Sunday, April 5, 2015

Holy Communion & the Gluten Free Diet

Easter & Christmas are the two times a year that most people go to church even though they don't go the rest of the year. Based on this, it is those two times that I see the most activity of people asking about the safety of different aspects of the gluten-free diet and how it meshes with religion. Communion is quite possibly the most common topic of these questions. (Scroll forward a couple paragraphs if you want to read information rather than a personal story.)

Six years ago, I had been attending a Lutheran church that I liked near my home for several months. I was raised Lutheran, and every church I went to had communion once a month--usually on the 2nd or 3rd Sunday of the month. The first time I went to this church, they served communion, so I made the plan to attend every Sunday except for the Sunday's they served communion so I could avoid the uncomfortableness that went with skipping communion. But then they served it the next Sunday. I assumed one of the two must have been a "special" day I was unaware of due to not going to church for so many years. The third Sunday had me really confused when they served it once again. It was then that I realized they must do it every week. 

Even though it made me uncomfortable, and I wanted to go up to receive communion, I simply sat in my seat while it was being served. Eventually, someone very tactfully inquired as to why I didn't go up after church one Sunday. I explained that I had celiac disease, so I could not consume gluten which meant no communion for me. They quickly assured me that they had gluten-free wafers, so I could take communion. I questioned further, and discovered they put the gluten free wafers in the same cup as the regular wafers, thereby contaminating them. They also served the wine by intinction which means you dip your wafer in the cup of wine, which would contaminate the wine. It was uncomfortable for me, but I explained that I am extremely sensitive, and I couldn't take that risk. 

I continued to simply sit in my seat while communion was served until Easter of that year. At that point, I decided that I would take the risk and take the wafer, but skip the wine. How much could it possibly get contaminated anyway? I felt good about it as I approached the front of the church. I had been instructed to simply say "gluten free" as I approached the pastor so they'd know I needed a gluten free wafer. I watched in horror as the pastor dug to the bottom of the cup for a gluten free wafer. There was no way there wasn't gluten all over it. I must have panicked because in any other circumstances, I would not have consumed something that was almost certainly contaminated. I had no idea what I could do with it, so instead, I put it in my mouth and ate it. I vowed to never take communion if it was a risk again. It was also the first and the last time that I knowingly ate something that would be contaminated. 

That day, I made a large Easter dinner for myself and the guy I was dating because neither of us had family in town. I was scared to death of when the symptoms would hit, but I went forward with the cooking fully aware that I could wind up wasting all of the food. Thankfully, I didn't get sick until after dinner. The guy left shortly after I rushed to the bathroom, and our relationship didn't last much longer after that. I felt incredibly stupid  because I know better, but it was definitely a good lesson to learn. 

Fast forward several years, and after becoming more involved in the church and getting to know the pastors, they have now made accommodations to make the gluten free communion safe for those who need it. They were unaware that cross contamination was a concern. As far as I know, the individual who originally requested gluten free wafers has celiac disease, but they're not at all careful and often "cheat" on the diet. They didn't think it was a concern to mix the wafers, so the church never knew. Now, they have a separate container for the gluten free wafers based on my suggestions. I confirmed they are safe for me to consume even with my other food intolerances/allergies. The individual that puts them in the container makes sure their hands are clean prior to doing so, and instead of a pastor handing the gluten free wafer to communicants, they allow us to pick up the gluten free wafer ourselves so they don't contaminate it after handling the regular wafer. They will eventually figure out a solution for the wine but for now, I just skip it. 

Ener-G Communion Wafers that my church uses.

I've also been to another church where they have the gluten free wafers wrapped in saran wrap on a separate part of the plate where they keep the regular wafers. They allow the individual to pull a gluten free wafer from the plastic. They also do the small individual cups of wine, so I am able to consume the wine there as it is not contaminated. A friends church has 100% gluten free communion so there is no chance of cross contamination (I would love to attend a church like this). 

So now to my point and the education part: 

Different churches and denominations handle communion in different ways. In most Protestant churches (including Lutheran), they are able to use a gluten-free wafer such as the Energ-G Communion Wafer pictured above that my church uses. I've also heard of churches using homemade bread or even crackers as a substitution to ensure they have a gluten free product. 

The problem is the potential for cross contamination at various points including the handling of the wafers, storage of the wafers, distributing of the wafers, contamination of the wine, etc. Those are all things to take into account if you are going to ensure what you are consuming has not been contaminated by gluten. Most churches are open to discussing various aspects to see what they can do to work with you. I've even heard of individuals bringing their own bread and carrying it with them to the front of the church for the pastor to bless it rather than anyone else ever handling it. This should be discussed with the pastor ahead of time as some churches wouldn't allow that as I understand it. 

I don't know from personal experience, but I've heard things are much harder in Catholic Churches. Unfortunately, the wafers pictured above do not meet the requirements for the Catholic Eucharist. According to Catholic Celiac Society:  
Because the Catholic Church states that Communion bread must be made of only wheat and water with "sufficient gluten to attain the confection of bread," the only option for the Catholic celiac has been to receive Communion under the species of wine alone.
The link goes on to say...
The Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in Clyde, Missouri, have developed a Communion host that is extremely low in gluten....
According to the Sisters, they were tested to a level of 0.01% gluten. 
There have been several arguments regarding the safety of these "low gluten hosts," and it is up to the individual to decide if they think it is a risk and whether or not it is a risk they are willing to take. 

I encourage you to click on the link above for the Catholic Celiac Society if you are Catholic for additional information as there is a lot of information I simply don't know as I am not Catholic. Protestants have different beliefs than do Catholics, but it is an important part for most Christian denominations and I am thankful every day that I have a safe option. Personally, I didn't realize how much I missed it until I was able to receive communion again. 

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