Web Only ArticleJanuary 1, 2008

Gluten-Free Communion Hosts

Wheat-free worship and the Communion conundrum.

Communion wafers and wine are hardly diet staples. But for parishioners who participate in religions where Holy Communion is part of - if not the focus of - the regular church service, the host and wine are links to spiritual fulfillment. They represent or, in some religions, are actually believed to be, the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

Most parishioners share in the Communion ritual without giving a thought to the ingredients in the wafer or wine. Communion wafers are usually made with wheat, a grain that contains a protein called gluten. The wafers pose a problem to people with a wheat or gluten intolerance.

These individuals are left with several alternatives: refrain from taking the host, arrange for a substitute wafer acceptable to their church or church leaders, or take just the wine, as long as it can be kept free of wafer contamination. The choice they make is determined as much by their own personal preferences as by their church's position on the issue.

gluten free communion host recipes

Wheat-Free Communion Host? No Way!

The Richardson family faced a difficult decision when their Roman Catholic Church in Boston would not allow a rice Communion wafer to be used for daughter Jenny's First Holy Communion. The youngster is on a strict gluten-free diet. The church's Code of Canon Law states that hosts must be made of wheat, and therefore, a rice wafer wasn't permissible.

"Bread is traditionally made of wheat," explains Joanne Novarro, spokeswoman for the Rockville Centre Diocese in New York, one of the largest dioceses in the country. "A rice wafer would not be a valid sacrament. It must be unleavened bread made out of wheat. It's what Jesus ate at the Last Supper, and we're re-creating that meal at Communion."

The Catholic Church's Code of Canon Law permits priests to set aside a special wine chalice exclusively for worshippers following wheat- or gluten-free diets. This eliminates the possibility of the hosts accidentally contaminating the wine. The Canon Law also offers parishioners the alternative of drinking only wine or consuming low-gluten wafers.

But for many afflicted individuals, low-gluten wafers are not an option because even a tiny amount of the protein can trigger immediate reactions.

The Richardsons decided they did not want to settle for a low-gluten wafer or no wafer at all. They switched to a different church entirely, a Methodist congregation that accepts wafers made without gluten.

Just Wine is Fine

John Cameron is perfectly satisfied with the Catholic Church's position on gluten-free Communion wafers. In fact, he sings the praises of his church pastor. "I have perhaps the most enlightened, most compassionate pastor in the whole Catholic Church," he says of Monsignor James Dornay of St. Peter's Church in Staten Island, New York.

Six years ago, Cameron learned he was highly sensitive to gluten, so he stopped participating in Holy Communion. "The priest at my church in Portland, Maine, said not to worry about it, that the 'big guy knows why you're not going,'" recalls Cameron. "It absolved my guilt for a while." But once he had children, now twin four-year olds and an 18-month old, his view changed. So did his assignment with the United States Coast Guard.

When he relocated to New York in July 2000, he met Dornay, who arranged to have a special wine chalice that would be kept free of hosts at each service. The pastor's care and concern touched Cameron deeply. "For me, Communion is more fulfilling and spiritual than it was before I knew I was sensitive to gluten, so this option is the right answer for me," says Cameron. "I am so much happier since I'm participating again.

Compassion Rules

The United Methodist Church takes a different approach when it comes to gluten-free wafers. "There is no church law or official rule that would invalidate the efficacy of the sacrament when served with gluten-free bread," reports Dan Benedict, worship services director of the General Board of Discipleship of the United Methodist Church. He reports that, generally speaking, as awareness of wheat and gluten intolerances grows, more congregations are offering wheat alternatives for Communion.

Benedict explains that the United Methodist Church, unlike the Catholic Church, believes the "substance of the sign is in the signified, Jesus Christ, and not in the chemical make-up of the sign."

The Christian Reform Church, where Annette Baker attends services, takes a similar position. Diagnosed with gluten sensitivity in 1999, Baker refrained from taking Communion at her former church in Arizona. She would hold the host in her hand and throw it away after the service, knowing that eating it would trigger a severe reaction. "Somewhere in the back of my mind, I had stored the frustrating information I had read about 'the essence of Christ being in the gluten,'" she recalls. She didn't want to "rock the boat" at her former church, so she decided to keep quiet about her special needs.

