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Thursday, May 08, 2008

Ask the Matriarch - Gluten-Free Communion

Food allergies and dietary intolerance seem more prevalent than ever these days, and, sensitive to the needs of her parishioners, one of our number writes:

In my new church, a mother and child have a problem with intolerance to gluten. The Deacons arranged to have an option of gluten free bread, and because it is a smaller church, they were able to offer it specifically to mother and child. But the mother is concerned that having the two kinds of bread handled by the same people or sliced and cubed in the same preparation area might lead to stray crumbs falling and leading to an allergic reaction.

I wonder if any of the Matriarchs have dealt with this kind of concern, and if so, what approaches have been tried? I hate for this mother and child to be excluded.

We got some great tips from our matriarchs, staring with Peripatetic Polar Bear:
Use different colors to distinguish: The gluten-free bread is put in a pottery bowl of a blue hue. (Grape juice is also in a blue chalice---regular bread and regular wine are in brown chalices/platters). We use a bowl instead of a platter so that we can directly dump the bread into it without the chance that the bread will fall onto the counter. The bowl also prevents the person serving the bread from accidentally touching the bread on the side if he/she had been involved in the wheat bread prep.

Prepare them before the service, separately: I would think that it would be possible to cube the bread at the time of purchase, on a clean cutting tray and then freeze it until use, thus avoiding handling the bread the day of communion, when you're preparing the other bread. Or, if the mother was especially nervous, it could be cubed at HER home, bagged and brought to the church to be frozen. Preparing it this way would also allow you to bag it in small quantities. Just have a clearly marked tray for it, that is never used by the other breads. I'm guessing you might use the silver trays--it's possible to either etch something into them, or use a dot of nail polish in the center to set it off from the others. The silver trays are much harder to clean than pottery, so it would be important to be very consistent about always using the same tray.

Advertise your awareness: I think it's fantabulous that you are providing this ministry. Since you never know who your guests in church might be, I think I'd note it in your bulletin--"Please ask a Deacon for gluten-free bread." It's a nice sign of welcome, as you never know who might walk in your doors with this growingly more prevalent allergy.

Go gluten-free: If your church is really rather small, why not just serve gluten-free bread to everyone? One of our former Parish Associates had celiac disease. Rather than having him break the bread over a bowl instead of a platter, we just all had gluten-free bread that day, and it was fine. I know gluten-free is a little harder to find, and a little more expensive, but for a small church, it's probably far easier to do it this way!

From RevHoney:
Let them choose what to take: We have become increasingly aware of gluten intolerance. Although we were prepared to offer gluten–free communion wafers to the 2-3 persons with this sensitivity, they have chosen to commune only with the wine/grape juice in order to avoid cross-contamination.

From Karen:
We use rice cakes broken up as our gluten-free, wheat free option. Those who requested the option have never voiced any concerns about "stray crumbs".

From Ann:
More on going gluten-free: The best solution IMO is to make gluten free bread for the whole congregation rather than have a separate bread for the mother and child. There are lots of recipes available - a quick internet search will find them. We use a prepackaged, just add water, gluten free product from the local health food/organic store. If you live in a city, you can buy gluten free bread off the shelf. The thing to look for is a bread that is not very crumbly (hate those floaters in the wine!!), that stays intact when broken into pieces. You can also use rice crackers for individual servings like one uses wheat wafers --- many of the liturgical supply houses for wafers also sell gluten free wafers.

Keep 'em separated: If your church decides to continue with whatever bread it is currently using and the mother fears contamination, here is another solution. Our altar guild bought little plastic bags--they are about 2 by 2 inches or so. The person with the allergy fills the bags with one wafer in each bag, and as I distribute the bread, the gluten-free wafer is kept separate from the other bread. The person with the allergies takes the wafer out of the plastic as I hold on to the bag. I never touch her bread. She likes this solution the best; she feels safer and in charge of her own solution.

Stacey says:
Keep others in the loop: I think however it is handled, it is a good thing to educate the congregation about what is happening, and why, so that the example of hospitality is being set, as well as so that any visitors with gluten intolerance will know what is available.

And when they travel...: One of the clergy I contacted also has a son who has gluten intolerance. When she is in a church where they are not prepared to deal with this, she makes sure to carry his box of wafers and a paper napkin with her. She can then place the napkin and wafter on the altar, and later hold it in her hand, which is holding the paten. She then gives him the napkin with the wafer folded in it.

I should note that Abi, St. Casserole and Singing Owl all made similar comments as well: use a plastic bag, make sure it looks totally different or is "packaged" in some way, be sure to educate your other members, including inviting a medical professional to explain why it's so important to pay attention to potential allergens in food we serve at hospitality events, too, as Abi suggested.

How are you dealing with this in your congregation? Anything in particular stand out as a successful way of including people with these or any other allergies/sensitivities that prevent them from participating in communion? Please share them in the comments!

