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Protestant churches embrace gluten-free bread for Communion as Vatican reaffirms ban

Communion wafers and wine. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons/John Snyder

(RNS) — While the Roman Catholic world digests a Vatican letter confirming the church’s prohibition on gluten-free wafers, Protestant churches continue to place orders for a Eucharist that won’t bother the gluten-intolerant.

Gluten or no gluten — the difference is theological.

Protestant churches generally do not subscribe to the doctrine of transubstantiation, which holds that during the Communion service, the bread and wine turn into the actual body and blood of Jesus.

The Catholic Church, which affirms transubstantiation, wants to hew as closely as possible to the elements of the first-ever Communion — the bread and wine that Christians believe Jesus ate and drank during the Last Supper.

But Protestants consider Communion a symbolic act, and generally give themselves more leeway on the elements.

Wine can be grape juice. Bread does not necessarily have to be made out of wheat.

“We have more of a pastoral possibility for understanding how things might carefully and respectfully be changed to meet the pastoral needs of the congregation,” said the Rev. Susan Blain, who serves on the faith and formation staff at the United Church of Christ’s Cleveland headquarters.

Her denomination has embraced gluten-free bread, just as the UCC’s predecessor churches adapted Communion practices to reflect culture changes in the 19th century, Blain said.

“It was the Protestant churches who moved the congregations for the most part from wine to grape juice and that was because of the whole temperance movement and the concern that alcohol was dangerous to the health of a lot of people,” she said.

The Vatican letter released Saturday (July 8) reaffirmed that Communion wafers must contain at least some gluten. But the rule is not new, just a restating of an earlier teaching.

” … bread made from another substance, even if it is grain, or if it is mixed with another substance different from wheat to such an extent that it would not commonly be considered wheat bread, does not constitute valid matter for confecting the Sacrifice and the Eucharistic Sacrament,” the letter reads.

And it makes clear: “Hosts that are completely gluten-free are invalid matter for the celebration of the Eucharist.”

Low-gluten wafers, however, are deemed acceptable by the church.

Sales in gluten-free products have spiked in the past five years. Even Americans who can tolerate the protein, which is found in wheat, barley and rye, are opting for gluten-free diets — however debatable the health advantages for such consumers.

Those who suffer from celiac disease — about 1 in 100 people worldwide, according to the Celiac Disease Foundation — must stay away from gluten to avoid painful symptoms and serious health consequences.

Protestant churches, aiming for inclusivity, are increasingly offering gluten-free Communion.

“Surely we do not intend to exclude people with celiac disease or gluten intolerance from receiving both the bread and the cup,” reads an article on the United Methodist Church website. 

“The good news is there are solutions! Good tasting gluten-free bread and wafers are available from an increasing number of vendors.”

On the website of the Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod, Lutherans are advised: “In the LCMS we have generally commended the question of gluten free wafers to the realm of individual pastoral judgment.”

But the website goes on to reference several theological opinions that speak to the acceptability of gluten-free bread, and it quotes a 1983 report on Theology and Practice of the Lord’s Supper, the Commission on Theology and Church Relations:

“Since the Scriptures are silent on the source of the bread, it may be baked from the flour of wheat, rye, barley, or other grains.”

And many Protestant churches are letting parishioners and visitors know that they should feel free to make their preference for gluten-free bread known. As one Iowa Episcopal Church advises on its website: “‘You may receive both the bread and the wine or just one of them. Gluten-free bread is also consecrated. When the priest comes to you with bread, say ‘gluten-free.’”

About the author

Lauren Markoe

Lauren Markoe has been a national reporter for RNS since 2011. Previously she covered government and politics as a daily reporter at the Charlotte Observer and The State (Columbia, S.C.)

19 Comments

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  • I would be very curious to know the potential side effects of communion wafers with gluten, on those with gluten intolerance. I find it difficult to credit that a small communion wafer with gluten taken once a week…month…or quarter, would have much negative impact on such sufferers. Be that as it may, it adds a pharisaical twist to the question of communion participation…in the theological sense.

