As bad as the COVID-19 pandemic is shaping up, it’s not the first time Christians have had to factor “general sickness” into their church lives, including communion.
That typical low Protestant practice of using individual communion glasses comes from a fear of contagion, but also an ethical impulse, combined with a robust bit of Progressivist thinking. Protestants of the late nineteenth century and before used a common cup. But fears of communicable disease (typhoid especially I think) prompted a Lutheran minister to serve the wine in individual glasses, and the practice was born. (And no, I won’t call them “shot glasses” or deride the practice as far too many high Protestants do. So don’t try it here.) Mind you: this is not my original research or thought, but comes from three decades of education and reading. I am probably getting some of the details wrong, but this is really to set the mood rather than recover a well-established field of study. (Also, I’m tired, like most of you.)
And this isn’t the first time churches have been asked to close, or else watch members die. The 1918 “Spanish” flu is out of living memory, but only just and was a terrible plague of the twentieth century. The point of our efforts — including a decision and announcement by the Church of England today, to suspend public worship — is to prevent a repeat. Of course, we have technology that we don’t. But he have inherited practices, too, including a curious one adopted (and now lost) by the Unitarians. More about that next time.
As I mentioned last time, I bought two vintage portable communion kits from eBay sellers and this article shows what they contain. Readers who aren’t interested in the specifics of these particular items can skip over this article. If I left out a detail you were looking for, ask in the comments.
I ordered the kits thinking they were identical models and while very similar, this was not the case. Indeed, as only one is marked, so I can’t be sure that they are from the same maker — Sudbury Brass, which no longer makes a kit like this — but if they are, they must come from different periods of production.
The smaller kit is the model 1215, and from advertisements in ministers’ magazines seem to have been sold from about 1949 to 1955, perhaps longer. Other than a mark on the clasp of the case (SB 1215) the only markings are “silver on copper” on metal pieces. The larger case and its contents have no markings at all.
While the cases are different sizes, they contain essentially the same items, or did originally. Each has a shallow silverplate basin with a silverplate disc with six holes; this holds the six glasses. The one in the larger case is slightly larger and the disc lifts off easily, while the disc on the smaller one is more closely fitted: a bit harder to clean, but quieter. There is also a shallow bread plate; these are identical between the kits. (A loaf three inches in diameter would fit on the plate, but not in the kit.)
The smaller case with the purple lining has no bread box, but has a place for where it would have rested. The bread box would be suitable for host wafers, small pieces of bread sold to Protestants and perhaps oyster crackers. The smaller kit has its original wine flask, while the larger kit had the original silverplate cap awkwardly wedged onto a modern plastic bottle; they were not threaded the same. The silverplate on both caps is worn. The box and flask are not interchangable with the other kit, which brings us to the cases themselves.
Each seems to be made of masonite or some other hardboard covered with a coated paper or cloth, similar to what would be used in bookbinding. Each is subdivided into three compartments, lined with velveteen: blue in the large case and violet in the small. The combined glasses tray fits in one compartment; the plate in another, while the flask sits in a “well” under a flange that holds the breadbox. The small case originally had a leather strap, now lost; the larger has a metal handle, like those found on small tool boxes of the period.
There’s no room for anything else: candles, common cup, service book, cross or the like. You might slip in an icon card and a handkerchief, but otherwise what you see is what you can carry here.
I’ll be thinking about how you would use it next.
A couple of weeks ago, I ordered two vintage communion kits from eBay sellers. This is the first of a short, open-ended series about what I bought, what I plan do with them and (since there’s not an endless supply of such kits) what some alternatives are.
I bought two because figured that between them I would have enough parts to have one good kit. But don’t go looking for a chalice or linens. These are the communion kits well known to “low” Protestants, and are often used for communion in home or hospital visitation. They typically include small, individual glasses and a way to present them, a vessel for serving some kind of bread and containers to store the bread and wine. Today (and for the two decades I’ve been ordained) these kits can be quite small: larger than an eyeglasses case, but usually smaller than two combined.
Unfortunately, they’re also often quite cheap looking, made of plastic or some other unknown hard material, lined with acetate cloth or molded plastic. These are nicer than most. Some use disposable plastic cups. (I’ve even seen one that is basically a carrying case for those all-in-one juice and wafer sets. The ones that look like individual coffee creamer cups. Think Keurig for communion; on second thought, don’t. My sacramental theology isn’t so high, but this form is so ugly, that I couldn’t bear it and wouldn’t serve it.) The most you can say for the typical communion set is that it’s convenient and light-weight, but they cost more than they should.
Contrast this with how beautiful and refined other consumer goods have gotten, and it’s clear to me that we can and should do more for worshiping God. The Lord’s Supper shouldn’t compare poorly in form to a take-out cup of coffee.
Next: what’s in the cases.
A couple of blog posts ago I described communion cups used centuries ago and British Unitarian churches. Some were decidedly not of a typical chalice shape. I think the tumbler (beaker) shape deserves consideration.