And, as always, if you have a question about ministry that you'd like the matriarchs to answer, please send them to


  1. I am Coeliac (UK spelling!) so have this same issue to deal with myself (and it's extra fun when you're the priest)!
    In my church we use slices of bread for the congregation and I have a gluten free wafer. The wafer itself is square and whiter than usual wafers for those in 'wafer' churches and is easily distinguishable from the ordinary ones. The advantage of using the GF wafer as opposed to GF bread is that not only is there no mixing up the breads but it's MUCH easier to brush away any stray crumbs - and yes even a few stray crumbs can cause a reaction. I always make sure my wafer is placed on the edge of the paten so it's not asking for crumbs, but then I always spend a few seconds rubbing it between my fingers before consuming to evict any strays!
    I get quite wary of being offered GF bread (not just in a communion situation) when I haven't seen it come out of the packet as the breads are improving and look more 'normal' these days, so easier to mix up. Also there's the added dimension of GF bread usually needing to be refreshed before it's eaten as it tastes like cardboard if you don't - and I'm sure Jesus wouldn't want that!

    I hope some of that ramble helps!

  2. Our gluten-free wafers are in a small silver bowl on the altar; when someone asks for one, I simply offer them the bowl and they take a wafer for themselves.

  3. I, too, am celiac. I'm not ordained yet, but when I am, I guarantee the loaf on the table will be GF.
    I have a vivid memory of standing as an elder at an intinction services and running to the ladies room afterward to make sure I got the crumbs off my hands before I inadvertently put my hand in my mouth. The theology there is not pretty.

    For now, at my field ed church, they do intinction (AKA rip-n-dip) every week. I just bring my own piece of bread (I keep it in the freezer) and I go first so the grape juice is not yet contaminated (yes, the crumbs floating in the grape juice can be a problem). When I'm at a church that does shot-glasses-on-a-hubcap I just take the cup. But it stinks. I went 4 years without taking full communion before someone cared enough to work with me (at the seminary) so I could take communion.

    There are concerns about crumbs and cross contamination because people who don't have celiac just really don't get it that merely handling your bread then handling mine will make me sick. If you bring in the doctrinal issues (Catholics believe that there MUST be wheat in the host) this is a really hot topic on the gluten-free forums.

  4. Thanks so much for all these suggestions. This situation is in the church I serve as an Interim. We do pass the trays of bread and juice, and that does make it more complicated. I am very interested in the option of going to all gluten-free bread. What do you mean, Chelley, about needing to "refresh" it?

  5. I've had this conversation with a friend who has celiac disease and is very sensitive to cross-contamination. One of the things she told me is that if the celebrant washes her hands well beforehand, and then gluten-free bread/wafers are used for everyone, she is ok. She needs to be served first, however, because of someone's else's "glutened" hands touching the bread before her. This worked really well at a service we did here at school a few weeks ago.

    She shared with me a gluten-free communion bread recipe that if I am happy to share.

  6. By 'refreshed' I meant that all the GF breads you buy in the UK (I have always had vague notions of baking my own but never managed it!) need to be either zapped for a few seconds in the microwave or wrapped and put in the oven for a bit to give them a consistency that more resembles bread, before you eat. They come vacuum packed and when it comes out of the pack it's pretty hard and dry! When it's been refreshed though it tastes pretty good these days.
    A few years ago I went to something that involved a tea and they'd kindly bought GF bread and made a separate plate of sandwiches for me, unfortunately they'd used the bread straight out of the pack and it was like trying to swallow cardboard!

  7. Those of you interested in this subject might find this discussion on the Ship of Fools interesting?

    Spot the revgal and her two'pennorth on there! ;)

  8. There are bad gf breads and worse ones. Some are not so bad that a 1/2 inch square cube is particularly noticeable. There is a bakery near me that does GF loaves, and the seminary tried to use those for rip-n-dip (I warned them!)

    you see, gluten is what gives the bread its texture and its tensile strength. So GF bread is really quite comparable to compressed sawdust. Pre-cut pieces work OK, but don't try to tear a piece then dip it. You find you have nothing left!

    one of SEVERAL communion topics at

  9. I understand the desire and need to offer gluten free bread - I suppose there is a difference between gluten allergy and gluten intolerance or something because here in Finland (where there is a lot of talk about allergies usually) I've NEVER heard about the sensitivity that Chelly talekd about - or the problems of cross contamination.

    I read somewhere you can just use potato flour instead of wheat flour for the bread - it works well (at least for cakes) ... interesting at least :)

    In our church we have one loaf with ordinary bread - and some gluten free wafers available for those who request it.

    We only serve grape juice -no one has yet said they are allergic to grapes :) and for that I'm grateful.

  10. We bake our altar bread (people take turns) and it ISN'T GF, but we put out 2-3 GF rice crackers wrapped in a purificator. I don't handle them at all after I've touched the ordinary bread.
    The theology I was taught said that consuming either element meant receiving the full sacrament; so that makes it all simpler for alcoholics as well as celiacs (we use sacramental wine -- it's California port)

  11. this is interesting timing for this post. just recently we've had a young man in our congregation switch to a gluten and casein free diet (casein is dairy protein). he's on the autism spectrum, and also has epilepsy, and so they are trying to see if switching to this diet will have a positive impact and allow for reduced medications. Luckily, his mom is a very proactive, vocal and involved member of the congregation. She is willing to speak up for his needs and make sure that they are met. She has mentioned making her own gluten free substitute and bringing them with them to church. That way it avoids the cross-contamination. While I think that sounds like it solves the problem of cross contamination, there is something about this solution that I am not that comfortable with. But we're still in conversation and hopefully we'll get something worked out.

  12. At my home parish, a little girl had a really serious wheat allergy. Her mom got rice crackers, and they kept them in a little traveling communion kit - and would also fill the small visitation chalice for her to drink/intinct. It helped with the crumb issue, and she could still receive both bread and wine.


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