  • There are Catholics who attend Mass and take communion every day. I would think that the effect would certainly accumulate. And I know that some people are so sensitive, because of celiac or other conditions, that taking even a small amount of gluten would be tantamount to giving a peanut fragment to someone with a peanut allergy.

  • OK, so the catholic church wants to keep the Eucharist made from wheat. I’m not sure if this article fails to address the matter or the RCC has failed to address it, but what is being done to allow people to receive? It seems they are just being blasé about this central catholic sacrament towards those who cannot have gluten. Since the RCC considers receiving communion as the sole purpose of the Mass, then without addressing this issue they are pretty much telling those who are gluten free they are on their own.

  • The closest answer I could find to your question, which was also mine, is that drinking from the cup alone constitutes receiving the Body of Christ. This of course raises the question of (a) does that just make the bread superfluous? and (b) how can this be, given that Jesus indicated that the bread was his “body” and the wine was his “blood”?

  • The Vatican letter suggests the solution: low-gluten, but not completely gluten-free, wafers. This will be ok for some gluten avoiders, as the wafers are made with spelt or oats. However, this can be a problem because spelt still has its own kind of gluten, and oats may be cross-contaminated.
    Funny you should mention pharisaical… The rules for Passover are somewhat similar. Matzah must be made from wheat, rye, barley, spelt or oats. Completely gluten-free matzah does not fulfill the commandment (mitzvah) of eating matzah on the night of Passover (Exodus 12:8). Low-gluten matzah, made from spelt or oats, is acceptable. There is gluten-free matzah on the market, it’s completely kosher, you can eat it on Passover, but it does not fulfill the mitzvah.

  • “The Food and Drug Administration’s guidelines for a gluten-free designation is that the food must contain less than 20 parts per million gluten. The U.S.C.C.B.’s approved providers of low-gluten Communion hosts have less than 20 parts per million of gluten. So while the church considers “low-gluten” hosts to have enough gluten to be “valid matter,” the F.D.A. says the hosts are low enough in gluten to be considered gluten-free. Thus, low-gluten hosts are probably safe for people with celiac disease, but those with high sensitivity should consult their doctors.
    ….
    Furthermore, anyone concerned with ingesting gluten may always drink solely from the cup, as the church teaches that “under either species of bread or wine, the whole Christ is received.””

  • All this comes from a church that would not allow the lay people to have the wine for hundreds of years. I hope they have the exact recipes for the bread and process the wine as was done in Palestine 2000 years ago using the same wheat (no hybrids since then) and strain of grapes (no new varieties) with the correct alcohol content.

    Otherwise something that falls under the category of bread and wine should be more than adequate. I grew up believing wine with alcohol was needed along with the bread. However, some congregations have a few communion cups with grape juice or nonalcoholic wine for those who cannot have alcohol. Having gluten free bread allows more to participate in communion.

  • “Gluten-free bread is also consecrated. When the priest comes to you with bread, say ‘gluten-free.’”

    Wow! the Episcopalians not only believe that the bread and wine become the Real Presence of Christ, but believers now can turn regular bread into gluten-free just by speaking the word.

    It reminds me of some young ladies I once encountered in a pizza shop praying over the pizza by casting out the calories in the name of Jesus.

  • It seems that all people of whatever spiritual tradition have to contend with specific ins and outs, hairsplitting, if you will, as they deal with their faith.

  • Yes…I had forgotten about Catholics (such as my brother) who attend Mass Daily. Thank you for your reply.

  • Thank you for the correction, so is spelt acceptable because it is closer to “regular” wheat (T. aestivum)?

  • Even the secular oenophiles I know turn up their noses at wine made from other than grapes, so I can see the reasoning.

  • I’m not sure I understand why the Catholics are sticking to bread. I thought the Last Supper occurred during the Passover, the Jewish celebration of the Exodus from Egypt. So more than likely Jesus ate Matzo, unleavened bread. The presence of yeast makes the bread totally different than what Jesus ate. Bread is not Matzo. So making the wafer gluten free is just another change. It’s the Intent that counts more than any thing else.

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