I Smell the Cup

by John Howard Spahr

Dr. Spahr is pastor of first Presbyterian Church, Levittown, Pennsylvania.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, March 12, 1974, pp. 257-259. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Very real problems are posed by fermented communion wine for clergy (and laypeople) who are alcoholics. The overriding consideration is: if the alcoholic drinks the fermented communion wine, he or she gains absolutely nothing and risks losing everything.

On the very rare occasions when I, a Presbyterian pastor, find myself in the pew as guest at another church’s communion service, I do a most inhospitable thing: I smell the cup. With an elegant circular gesture, I pass the cup beneath my nostrils to "test the bouquet." Actually, I am not checking to see whether the church cares enough to serve the very best whether the offering is Mogen David, Christian Brothers or some Brand X. I just want to find out for myself whether the wine is fermented or not.

No, I am not a liturgical purist. No, I am not a temperance buff. I am an alcoholic, by the grace of God now living in my 25th year of sobriety. And, given the concept of alcoholism as a disease -- thank God we don’t have to argue that any more, except with random sorts -- it is important to me that I do not ever again, intentionally or inadvertently, consume alcohol in any form: not martinis, not gin, not beer, not Geritol, and not even fermented communion wine. So, when the cup carries the suspicious aroma of fermentation, I pass it by or place it untasted in the rack.

I have met one authority who says that alcoholics can take fermented communion wine. He makes two points: first, the raw alcohol intake from a communion cup or chalice is so very small as to be harmless; second, in the communion service the alcohol -- rather than being destructive to the alcoholic -- serves a positive and even redeeming purpose. Looks good on paper, doesn’t it? However, we are not dealing with paper; we are dealing with people -- fragile and finite people. Anyway, the authority cited is not himself an alcoholic -- and I am a bit distrustful of an authority without a vested interest. The overriding consideration is: if the alcoholic drinks the fermented communion wine, he or she gains absolutely nothing and risks losing everything.


In the United States at this moment there are 10 million alcoholics -- including perhaps 1 million who are recovered male and female, young and old, black and white (alcoholism is an "equal opportunity" disease). Some of them are beyond the pale, some are sitting in the pew and some are standing in the pulpit. That communicant confronting the sacramental elements is "coming from somewhere." And that cleric holding the chalice in trembling hands is communicating nonverbally to those who can read the language.

My ministry as pastor and as staff member of an alcoholism treatment hospital brings me into close counseling contact with, well over a thousand alcoholics every year. They come from the whole Christian spectrum, and they tell a story that other Christians should think about in love. Of course, the overt behavior of the alcoholic usually gets him or her ridden out of Christendom on a rail. Other unacceptable behaviors can be better hidden, so that they do not bring disgrace to the church (there is thinly veiled anger in that statement, isn’t there?). But if we can get past the phenomenon of alcoholism to the persons involved, love is possible.

Those alcoholic Christians who belong to parishes or communions that serve "the unfermented fruit of the vine" (Methodists, for instance) report that they have no particular communion problems (except, like me, when visiting another church). But those alcoholic Christians whose churches serve only the fermented wine are forced to make difficult choices. Many of them stay away from the Lord’s table completely (and experience unresolved ambivalence in doing so). Of those who do present themselves for the sacrament, most receive only the bread, with feelings ranging from deep resentment at being left out to mild rejection. A very few report that they just touch the lips to the wine and that the smell and taste give rise to some anxiety (one person calls this practice "the kiss of death").

Jesus drank fermented wine and gave it to others. To suggest as some do, that this was unfermented "new wine" is contrary to biblical scholarship. Nonetheless, I have often wondered what our Lord would have done had one of his disciples been unable to partake. Suppose that man, on the night of the Last Supper, took Jesus aside and said, "Look, Master, I want very much to eat the feast with you, but -- you know -- every time I drink wine I end up getting drunk. So would you be offended if I sat this one out? And look, please don’t say anything to the others. I don’t want them to think badly of me."

