In Canada respiratory disease raises fears on religious practices

April 24, 2003

Church leaders in Canada, the country outside Asia most affected by the mysterious Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), are responding to concern about the infection being spread by the use of the 'common cup' at the Eucharist.

In Toronto, where health authorities said all Canadian deaths have occurred, Anglican Archbishop Terence Finlay told the faithful, however, he did not recommend discontinuing the use of the common cup. 'Many people are anxious, and media have increased this apprehension,' Finlay noted in a letter to his priests. 'The Eucharist is the central act of Christian worship instituted by Christ himself. We do not authorize moving to less frequent Eucharists or discontinuing the use of the common cup.'

The archbishop proposed a number of hygiene precautions and invited prayers for 'the victims of this disease, those who care for them, the quarantined, and the researchers who are searching for its cause and cure.'

Canada is not the only country where there has been concern that religious practices might spread the disease. In Singapore, which has also been heavily hit by the disease, the Catholic Church has suspended the hearing of individual confessions and priests will instead pronounce a general absolution to all churchgoers.

Churches in the southeast Asian city-state have drained containers of holy water at church entrances and switched to putting communion wafers in the hands of worshippers, instead of on the tongues.

All cases so far registered in Canada occurred in persons who had traveled to Asia or who had contact with SARS cases in the household or in a health care setting, the World Health Organization has noted. Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien paid a visit to a Chinatown district in Toronto to help promote tolerance and reassure Canadians that SARS was not a race-based disease, a spokesperson said. Community officials have said ethnic Chinese people are being blamed for the spread of the disease.

Bishop Michael Pryse of the Eastern Canada Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada urged precautions when sharing communion, saying that clergy and parishioners should wash their hands before distributing eucharistic elements and that communion servers should wipe the cup inside and outside the rim and rotate the chalice between communicants.

Communicants who were anxious about receiving wine from the common cup were advised by the bishop that 'it is quite acceptable to receive communion under one kind' by taking only the bread and not drinking the wine.

Pryse referred to an article about the health risks of the common cup by Dr. David Gould, an Anglican cardiologist, first published in 1987, and reissued in 2000 when there was a heightened concern about AIDS. The Anglican Church of Canada has also republished the paper on its Web site saying it 'may be of use when considering the common cup in light of concerns surrounding SARS.'

In his paper, Gould noted that concern about disease being spread by using a common cup was not new. 'The influenza epidemic in 1917 raised similar concerns, and the controversy has surfaced periodically since the 16th century,' Gould wrote. 'No episode of disease attributable to the common cup has ever been reported,' he noted. 'Thus for the average communicant it would seem that the risk of drinking from the common cup is probably less than the risk of air-borne infection in using a common building.'