When Baker moved to Nevada, she began attending the Grace Valley Christian Reform Church. The church allows gluten-free wafers, and the pastor's wife began baking rice-based hosts after learning of Baker's sensitivity. "She told me 'the essence of Christ is inside us, not in the gluten,'" remembers Baker, who was touched by the woman's kindness and understanding. The rice wafers are kept separate from those made with wheat to avoid cross-contamination and are available at every service.

Wheat- and gluten-free hosts are also approved by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Episcopal Church.

The Lutheran church's policy is outlined in section 44c of its sacramental practices statement, "The Use of the Means of Grace." It states, "For pressing reasons of health ... congregations might decide to place small amounts of non-wheat bread or non-alcoholic wine or grape juice on the altar. Such pastoral and congregational decisions are delicate and must honor both the tradition of the Church and the people of each local assembly." Similarly, the Episcopal Church allows congregations to offer non-wheat wafers if someone in the church community makes such a request.

Rob Booy, one of three people in his congregation who cannot eat wheat, belongs to Covenant Christian Reformed Church of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. His wife, Caroline, sees to it that all three parishioners have an alternative to the wheat-based wafer.

"I bake a loaf of gluten-free bread about every four to six weeks," she reports, "and they announce its availability before every Communion." Caroline places the gluten-fee bread cubes in individual foil cups to prevent cross-contamination; two of the cups are placed on each of the Communion plates that are passed around to the congregation.

"People with allergies and sensitivities feel left out in general," she observes. "They should never feel left out in church."

Most Communion wafers on the market contain gluten. But Ener-G Foods offers a wheat- and gluten-free wafer.

Gluten-Free Communion Hosts

Individuals in search of a GF wafer can also make their own. Here are three recipes to try. All of the recipes were posted anonymously online and are reprinted with permission.

Three Gluten-Free Recipes

1. Classic Gluten-Free Communion Wafer Recipe

This recipe makes tortilla-like wafers that can be broken into smaller pieces for consumption. The wafers keep well in the freezer.

6 cups gluten-free flour
1 cup olive oil
1 cup milk
2 eggs
Xanthan gum

1. Preheat oven to 350.

2. Mix all ingredients together well and knead. Add xanthan gum as needed to make dough slightly sticky.

3. Roll out dough into thin layer. Cut around a small saucer to measure "tortillas."

4. Bake 7 or 8 minutes on each side.

5. After tortillas cool, break each into pieces for serving.

2. Gluten-Free Buttermilk Communion Wafer Recipe

This recipe originated with the Washington Celiac Support Group.

2 tablespoons potato starch
7/8 cup cornstarch (7/8 cup is equal to 1 cup minus 2 tablespoons)
3 cups brown or white rice flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons xanthan gum
1/2 cup margarine
1 cup buttermilk

1. Preheat oven to 350.

2. Mix dry ingredients together. Cut margarine into dry ingredients.

3. Add buttermilk and mix with fingers until workable.

4. Roll with rolling pin on a rice-floured surface as thin as possible.

5. Cut into small circles using a bottle cap.

6. Bake for 6 minutes. The wafers will not brown.

3. Unleavened Communion Wafer Recipe

1/2 tablespoon sugar
1/4 cup soy flour
1/4 cup potato starch
1/4 cup brown rice flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1 tablespoon white Crisco
1/2 tablespoon butter-flavored Crisco
1 1/2 tablespoons gluten-free honey
1/4 cup water

1. Preheat oven to 350.

2. Mix dry ingredients well.

3. Cut in Crisco and honey.

4. Add water in small amounts and mix well.

5. Spread dough in a 1/4 inch thick layer in a 9 inch pan.

6. Bake for 10 minutes. Cool.

7. Cut wafer into pieces measuring 1 to 1 1/4 inches by 1/2 inch.