How does one fully practice their faith when the central act of their faith can cause serious health issues? This is an important question for many practicing Christians who are burdened with a condition known as Celiac disease. Celiac is an auto-immune disorder where exposure to a protein called Gluten can cause an extreme and painful reaction in the lining of the small intestine, preventing it from absorbing important nutrients. Though some may never have heard of Gluten, bread bakers have known for centuries about the properties of this substance (found in wheat) which gives bread it’s structure. Without gluten, bread wouldn’t rise and hold its shape when baked. Gluten is a protein found in all wheat and most common grains.
This creates a dilemma for the church. Communion bread–whether we mean wafers, unleavened loaves or yeast loaves–is traditionally made from wheat flour (indeed, by canon law in the Roman Catholic Church, it MUST be made from wheat), meaning Celiac sufferers must either refrain from participating in communion or risk a potentially days-long attack of the disease. How do we seek to include these individuals fully in the sacrament?
In response and as a gesture of hospitality, many churches began offering gluten free alternatives at communion, as we did a number of years ago at our church. I will include a link to an excellent article from the magazine Gluten Free & More that provides sources for Gluten Free communion bread (wafers) as well as a recipe for gluten free wafers that churches can use to make their own.
For churches who wish to provide a gluten free alternative to their communion services, it is important to take note of certain things.
Remember that even the tiniest bit of gluten can cause a reaction in a Celiac patient, so:
- Don’t put the wafers on or in the same container as wheat based bread or wafers
- Don’t handle BOTH gluten free and wheat based bread or wafers to avoid cross-contamination (exposing gluten free wafers to wheat dust renders them no longer safely gluten free)
- Do have an additional server to handle and serve the gluten free wafers.
Remember the gift of hospitality
- If your practice is to have more than one serving station, have a gluten free server at each station (we generally have 2-4 stations with 3 servers at each station, Gluten Free, Traditional, and the Cup). This way the person who requires the gluten alternative may move to the serving stations with those she/he is sitting with rather than having to “swim upstream” to find the gluten free station. It also prevents the person from feeling isolated or conspicuous because of their disease. I have been in services with four stations where the gluten free alternative was merely left on the table in the front with the instructions being little more than “if you need it, here it is.”
- Consider the possibility of having one or more (or all) your communion services be gluten free each year. Logistically or in a large church this can be a challenge, but can also be a supreme act of generosity and hospitality.
- Make note of the availability of the gluten free alternative at every service where it is offered (but without calling attention to a person or persons who may have the disease). Guests who are gluten free will appreciate knowing that it is available. This note may be made in the bulletin, but should also be announced as the body is invited to receive.
- Educate yourself and your congregation. Be an advocate.
- You likely will discover that there are more folks who will appreciate this than you realized. Some will be Celiac patients, others may be vegan (Gluten Free wafers are generally also vegan, meaning no meat, dairy or by-products, whereas traditional bread often contains egg or possibly milk), some simply prefer wafers to bread.
For more information, visit the website of Celiac.org.
For Gluten free communion bread sources and recipes, visit http://www.glutenfreeandmore.com/issues/4_43/Gluten-Free-Bread-of-Life-4674-1.html