"The body of Christ, given for you,” the elder says quietly, offering the communion bread to Rob.
Rob shakes his head, “No thanks.”
Momentarily surprised, the elder tries once again to pass the plate.
Afterward, the people around Rob ask, “What’s up?” or comment, “I guess he forgot you couldn’t eat bread.”
Rob is not alone. He’s part of a growing number of people who cannot tolerate gluten and must remove all wheat, barley, rye, and common oats from their diet.
Celiac disease is the most common genetic autoimmune disease in the world, affecting an estimated 1 percent of the population. In Canada an estimated 1 in 133 people have it; while about 3 million in the U.S. do, though thousands go undiagnosed.
For those with celiac disease, partaking in communion can be especially uncomfortable and awkward. Some let the plate pass by; others take the bread and hide it in a pocket or purse to dispose of later.
So much of our social contact with family and friends centers on food, with the unintended result that people with allergies and sensitivities feel left out. Many times this is unavoidable; however, I would hope that with a bit of effort we can make sure everyone feels welcome at the Lord’s Supper.
Now that there’s a growing awareness of the gluten-free diet and celiac disease, I’d like to suggest that churches take another look at how they offer communion. Our church includes at least four people who cannot partake of bread that contains gluten, so now we offer an alternative.
At first we used homemade rice bread cut into cubes and placed in small plastic communion cups covered with plastic wrap. My son and I now bake gluten-free, dairy-free wafers and place them in specially marked individual containers. Each communion plate of bread includes two of these containers. Before beginning the Lord’s Supper, our pastor mentions that the alternative is available.
Gluten-free bread can be purchased at most health-food stores and is becoming more common in grocery stores. However, I do not recommend using gluten-free bread unless it is freshly made, since it dries out incredibly quickly and becomes unpalatable. It’s often best to purchase or make your own gluten-free wafers. If you purchase wafers, read the ingredient list to ensure that they are 100 percent gluten-free, since some are not.
Many people with celiac disease or food allergies do not wish to draw attention to themselves but certainly appreciate being able to share in the Lord’s Supper with their brothers and sisters in Christ.
For more information on celiac disease, see www.celiac.ca/ or www.csaceliacs.org/.