Gluten-free bread during Holy Eucharist 'worth the small effort' for some churches

Parishioners leave the Greek Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity in downtown Charleston after receiving Holy Communion. This church does not offer gluten-free bread during communion, but several other churches in Charleston provide an alternative product to accommodate those with celiac disease and other food sensitivities. 

Only three percent of the 170 worshipers at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church need special bread for Holy Communion.

But the Rev. Adam J. Shoemaker, who serves as rector, said it's not about the numbers.

"It’s an easy enough gesture to do to extend a hand of welcome," Shoemaker said.

St. Stephen's is one of several local churches that offer gluten-free bread during the Holy Eucharist to accommodate parishioners with celiac disease and other sensitivities. Grace Church Cathedral and First Scots Presbyterian Church in Charleston do the same.

The Holy Eucharist, also known as Holy Communion, is a Christian rite which honors the biblical story of Jesus' last supper with his disciples before his crucifixion. In the event, Jesus referred to the wheat bread as his body and wine as his blood and tells his disciples to "do this in remembrance of me."

Historically, many churches have kept with tradition and served wine and wheat-only bread, which contains gluten, a protein found commonly in wheat.

But today, some churches offer bread without gluten. 

At St. Stephen's, roughly 170 members participate in Communion with around five who need gluten-free wafers. Those pieces of bread are placed on a separate plate from the wheat bread to avoid cross contamination.

Shoemaker, who has served St. Stephen's for more than year, said he's worked for other churches that also serve gluten-free Communion bread.

He compares it to Jesus' parable about a woman who swept her house to find a lost coin, or the one about the shepherd who left his flock of 99 sheep to find the one that strayed.

He says serving gluten-free bread is a way to serve all people.

“It compels us to consider every individual. Some may hear the numbers and say ‘Gosh, it’s a small amount of people, why bother doing it," Shoemaker said. “I think it’s worth the small effort.”

Some churches, though, have emphasized the importance of gluten in bread. 

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' guidelines states that bread should contain some gluten for it to be valid for the Eucharist.

The church does, however, offer low-gluten bread. Those who cannot receive low-gluten bread have the option of taking wine only for Communion.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Charleston said the diocese has no policy regarding gluten-free hosts.

"Each individual priest is responsible for having a dialogue with and trying his best to accommodate those parishioners with celiac disease or other complications, so they may receive Holy Communion without experiencing any health problems," the diocese said.

Some churches also have substituted wine to accommodate parishioners. Several Baptist, Methodist and other congregations across the tri-county area offer grape juice and water as a substitute for wine.

The Rev. Dr. Robert Kennedy, who pastors St. Peter's AME Church in North Charleston, said his congregation has historically offered grape juice during Communion. Some years ago, they started offering water to parishioners with diabetes.

Kennedy said the church did not want someone to suffer health complications because the church was trying to keep with its tradition.

"We look at the symbolism," Kennedy said. "The water is symbolic also."

Follow Rickey Dennis on Twitter @RCDJunior.