I often get questions from other pastors asking how to offer gluten free bread for communion. First of all, thank you for asking, pastors! Making the Lord's Supper available to all (or, in my tradition, all the baptized) is incredibly important. Food allergies or intolerances should never bar anyone from the Lord's table. Offering gluten free bread is an incredible way of saying, "Welcome! Come on in!" to a growing population with food intolerances.
There are three basic approaches that can be used when offering gluten free communion: 1. The all gluten free option, 2. The some gluten free option, or 3. The individual gluten free option. Let's investigate these further.
1. All gluten free.
As a pastor, my hands are all over the communion bread. Though our deacons prepare the bread, I hold it up and break it in view of the congregation. The plates of bread sit together on the communion table, within crumb-shedding range of one another. Additionally, I bring communion to peoples' homes in the weeks following the sacrament, and partake with them.
I brainstormed a bit, the deacons brainstormed a bit, and we came up with what seemed to be the easiest solution: all gluten free communion.
In short, if you are the pastor and you have gluten free needs, the easiest thing to do is to use only gluten free bread or wafers for the Lord's Supper. This eliminates having to watch your hands while also celebrating the sacrament. I'd much rather be focused on God, the liturgy, and the congregation with my whole mind and heart than be thinking, "Gosh, did I brush the unsafe bread with my hand? Should I not partake this morning with the congregation? Is that even OKAY with my church polity? Uh oh... WHERE was I in the liturgy, again?"
My congregation has been incredibly wonderful about this transition, and several of the deacons made sure to wash and sterilize the communion supplies so that I wouldn't have to worry about cross-contamination. What wonderful and thoughtful folks!
Not to mention that there's something downright important in sharing a common loaf together with your congregation. There's something kinda wrong about breaking bread for the congregation and then popping a piece of something else into your mouth, in my opinion.
2. Some gluten free.
This is a good option if you know you have several folks with gluten free needs in your church, and if you practice intinction or common cups. Set aside one communion station (bread and cup) as always gluten-free. Make sure that the congregation and the servers know, and that no one grabs bread from another station and dips it in the gf cup.
It's best to keep this station the same (always the far left aisle, or always the center back of the church, etc.). Also, if regular bread or wafers are used for everyone else, the pastor cannot be the one serving the bread at the gf station (his/her hands will likely have gluten on them from breaking the bread earlier).
3. Individual gluten free.
In this option, the pastor or priest can keep a tiny amount of the gf sacrament in his/her robe or pocket in a closed container. Advertise that this gf communion is available, and where to get it. People can go forward to the officiant and request the gf communion. The officiant can then produce the gf sacrament and allow the gluten free congregants to grab their own bread/wafer out of the container. Again, this avoids the possibility cross contamination. This is a good option when there are no known gf needs in the congregation, but occasional visitors may have them. It's also a good option for churches with large tourist populations, like Princeton's University Chapel (pictured below) or Oxford's Christ Church Cathedral (which offers this gf option).
When this option is used a separate cup will have to be readily available as well, if intinction or a common cup is used. At a church I used to attend in Nashville, I would take the gf wafer from the priest but not dip it in the common cup. One element of the sacrament was far better than nothing, but it would have been great to have the wine as well.
I was stupid once, and dipped my gf wafer in the common cup. Tummy rumblings ensued, and I learned (again) my lesson.
Important things to remember when offering gluten free communion:
1. Advertise. Leave a note in the bulletin, have the pastor mention the option before the words of institution, or post a flyer on a visible bulletin board so that those with gluten free needs who visit will know that there is an option available for them. This makes an incredible difference in welcoming visitors who suffer from gluten intolerance.
If the sacrament you offer is free of other common allergens as well, you may want to list those also.
2. Don't share serving implements/utensils. Gf bread/wafers and regular ones can NEVER be on the same plate (if even a crumb of the regular bread gets in the gf bread, it is no longer gf). They cannot even be on the same plate that regular bread/wafers were on a few moments ago. If bread is prepared by the deacons, gf bread can NEVER be prepared on the same plate or cut with the same knife as the regular bread. Wash plates and utensils thoroughly between uses, if there's a chance regular and gluten free serving items have been switched.
Some restaurants, like PF Changs, have begun offering different colored plates for gf meals. This may be a good idea if using the "some gluten free" option. That way congregants can know to go to the tan gf plate rather than the blue regular one.
3. Beware cross contamination. Keep the gf offerings far away from the regular ones. If plates are covered, be sure there is a designated gf cover or linen cloth (crumbs can easily stick to linens and contaminate the gf offerings). Once a piece of regular bread has been dipped into a gf chalice of juice or wine, that liquid is no longer gf. If a plate of gf bread sits right next to a plate of regular bread and there's a slight breeze, the gf bread can be contaminated.
4. Go all out. Offering gf communion is not something that can be done in a halfhearted manner, because for the 1-3% of Americans with Celiac disease, gluten intolerance, or gluten sensitivity (as well the significant percentage with other gluten-related health concerns, including Autism), even a molecule can be enough to set off a reaction.
5. Be brave. If you are new to this whole scene, don't be discouraged. Feel free to email me with questions, or talk to the gluten free folks around you to ask what would be easiest and best. The important thing is to continue offering communion to all - food allergies or intolerances should never, ever be an obstacle to those who want to take the sacrament of communion. Christ's body is broken for them (us!), too.
Tomorrow's post? WHAT to use for gluten free communion! Stay tuned!