The bread used for the Christian ritual of the Eucharist varies in name – be it altar bread, the lamb, communion bread, the wafer, or the host – but rarely in its key ingredient.
Wheat – of course.
This presents an obstacle for all coeliac Christian worshippers, and their situation was brought into the spotlight in the summer when the leader of the Catholic Church wrote to his bishops, through Cardinal Robert Sarah, on the subject of wheat and gluten in eucharistic hosts.
Here is an extract:
“The bread … must be unleavened, purely of wheat … 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 continued:
"Hosts that are completely gluten-free are invalid matter ... Low-gluten hosts (partially gluten-free) are valid matter, provided they contain a sufficient amount of gluten to obtain the confection of bread without the addition of foreign materials …”
The letter went largely unnoticed until circulated on the Vatican Radio website several weeks later, when it drew attention from worldwide media, many of which wrongly assumed this was a new directive from the Holy See. For instance the Independent, who headlined Vatican Bans Gluten Free Bread. Others were plain offensive, such as the Sydney Morning Herald, who wrote “Faith, hope, charity and gluten are to be regarded as the Church’s most important virtues”.
Truth was – it was not a new directive.
In fact, earlier documents had been issued – two in the eighties, one in 1995, and a fourth in 2003 – addressing the subject not only of gluten in altar breads, but also of wine and fresh, partly fermented grape juice, known as mustum, as permitted matter for the celebration of the Eucharist.
(This was cartoonist Chris White's take on the issue when it last arose in 2003.)
Essentially, the June 2017 circular was a reminder issued to bishops in light of the fact that, as the Vatican put it, Eucharistic breads, made from various ingredients, are now “also sold in supermarkets and other stores and even over the internet”.
Gluten free vs very low gluten
Thanks to EU labelling laws, ‘gluten free’ does not mean ‘zero’ gluten – which is probably both unachievable and immeasurable – but instead can be used to describe food and drinks with under 20 parts per million (20ppm – or 0.002%) of gluten. Essentially, the law redefines the literal meaning of the phrase ‘gluten free’.
There is also a special provision for the term ‘very low gluten’ – between 20ppm and 100ppm (0.01%) of gluten.
It is clear the Vatican does not adopt these definitions in its communications – and possibly does not understand them either.
Their objection, evidently, is to hosts made from intrinsically gluten free starches or flours – such as potato, rice or tapioca, all of which are available on the market. They are essentially insisting that the hosts should be made from wheat starch and, in the case of those with coeliac disease, deglutenised wheat starch is a permissible base ingredient.
Deglutenised wheat starch contains drastically reduced levels of gluten, and the form known as Codex wheat starch must contain less than 20ppm. Due to the impossibility of removing every last molecule of gluten, this wheat starch fulfils the criteria required by the Vatican – that of trace gluten content, and a host made of wheat not of replacement starch or flour sources.
Worshippers who have been partaking in either so-called very low gluten or gluten free hosts can carry on doing so, as national charity Coeliac UK later confirmed.
Church of England position
According to Section B17, paragraph 2, of the 7th Canon of the Church of England, “Of bread and wine for the Holy Communion”:
“The bread, whether leavened or unleavened, shall be of the best and purest wheat flour that conveniently may be gotten …”
The Church of England has also issued further guidance. Despite being more flexible than the Catholic church in permitting leavened varieties, the guidance affirms that hosts based on rice, potato and other intrinsically gluten-free flours “cannot be considered ‘bread’ …”, are not permitted, but that Codex wheat starch “does not cease to be ‘the best and purest wheat flour’ by reason of the fact that the gluten content is very low”, and so hosts exclusively based on it are acceptable.
Some dioceses issue additional practical guidance. For instance, The Diocese of Southwark says:
“Gluten-free bread, usually in wafer form and square in shape for easy recognition, is also both legal and pastorally desirable for those suffering from coeliac disease … ensure that gluten-free bread is kept completely separate from all other types of bread so that it does not become contaminated … If the taking of wine is by ‘intinction’ (the consecrated bread being dipped in the consecrated wine) a separate chalice of wine must be made available [as] ordinary bread … may contaminate the wine”
Many Eastern churches, particularly Eastern Orthodox churches, use leavened bread, which is permitted to contain only four ingredients – wheat flour, baker’s yeast, water and salt.
Western protestant branches vary considerably – broken-up bread rolls, matzoh and hosts made of wholewheat flour (rather than white flour) and other flours being used by some.
This is largely due to the different interpretation of what happens at communion. In Catholicism, for example, transubstantiation is believed to occur, converting the wafer and wine to the actual body and blood of Jesus. Jesus compared himself to a grain of wheat, instituted the sacrament with wheaten bread, and would have eaten it with his disciples.
But generally speaking, within other churches, the host and wine are considered symbolic, and therefore solely representative of Christ’s body and blood. There is therefore less reason to be strict about a wheaten host, and this pragmatic approach serves the food sensitive well.
The Baptist Union’s Mike Lowe says:
“Each Baptist Union church under the Declaration Principle has the liberty to decide for itself all matters related to faith and practice. Each church interprets the Bible in its own way. Congregational independence is the heart of who we are.”
Lowe agrees that were a Baptist to be newly diagnosed with gluten intolerance, their best approach would be to speak to his or her own church, and perhaps bring a 'safe' bread for use. Any church can adopt whichever bread they consider appropriate, and is likely to be inclusive enough to be adaptable to any circumstance.