What would the response have been? Would our Lord and Savior have said, "Aw, come on, a little one won’t hurt you"? Some might picture him, as saying, "Fake it through, just pretend to drink" Could he have said, "No, this meal is important; you go ahead and drink, and my grace will be sufficient"? Or maybe he would have said, "OK, no problem; I’ll have them send in a goblet of grape juice from the kitchen." Would he have asked the other disciples to be supportive and understanding? Would he have cast out the demon? Just what would he have done?


And today, how would he deal with a similar request from those persons of flesh and blood, feelings and frailty, who must serve the sacrament? Drum them out of the union? Pretend the problem doesn’t exist? We have no raw statistics on alcoholism among the clergy (we hide that condition even more relentlessly than we do female alcoholism -- and just imagine how unpardonable is the sin of being an alcoholic female cleric!) ; we have only a gnawing torment that clergy alcoholism is rising more rapidly than alcoholism among the general public and in the pew. One explanation: more persons of the cloth drink today than, say, 30 years ago, and unresolved feelings about whether they ought to be drinking are more intense and more frequent with them than with the general public and the laity.

A Roman Catholic priest with whom I share many meaningful moments of living and serving is a recovered alcoholic (recovered, not reformed). He tells me that he pours scarcely a teaspoonful of wine into the chalice so that a cruetful will last him for weeks. However, he is out of the woods now, for last summer the Vatican directed that a Roman Catholic priest who has been diagnosed and treated, as an alcoholic may request permission of his Ordinary on concelebrating. "to communicate only under the species of bread," or if celebrating alone "to celebrate mass with unfermented grape juice."

A United Church of Christ minister confided that he uses grape juice in his cup while the congregation receives fermented wine -- a deception he feels he cannot share with his official board or parishioners, but a necessary one following hospital treatment for alcoholism (his absence was reported as a hunting trip in Canada). A Lutheran minister follows the same practice, but he is not an alcoholic -- his father is and he is deathly afraid of becoming one. Says a former Episcopal priest who now teaches high school: "I simply could not make peace with the eucharist." A former Methodist minister, presently doing public relations work for a banking firm, made the change because his new employers could accept his drinking and will hide the fact that he is an alcoholic.

A Presbyterian pastor who had always served the "unfermented fruit of the vine" (Presbyterians have been encouraged to do so since 1895) accepted a call to a distant church without inquiring about the communion practice there. Since the church used fermented wine, he served it and decided to partake as well. Within a year, he had returned to heavy drinking and was forced out of the ministry. Now working for a government social service bureau, he makes no effort to dampen down his deep resentment that "my brothers in the Lord didn’t even try to understand."


Now a few questions:

Does a liturgical interest in fermented wine seem authentic when it is not accompanied by a similar liturgical interest in the unleavened loaf?

Does it not come close to liturgical arrogance to offer only fermented wine on a "take it or leave it’’ basis?

Is it not liturgically confusing to say to one communicant that partaking of a single element -- bread -- is adequate communion, while saying to other brothers and sisters that both elements are important and that the second one absolutely must have alcohol in it?

Is it not liturgically inconsistent to permit one pastor or priest to serve grape juice while at rise same time another must faithfully take and/or serve fermented wine?

Is it not liturgically insensitive to continue unexamined use of a cup that fosters divisions distinctions and deceptions?

Some of my alcoholic brothers and sisters who "love the Lord" tell me that it is not enough to "smell the cup" -- they detect a smell from the whole thing.

Last spring my presbytery executive attended a communion at a seminary commencement where liturgical renewal had prompted the serving of a fermented wine -- a departure from the school’s norm. Having been sensitized (if not utterly harassed) about alcoholism by me, he asked the officiant: "What would you have done if I had brought an alcoholic with me to this communion?" The answer was: "I never thought about that."

Do think about it. Please. On behalf of my 10 million alcoholic brothers and sisters -- in the pulpit and in the pew -- I ask all church people to think creatively about it and to pray about it, too.

In the meantime, I continue to smell the cup.