Toronto churches offering gluten-free communion wafers
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Even God is going gluten-free.
Parishioners at a Sunday morning service at St. Paul’s Bloor St. Anglican Church were told they can now have the option of gluten-free wafers during communion, following the lead of other Anglican churches in Toronto, including St. Martin-in-the-Fields in High Park and The Church of the Redeemer on Bloor St. W.
Meanwhile, the Catholic Church has been making reduced-gluten communion wafers available during Holy Communion for several years for worshippers with celiac disease, wheat sensitivities or allergies.
Catholic canon law requires the use of small amounts of wheat flour for all hosts and Eucharistic bread, explains Neil MacCarthy, director of communications for the Archdiocese of Toronto, as it provides a spiritual link to the bread eaten by Jesus and the disciples at the Last Supper.
Anglicans can serve gluten-free wafers.
According to the Canadian Celiac Association, about 1 per cent of Canadians have celiac disease, an immune response to eating gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. It can damage the small intestine, interfere with absorption of nutrients and can cause anemia and chronic diarrhea, among other ailments. There is no cure. Gluten sensitivity, which isn’t an immune reaction, but causes unpleasant digestive symptoms, affects about of 6 per cent of Canadians.
Anglican priest Rev. Judith Alltree, whose email handle is “glutenfreepriest,” has such a severe wheat allergy, she carries her own gluten-free communion wafers. Any exposure to wheat, even a small amount, can cause severe headaches or even a throat-swelling allergic reaction.
At Redeemer Evangelical Lutheran Church on Bloor St. W., where she is interim minister, Alltree ensures there is a gluten-free option available during communion. She also has gluten-free communion wafers available when she serves at The Mission to Seafarers on Unwin Ave. and The Cathedral Church of St James on King St. E.
“It’s not about being trendy,” said Alltree, who was diagnosed 13 years ago and estimates 15 per cent of people she runs into have some sort of wheat sensitivity. “I have a problem and it’s a wheat allergy and it’s not fun. You have to be very careful and you have to read every food label.”
Gluten-free products are gaining in popularity on grocery store shelves as more people swear off gluten because of health reasons or the belief it aids in weight loss.
“There is a bigger demand in the States than in Canada,” said Peter Swirzon, general manager of Oakville-based The St. Robert Bellarmine Society, an online source for altar breads which serves 300 Catholic churches across Canada.
The reduced-gluten wafers, which contain .01 per cent wheat, are hardly big sellers, added Swirzon. “We sell packets of 100 and it lasts six months. In the average church, they use 20,000 regular ones.”
Mary Conliffe of the Anglican Church of Canada’s Diocese of Toronto office said while there is no requirement for churches to offer gluten-free communion wafers, many do if congregants request it.
In 2006, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops released a communication on celiac disease and communion, saying those unable to tolerate even the smallest trace of wheat in low-gluten wafers can receive the sacrament by taking communion wine only.
A newsletter item in the Celiac News explains the importance of keeping the low-gluten host separate from regular wafers to avoid cross-contamination.
“I think as people become aware of it, churches are responding accordingly,” said Conliffe.
“I think the church is trying to catch up and do what it can and is doing a fine job in terms of helping people out,” Alltree observed.