Apprehension about acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) has caused increasing numbers of Episcopal churchgoers to stop taking communion because they fear that the AIDS virus may be present on the shared communion chalice, church leaders say.
More than a dozen Episcopal bishops from cities with large numbers of AIDS cases met privately to discuss the problem during the church's national convention here this week.
The church leaders acknowledged that, in some parts of the country, scores of worshipers are avoiding communion.
The bishops are divided about whether to make a public statement on the problem or remain silent in the hope that the anxiety will subside.
Bishop William Swing, whose headquarters is in San Francisco, where an average of one AIDS victim dies each day, has prepared a pastoral letter on the problem.
Although the AIDS virus has been found in saliva, doctors have not found evidence that it can be transmitted through sharing a common cup.
"Because there is no evidence that AIDS is transmitted through the common cup, I refused to issue a directive to this diocese calling for a uniform and precautionary prohibition of the common cup," as the church through history has done in epidemics, Swing wrote.
For believers, consuming consecrated bread and wine at communion links them with Jesus Christ. Faithful Episcopalians receive communion at least one a week; some do so daily.
Swing's pastoral letter notes that "a full and valid communion is made by eating only the bread."
The letter pleads for understanding "for the AIDS patient who declines to use the common cup because he or she is afraid of contacting a harmful bacteria that might devastate a system devoid of immune powers."
Debate about acquiring infections from the communion chalice has continued for a long time. Many believe that risk of infection is reduced by the wine's alcohol content and the priest's practice of wiping the chalice rim and giving it a quarter-turn after each communicant drinks.
Results of the few scientific studies of contamination left on a cup after such use are inconclusive.
Swing said the church's involvement with the AIDS crisis runs the gamut from support of medical and counseling centers to a kind of foster home program to find housing for patients unable to care for themselves and a meal program for homebound patients.