Pre-pandemic, our church (along with many others) had been in the habit of offering “alternatives” at communion.
This included gluten-free bread or wafers as an alternate to “regular” bread, plus grape juice in addition to wine.
I have to say it honestly never occurred to me this might be exclusionary or ableist. I kind of thought we were being sensitive and inclusive, actually.
But as we have returned to serving communion in-person this fall, I’ve been revisiting our communion table practices, and attempting to make changes that are truly inclusive of all, practices that follow Paul’s instructions to the church at Corinth.
Chapter 11 of 1 Corinthians is, admittedly, kind of messy, but the basic guidance Paul gives is to make the meal something that unites and doesn’t introduce unnecessary divisions. Paul was especially concerned wealthy Christians were sharing one nicer meal, and then leaving the poor Christians the scraps (or sometimes nothing at all).
But I think the rich/poor, haves/have nots distinction could be related to ableism just as readily.
Take the bread as an example. Those with a gluten intolerance can’t eat bread with gluten. But all (or most) of us who can eat gluten can also eat gluten-free bread.
So why not share gluten-free bread, thus overcoming what otherwise might be a division?
Similar, many those who are alcoholic can’t safely drink wine. But all (or most) of us who can drink alcohol can also drink grape juice.
So why not share grape juice, thus overcoming what otherwise might be a division?
I can’t think of ANY orthodox reasons not to share gluten-free bread at the meal. That’s easy. I can see where some orthodox Christians might struggle with serving grape juice, because when Jesus instituted the meal he served wine.
But, scientifically speaking, doesn’t all grape juice have at least a little alcohol in it, at least trace amounts? In which case, the more important question might be, “What counts as wine?”
Bottom line, Paul says to the Corinthians, “So then, my brothers and sisters, when you gather to eat, you should all eat together.”
My argument would, why not reduce as many divisions in the meal as possible when it is served. Serve the bread or drink that the most people can receive, and without being forced to undergo ableist kinds of exclusion.
We also all trust as Christian tradition teaches that we receive the whole Christ in either element, so if someone for some reason can’t eat bread at all, or can’t drink juice at all, they can receive in one kind.
There is much fruit to be born in considering Paul’s guidance on communion practices in 1st Corinthians in light of disability rights activism and the topic of ableism.