a few days of a nasty headache, not pleasant (see this personal story in The Times) but really only a minor inconvenience. Yes, a few people, almost all with other health complications, will die from swine flu. But it seems no more deadly, or severe in any other way, than the regular flu which has always been “pandemic” and which kills tens of thousands in the UK most winters.

If swine flu is a reason to withhold the communion cup, then why hasn’t the same action been taken long before, in response to regular flu, and all kinds of other infectious diseases? It has long been recognised that shared communion cups are a potential health hazard. So, if action is justified, why has it been taken only now?

If Church of England members are not prepared to take a possibly slightly increased risk of a few days’ headache so that they can obey Jesus’ teaching, then what is the chance of them remaining faithful when real persecution for their faith comes?

So, let me return to a question which I didn’t answer: On what authority have these Archbishops taken it upon themselves to recommend their bishops and clergy to disobey the teaching of Jesus and clear instructions in one of the “historic formularies” of the Church of England? They refer to “advice from the Department of Health not to share “common vessels” for food or drink”. But surely this has always been good health advice! So what’s new?

I can’t help thinking that the Archbishops are overreacting to panic stirred up by the media, and in doing so are putting at risk the doctrine and practice of the Church they head. Instead they should be taking a lead in reassuring the public that swine flu is not a big deal and will not be allowed to disrupt the work, let alone the doctrine, of the Church.

I call upon the Archbishops and Bishops of the Church of England, and their equivalents in any other denominations who might follow their lead, to withdraw the advice they have just issued and uphold the teaching of Jesus and the Apostles that the Communion is to be given to all as bread and in a cup. Instead they might like to advise that those who prefer this because they consider themselves at particular risk from swine flu should voluntarily abstain from the cup. They might also consider suggesting use of separate cups, as used in many non-Anglican Protestant churches, which avoid the health risks. But they must uphold the priority of the “historic formularies” of the Church and, above them, of the teaching of Jesus and the Apostles.

Meanwhile perhaps the Archbishops ought to put a bit more emphasis on this part of the government’s health advice:

To help to prevent the spread of the virus, churches need to ensure that bins for the disposal of tissues are available at all public gatherings, that surfaces are frequently cleaned and that hand-washing facilities, including disposable towels, are well maintained.  Churches should also consider supplying tissues at services and other meetings as well as providing hand-washing gel.

What am I supposed to think if I go into a church which is withholding the cup but has not even provided visible “bins for the disposal of tissues”? Perhaps someone’s priorities have got mixed up.