updated 7/22/2009 7:10:31 PM ET 2009-07-22T23:10:31

Two Anglican dioceses in Britain are changing how they handle Communion in an attempt to reduce the spread of swine flu.

Church of England parishes in Blackburn, northern England, and in Southwell and Nottingham, central England, made the switch in recent days, officials said Wednesday — as many houses of worship around the world have cut back on activities requiring close contact because of swine flu.

"Particularly where vulnerable groups are involved, we think it's important that reasonable steps are taken to minimize the risk of church worship activity facilitating the spread of the disease," church spokesman Ben Wilson said. He said the measures were precautionary, though he noted a high number of swine flu cases have been recorded in Nottingham.

Anglican worshippers in the two English dioceses will no longer drink from a communal cup of wine that is wiped with a cloth after each person sips during the Communion service. Anglicans believe the wine is consecrated as the blood of Jesus Christ.

Instead, the faithful will participate in Communion only by eating wafers consecrated during the service.

Dioceses are each making decision
The changes, which are temporary, are allowed under the Sacrament Act of 1547, which gave the church discretion to change the service in cases of emergency. The act was created 200 years after bubonic plague swept through Europe to assuage concerns over sharing the communion cup.

The change does not represent the national church's position, however, and bishops in each diocese are making their own decisions on how best to handle the service, Wilson said.

Britain is the hardest-hit nation in Europe amid the swine flu pandemic — or global outbreak — with thousands estimated to be sickened and at least 30 deaths reported. Still, most people recover without needing medical treatment.

The decision follows similar changes made to religious services in New Zealand, Chile, Argentina and across the United States.

In New Zealand, the Roman Catholic Church has halted the sharing of Communion wine and banned priests from placing Communion wafers on the tongues of worshippers.

Church leaders in U.S. cities including Milwaukee, Washington, Miami and Austin, Texas, have advised that pastors and priests to use discretion in serving Communion wine, and that churches provide hand sanitizer and tissues for worshippers.

In Chile, authorities canceled a religious festival that typically draws tens of thousands to the northern town of La Tirana.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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