'I could no longer share in communion'

When Rosalind Oswald was diagnosed with coeliac disease, she had to change not only her diet, but also the way she took communion

The reality of Jesus as the bread of life is a fundamental part of our faith. So when I was diagnosed with coeliac disease in 2005 and told that I could not eat wheat, oats, rye or barley for the rest of my life, it came as a profound shock. Since then, I have been working out what this means for me as I live out my faith.
Coelic disease is under-diagnosed and it is possible that as many as one person in 80, in this country, is a sufferer. Therefore, this is an issue which the Christian community as a whole needs to address

Why does bread matter?

Anyone attending a Communion service for the first time would be left in little doubt of the importance of bread. The significance of not only eating bread, but sharing it with others is the central experience of those present. John chapter 6 makes it very clear that Jesus is to be regarded as the bread of life and so, at first glance, the bread could be regarded as a symbol and nothing more. Since there is plenty of gluten-free bread available, it would appear there is no problem, but I think this misses two very important points.
The first is the significance of Jesus' actions at the Last Supper. I am not a theologian, but my understanding has always been that Jesus took one piece of bread, broke it and gave it to his disciples. He also used the words, "This is my body". To be unable to eat the very substance that Jesus used at the Last Supper had a profound affect on me. I felt excluded and in need of a solution to a major problem.
The second aspect is that of sharing with others as part of Christian fellowship. In our church, the practice is to break one piece of bread into smaller pieces and for us all to share in that same original piece. I have always found this to be of tremendous importance to me as a central part of my church life.
For me, to be unable to eat the same piece of bread as my fellow worshippers is a great sadness.

What can we do?

The first thing I did after my diagnosis was to join the Coeliac Society, who sent out a very helpful book telling me what I could eat. It also gave details of the suppliers of gluten-free wafers for communion. I was entertained to discover that the minimum order was 50 – so I would need to be keen! I found the wafers to be rather like cardboard, but nonetheless edible.
The next step was to work out how to introduce the wafers into the service. As my level of ill health was severe, I could not even risk there being bread crumbs on the wafers and so this had to be explained to everyone who might minister in our church. My ill health had been common knowledge (and the subject of much welcome prayer) and so anything that could be done to help me was readily offered. However, this did not get around the aspect of sharing that I missed so much.
At Soul Survivor I attended a seminar about the Eucharist hoping for some helpful tips. The suggestion was to have all the congregation use the gluten-free wafers for one service, so that we could all be as one. I have not taken up this suggestion yet, but do intend to. As I sometimes play with the worship group, it has been suggested that we, as a group, could all have the wafers and this would affirm our fellowship.

Putting it into practice

My first experience of attending communion, after my diagnosis and before I had sorted out the gluten-free wafers, was a distressing one for me. The situation was saved by one of my fellow worshippers who realised the difficulty and, as she went to take communion, simply said, "I will take it for both of us." I now understand that communion is regarded as complete for the worshipper even when only the wine is taken but, of course, it is the element of full participation that is so important.
Now that I have the wafers, the situation is easier. However, the wafer has to be in the right place. Therefore, I am far more prompt in arriving at services. When I had failed to arrive in time to explain the situation, I find that the sharing of the peace is a good opportunity to slip the wafer to the vicar. This has caused great interest from some worshippers who do not know of my condition.
I have also taken some gluten-free biscuits to church for eating after the service, and hope that other coeliacs may be able to benefit from them.
I have learnt a great deal about my faith and the importance of the communion service as a result of my diagnosis. I would urge anyone who encounters this situation to take time to understand just how excluded a coeliac sufferer can feel, and to think of ways of ensuring they can fully participate in this special service.

Medical file

Coeliac disease is not an allergy. It is an auto-immune disease, which means the body produces antibodies that attack its own tissues. The attack is triggered by gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye and barley, though some people also react to oats.
There are 125,000 people diagnosed with the disease in the UK, but recent studies indicate that as many as one in 100 people have coeliac disease, which means a further 500,000 people are undiagnosed.
Symptoms of the disease may range from mild to severe, and can include: anaemia, bloating, constipation, depression, diarrhoea, hair loss, headaches, infertility, joint/bone pain, mouth ulcers, nausea, recurrent miscarriages, skin problems, short stature, tiredness, weight loss and wind.
Symptoms can be confused with IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) or wheat intolerance, and sometimes the cause may be put down to stress or getting older. It can therefore take some time to get an accurate diagnosis. Health risks are minimised as long as people stick to a gluten free diet.
For more information contact Coeliac UK, Suites a-d Octagon Court, High Wycombe, Bucks HP11 2HS or visit