Methodists and Mormons
At Methodist churches, communion may not be held weekly, but a welcoming approach is characteristic. Mary K is a Catholic, recently diagnosed coeliac who is employed by the Methodist church in Ireland and attends some services. She says: “When I asked about gluten-free at work, within five minutes the entire communion was changed to GF to be inclusive, despite not having any other known coeliacs in the congregation. Methodists use small squares of ordinary bread, so it just meant changing the loaf that was bought.”
Mormons, meanwhile, are equally relaxed about the type of bread used – with homemade breads or commercial loaves permissible.
Most non-Catholic and non-Anglican Christian churches, then, will allow communion wafers or breads which are made from wholly wheat-free ingredients – vital if you have an IgE-mediated wheat allergy.
Wafers made from any combination of tapioca, potato, bean, sorghum and rice flours should be safe – whereas the hosts made from wheat starch are not, given that trace levels of wheat protein (both gluten and non-gluten fractions) can trigger serious reactions.
Whichever breads are used, any church ministers or priests unfamiliar with allergy or coeliac issues will need guidance on ensuring cross-contamination is prevented, and that there are systems in place to avoid inadvertently ‘swapping’ standard and alternative hosts during the celebration.
If there are options, ask for hosts which look as distinct as possible to gluten-containing ones (square versus round, for example). It is usually safer in a kitchen to cater for the person with food sensitivities first, before other foods are handled, and this applies to mass too – if willing, ask celebrants whether they can provide your hosts before others.
The experiences of Christians vary between different denominations, branches, parishes and churches.
Allyson is mum to a coeliac boy:
“Our Catholic church ordered a supply of low-gluten wafers made using Codex and once they ran out we ordered our own, brought in a pyx we had engraved for his First Communion. Normally, the unopened pyx is what’s offered, as it should be.”
Jayne P, a coeliac, says:
“In my C of E church, coeliacs use one of four stations designated gluten-free, but they are handled by the same person passing regular bread to the others in the queue taking regular communion. I’ve tried to explain the risk, but other coeliacs are happy. I can’t take the risk, so don’t take communion.”
Jayne P’s experience is just one type of difficulty that may be faced. Depending on church, or type and severity of sensitivity, some will be unable to take any host – such as Catholics or Anglicans with wheat allergy – or may understandably choose not to due to fear or embarrassment.
Consecrated wine counts as Communion.
However, some may not be able to take the wine either
– alcohol intolerants, recovering alcoholics, or those allergic to yeast. Guidance should be sought from your Church in this particular circumstance – although mustum may be an option in Catholic celebrations, or grape juice or alcohol-free wine in most others.
A further problem, though, is that not all churches offer it routinely, and cross-contamination may remain an issue.
Jayne P, for example, is stuck:
“The wine is taken by gluten consumers and coeliacs from the same goblet so there is a risk there too.”
Mary K says:
“It’s quite common in Ireland for coeliac Catholics to be offered the chalice as the gluten-free option on the altar. But a small piece of host is put into the chalice as part of the consecration so there’s contamination.”
Again, speak to the celebrants about the possible solutions. Mary K says Methodists use grape juice in individual cups.
It is a shame that some coeliacs will either continue or begin to avoid taking the Eucharistic host or wine because of these difficulties, a situation which will not have been helped by the poor media coverage of the papal letter. Even when churches try to be accommodating, an underlying feeling of being treated differently may remain – one familiar to many.
Mary K again:
“I have to arrive early, locate the sacristan, and alert him or her to the fact I need a low gluten host. At communion I queue with everyone else and when I reach the front bypass the priest and help myself from the altar. I appreciate my Catholic parish is trying its best, but find it upsetting I’m being singled out because of my illness.” She adds: “I find the way my food is now special difficult to reconcile myself to socially, and the separate communion, as discreet a solution as it is, a painful microcosm of how I feel about food and social inclusion.”
Clearly, there’s work to be done before all Christian churches fully accommodate food sensitives into the celebration of the eucharist. While some are more progressive than others, the Vatican’s edict reminds us that a resolution satisfactory to all members of the community may some way off, if indeed it can ever come.
There are three types of host:
1. Wheat/gluten-containing hosts
2. Codex-wheat based, low-gluten / gluten-free hosts
3. Wheat-free and gluten-free hosts.
Note that suppliers generally offer more than one type, so if your church is ordering for you, ensure the appropriate ones are selected. Non-wheat hosts are often off-white / almost yellow – though note that wholemeal ones are as well. Different shapes or designs will help identification.
If, as a coeliac, you are worried about residual gluten in Codex wheat hosts, bear in mind that even assuming a maximum 100ppm in a ‘very low gluten’ host which weighs 100mg (most weigh less), the quantity of gluten present will only be 0.01mg. Studies suggest 10mg of gluten can be tolerated by most coeliacs daily.
- Abingdon Press (US)
Gluten-free communion bread made from beans, tapioca, sorghum and potato.
- Australian Church Resources (Australia)
Gluten free breads made from Codex wheat starch, from potato and corn, and from fava, potato, sorghum, garbanzo and tapioca.
- Benedictine Sisters (US)
Low-gluten communion bread and ‘presider’s bread’.
- Ener-G (US)
Made with rice flour, potato starch and flour, sunflower lecithin and palm oil.
- Heart Smart Foods (Canada)
Suppliers of Ener-G wafers (as above) for the Canadian market.
- Lalor (Ireland)
Square gluten-free wheat starch wafers.
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