On Language and the Common Cup

Q. In the new Psalter Hymnal the linguistic surgeons decided to cut out the phrase "Here I raise my Ebenezer" from "Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing," thus depriving the reader/singer of a biblical allusion (at least they kept "Thou," for a change). Have any other hymn editors seen fit to do so?

A. Judging by your tone, I gather that you do not favor changing the words of hymns. I do not always favor the alterations made in modern hymnbooks, but here I agree with the change. Even many Christians acquainted with the Bible may not recognize the allusion to 1 Samuel 7:12, and certainly many children or those not completely familiar with Scripture would miss the meaning completely. Here I would sacrifice biblical allusion for contemporary meaning.

But you have many hymnal editors on your side. I checked ten hymnals published in recent years; of those ten, seven are still raising their Ebenezer, and three made a change.

Q. I recently had communion in a Reformed church where they used the common cup. I was shocked! Don't those people know about germs? Is this another newfangled idea that changes our traditional worship?

A. A bit of history may help us to get into this issue. For most of its history, in most parts of the world, the Christian church has used the common cup. It is still used in most Anglican/Episcopal and Roman Catholic churches today. The change from common cup to individual cups came for several reasons, but the main reason indeed was "germs." When scientists began to realize that germs could be passed from one person to another by drinking from a shared cup, the common communion cup became suspect. The fear of contamination became very intense around the turn of the century, especially after several influenza epidemics, and during this time many churches discontinued the use of the common cup. Let me quote one impassioned plea:

Now, what does science say as to bacteria that may be involved in the use of the common cup?... The communion cup of the Fourth Baptist Church of Rochester, NY, had numerous pus-cells in the dnigs... Diseases transmissible from mouth to mouth by using one drinking vessel are syphilis, cancer, tuberculosis, diphtheria, scarlatina, influenza, tonsillitis, whoopingcough and others; many mouths are unclean by neglect of teeth, which in turn means breeding-grounds for many germs.

The author of this quote is also solicitous of "the ground of tenderness in sparing the feelings of those who are brought up delicately and refined":

They have revulsion of feelings creep over them involuntarily when they see someone immerse a portion of his mustache into the cup, until it is lifted out drippingly... ,0r when they know of those whose lips are cracked with repulsive sores or have suspicious-looking spots, or of whom they know that a toothbrush never was guilty of causing the blackness and decay manifested by their teeth whenever they open the mouth.
—editorial in The Banner, October 11,1911

But the change did not come without a challenge. I know the controversy best in the Christian Reformed Church, where heated articles, editorials, and letters made a case for continuation of the common cup. Some thought the medical reason less than convincing. Again, I must quote:

A great many of so-called cultured people are evolutionists and believe the ape to be their forefather. I have been wondering ever since I read your first article whether it would be safe to kiss my wife.... If the Master meant the individual cup, let us have it, but if He meant the cup of communion, don't let us deviate from it because some nice cultured people and some great M.D.'s say so. The point is, what did the Master say and what did He mean when He said, "Drink ye all of it?" Namely the cup.
—Simon Lieffers, The Banner, November 1, 1917

Others held that God would supply special protection from illness even if the cup might be contaminated. But the main arguments were adherence to tradition and the important symbolism of unity that is communicated by the common cup. (This same argument is still used in the Canadian Reformed churches, where the common cup remains common).

However, in most Protestant churches (including Reformed and Presbyterian) the individual cuppers were victorious. I'm quite certain that fewer than one percent of Protestant churches use the common cup. (I only hope that not too many congregations have bought into our throwaway culture by using plastic cups). One way that churches have tried to maintain the common cup symbolism and yet minimize contamination is to practice intinction. After receiving the bread the communicant holds it and then dips it into the wine/juice.




We hope you find Q&A stimulating. We also hope that you'll join the dialogue. Send your questions about worship to Reformed Worship Q&A by mail (2850 Kalamazoo Ave. SE, Grand Rapids. Ml 49560), fax (616-246-0834), or e-mail (vantoll@crcnet.mhs.com puserve.com).

Harry Boonstra (hboonstr@calvin.edu) is former theological editor of RW and emeritus theological librarian of Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan.


Reformed Worship 39 © March 1996, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.