Fear of contracting the deadly AIDS virus has caused so many worshipers to shun the communion chalice that church leaders are offering alternative, more hygienic ways of administering the sacrament.
Holy communion, which stems from Christ's Last Supper with his disciples before his crucifixion, is one of the most solemn of Christian rites. But with the current panic over the spread of acquired immune deficiency syndrome and the disclosure that the virus has been found in saliva, some worshipers fear that celebrating that rite by sharing the communion cup can be deadly.
Last month, the Washington Cathedral quietly began offering communion by intinction -- providing a separate chalice of wine into which worshipers may dip the communion wafer -- as well as the traditional common chalice to be drunk from. Cathedral Provost Charles Perry estimates that "about 40 to 45" percent of the Episcopal cathedral's worshipers now practice intinction each Sunday.
The option was offered, he said, because the cathedral staff in recent months had observed "substantial numbers" leaving the altar after receiving the bread without waiting for the consecrated wine.
Late last month, Episcopal Bishop John T. Walker sent a letter to his priests endorsing the use of intinction in all parishes. Another option for those who fear the common cup, he said, is to receive communion "in one kind" -- consuming only the bread -- considered by the church as full communion.
Walker cautioned his priests to "guard against panic in whatever we say or do" and above all to "reject" the notion that AIDS is God's punishment for homosexual behavior.
The Rev. Raymond B. Kemp, director of parish life and worship for the Washington Roman Catholic archdiocese, said the archdiocese is studying the situation but has not issued any guidelines or directives out of concern that a formal statement from the church might aggravate the situation rather than calm it. "There's enough hysteria now," he said.
The common communion chalice is less of a tradition in the Catholic Church than in some branches of Christendom. For centuries, only the priest received the wine at mass, and it was not until 1978 that American bishops authorized giving wine to lay persons at all masses.
Kemp estimates that lay Catholics receive wine at communion in about 35 percent of parishes nationwide.
In St. Paul, Minn., the nation's largest graduate-level Lutheran seminary has abandoned use of the common cup in favor of a chalice with a pouring lip that the pastor uses to dispense the wine into small individual cups or glasses brought by the worshipers to the communion rail.
Washington area Lutheran leaders, Bishop E. Harold Jansen, Springfield, of the American Lutheran Church, and Bishop Paul M. Orso, Baltimore, of the Lutheran Church in America, said that method is being followed increasingly by congregations here.
Denominations such as Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians tend to serve communion in individual cups rather than a common chalice.
At the Washington Cathedral yesterday, Alice Davidson of the District said she welcomed the introduction of the separate chalice for intinction.
"I've always preferred it that way," she said.
Dorothy Armstrong of Palm Beach, Fla., opted for the common cup, defending it with the popular myth that "germs can't grow on silver."
Matthew Smith and his wife, visiting from Anaheim, Calif., and members of a tradition in which communion is served in individual cups, said they liked the intinction option. "That way you don't have to worry," she said.
For some, fear of contracting a disease from the communion chalice boils down to a conflict between science and faith. Catholics, Episcopalians and Orthodox Christians believe that the bread and wine are transformed by the priest's consecration into Christ's body and blood, which He sacrificed to atone for human sin.
"It is difficult for believing Christians to think that the sacrament our Lord instituted for healing and wholeness would become for us the means of sickness," the Rev. James R. Daughtry wrote the parishioners of St. Paul's Episcopal Church, on K Street NW. Daughtry believes that the fears of contracting disease from the chalice are overblown.
"Clergy of this parish consume the remains of the sacramental wine daily" -- after the cup has made the rounds of parishioners -- "and none of them can recall an occurrence of even having a cold as a result," he added.
The Rev. John Tavleridis, dean of St. Sophia's Greek Orthodox church, testified to a similar health record and offered a snatch of an Orthodox hymn to explain the reason: "Wherever God so wills, the order of nature is overcome."
But for others, the AIDS crisis has refocused long-held qualms about following a practice in church that would be abhorrent anywhere else.
"We would never think of providing only one glass of water for everyone to use when we invite guests over for dinner," wrote Dr. George Michaelsen, a retired University of Minnesota public health professor in urging the American Lutheran Church, of which he is a member, to abandon the "filthy" and "unhygienic" common cup.
His views, expressed in a denominational magazine, were a major influence in the decision of the Northwestern Theological Seminary to abandon use of the common cup.
According to Perry, the Washington Cathedral's introduction of the option for intinction had been under consideration for some time. "We did it out of concern for all communicable diseases, not just AIDS," he said.