Swine Flu Sermon

Preached in St Mary's Cathedral on 26 July 2009

Every now and then you get an event which makes all the clergy telephone one another. It happens when a bishop announces his retirement, for example. Sometimes it happens when someone gets themselves in one of the newspapers, especially in the tabloid press. Not, that it is always wrong to be in the tabloid press. (There is nothing wrong in being in the papers for the sake of the gospel, at least in my book). We call one another up to share news, strictly, I am sure, so that we can remember people in our prayers.

This last couple of days there has been a fluttering of the clerical doocots and telephone wires have been all aglow. Clergy have been telephoning one another and twittering and blogging and all that trying to work out the answer to a basic question.

“But what are we going to actually do on Sunday morning?”

You see, the thing is, this week, we have appeared to get rather confused advice as to how to behave in church at a time of pandemic flu.

On the one hand it seemed as though we were being told to stop using the shared common cup at communion and then later we seemed to be told the very opposite. Similarly with the peace. Do we actually touch one another’s hands at the peace or don’t we?

It has been a confusing few days.

I have come to my own conclusions, which I will share in a moment, but I think I want to say something a little more profound than simply telling you what I think we should physically do.

And I can do that in a oneliner. A simple question.

It is this:

“Is it possible to come, ever, to communion, without being put at risk?” I’ll come back to that in a moment.

Let me just say where I think we are with the chalice and so on.

It is my view that decisions need to be taken for reasons and be based on the best advice available.

Today the bread and wine will be served as usual at St Mary’s. The celebrant and those serving communion will be taking particular care to make sure that their hands are clean. (Anti-bacterial hand-gel will be available on the credence table).

That is where we are at today. It may be in the future that we will need to suspend the common cup and serve only the bread to the congregation. Such a change will not be made without clear guidance from relevant health authorities based on the best available advice. The bishops of our church have a clear responsibility to articulate and communicate this advice to the church.

The advice here, as I understand it is to continue as normal at this time, but to prepare ourselves for the fact that we might need to make changes in future.

I think it is worth noting in passing that the gospel that we have just heard contained within it something that I see very much as prefiguring the Eucharist. The feeding of the multitude is very significantly for us a Eucharist which was celebrated without wine. People were gathered. Teaching was given. Bread was taken. God was thanked. Food was shared and there was enough for everyone.

If a time does come when we must restrict the cup and only receive the bread, there will be grace enough around for us all.

With regards to the peace, things are similar. We will continue to share the peace in the usual manner. Should the general population be told at any time not to shake hands or touch one another then we will suspend the peace here in St Mary’s.

One piece of advice which we are consistently being given is that intinction is much more likely to spread germs than people drinking from the cup. There are two issues here, one is that people’s fingers are at high risk of getting into the cup that others have to drink from and the other is that the thing being put into the cup has already been touched by the hands of both the faithful and the celebrant. For this reason, I suggest that people do not attempt to receive the wine by intinction at this time.

It is so easy to get caught up in all of this drama about swine flu. It is on the television and in the papers. In this age of constant craving for new news, health advice can become exciting far beyond what it should be.

Let me appeal for you to do something this week and that is to ask you whenever you hear or see the words “swine flu” remember the fragility, the vulnerability, the holiness of life itself. And pray for those whom you are anxious about in any way. And as soon as you have done so, remember the strength of human endeavour, the wonders of modern healthcare, our miraculous communications systems and the shear feistiness of human beings. And give thanks.

For giving thanks is not optional for the Christian. It is at the heart of what we are called to do. Eucharist, the word Eucharist is simply the Greek word for thanksgiving. When we come to communion, we should be trying to seek out, search out and find new things to be thankful for. New insights to lay on the altar with our money. New people to pray for whom we have never thought of before. New things to fight for to build a world where there is enough for everyone.

That is the heart of the miracle of the feeding of the multitude – that all are fed. All have enough and more left over.

And if we become a people who treat this meal together in that way, will there ever be a Eucharist which is risk free?

I think not.

The risk involved here is massive. In partaking, in eating, in sharing, we take on ourselves all the risks that meeting God entails.

We take the risk that we will be found and embraced and loved by God.

We take the risk that we will be challenged to do things we can yet not imagine.

And we take the risk that we will be changed.

To eat at this table is to risk becoming more and more the people whom God wants us to be and the people whom we most truly are.

I know that it is easy to be frightened by news of pandemic on the television. Let us all turn that news into a prompt for prayer. Prayer for others and prayer within ourselves. And a willing, eager participation as much as we can in what God is up to.

That all shall be changed and made new. And that we may build a world in which both grace and food are for sharing.



  1. A fellow F1 obsessive mentioned on Twitter yesterday that her church (in England) had abandoned the peace and the wine. I sent her the link to this and she said she thought it was very good.

    You always have something relevant to say:-)

  2. I grew in the catholic church in Thailand and we did namaste or wai in liue of shanking hand since touching between different genders had been a taboo. I am sure our church can function in time of crisis.



  3. Jimmy says

    In Luke 22:17 the Lord says to his disciples “Take this and divide it among you” This would suggest that the common cup was a container within which was the wine for the meal, and from which all those at the table poured wine into their own cups.
    Is it just too simple for the church hierarchy to alow people their own cups from the common wine. The cup is nothing the wine is everything.

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