Flexibility has benefits. A Christian minister might have to bring his or her own communion wear. But the affordable pieces are often shabby and a good stuff is extraordinary really expensive. The unreasonable choices a minister might make have led me to an unexpected suggestion.
- Communion ware should be affordable (though not necessarily cheap) and easy to maintain.
- Congruent in form with established practice.
I think I have something: a Japanese titanium tumbler. This one is from Horie.
You’ll excuse that it’s marketed for beer. It’s attractive, easy to keep clean, doesn’t have a metallic smell and is not commonly seen in the United States, so easy to distinguish for sacred service. It weighs next to nothing and is terribly strong; you don’t get both (or sometimes either) with pewter, which was formerly my favorite material for communion ware. It’s not tiny — a problem with “chapel sized” communion chalices — and you could even go a size down.
Downsides: they’re hard to get, and there’s no plate or basin to go with it. A rectangular wooden tray, perhaps of laminated wood, might do the trick.
I considered this question with individual cups several years ago.
Talk of the Annual Meeting of the (British) Unitarian and Free Christian Churches, and noticing the communion service there this morning, put me in mind of an quaint old book.
The 1897 Vestiges of Protestant Dissent is something of register of British and Irish Unitarian, Free Christian, Non-Subscribing and kindred churches, with — and this is the part that amazes me — a listing of their communion plate. Much was then-new electroplate, but other pieces were quite old and noteworthy, so much so that several engravings were executed.
What fascinates me is the use of porringers, posset-cups, “loving cups”, mugs and tumblers (beakers), and not just the accustomed chalice: that inverted bell on a stem, sometimes a knop, and foot we all know and associate with the Eucharist.
Many long-time readers know I have an interest in found communion ware, and lament the division of the communion ware market into the unaffordable and the tawdry. Which will bring me to what I think is an ideal communion cup for our days, and particularly for Unitarian and Universalist ministers — and indeed at least one in Vestiges — who have to bring their own. For next time.
Over the years, I’ve run across smallish, say 8×10 posters, with the Universalist “Five Principles” (click the link to download a copy) on them, clearly intended for domestic use and personal inspiration. And I know the Universalists were not opposed to the use of religious art in the home, and particularly with children, and particularly if the art was was sufficient quality. But more that this, apart from t-shirts, we lack the elements of material culture — the stuff — that develop a sense of belonging.
But this was an expensive endeavor, and I can imagine a publications manager, some decades ago, having masses of unsold, faded and dog-eared prints hauled to the landfill. Inspirational poster art has withered away among the Unitarian Universalists, probably everywhere else, too. But there’s no excuse for it.
Anyone on Facebook knows there’s a market for it, it’s never been cheaper or easier to create the images, and print it. Or, for the first time, practically ask people to have it printed locally.
NASA just released a set of imaginative retro-futurist travel posters which could act as a model for a revived poster project. Or at least as an inspiration…
I have a day off today and wanted to visit a church supply store, like I used to do. If I could only find one. There are a couple left in the inner metro D.C. area: dusty, shabby affairs featuring dubious Bible translations and sateen choir robes. That’s worse than nothing.
I thought about what’s been lost. Whittemore’s up near Boston — the grand go-to shop used by Unitarian and Universalists — has been closed for years. So too the home of a mix of practical goods (like clericals) and tcotchkes catering to Catholics up in suburban Wheaton. At some point, Ikon and Book Service, a great supplier of Eastern Christian goods near Catholic University vanished, taking my source of icons, candles, incense, even my butterlamb mold.
Not that I bought so much at any of these. But I did shop at Cokesbury at Wesley and Virginia Theological Seminary — until Cokesbury closed all of their retail stores. That hurt. And then, recently visiting the Episcopal cathedral’s once-fine bookshop (not even a supply store, per se) to discover it was little more than a souvenir stall… that was too much. There was, literally, more fudge for sale than prayer books. Make of that what you will.
This contraction predates the rise of internet bookselling — indeed, Washington, D.C. doesn’t have a single remaining mass-market bookstore left, either — and that can’t help, but I’m sure the lessening influence of churches are a problem, too. (There is the Potter House for Christian books, if not church supplies in D.C., I’ll try that tomorrow.)
So, what’s the solution? More exhibit and sales halls at church meetings? Discussion about repurposing or making church goods out of “secular” wares? Candid, independent reviews of online retailers? Asking vendors, who supply other religions’ needs, to expand their lines? (I’ve seen this in a Vietnamese shop.)
Perhaps all of these. But there’s something lost when you don’t have easy access to the material culture with which you “do” religion. Perhaps the focus on selling to the “pros” is an issue; after all, yarn and bead stores stay open, even it high-rent D.C., and those are hardly less niche.
Another advertisement from the 1912 Universalist Register was for the “Cross and Crown” system of pins and accessories, to award Sunday School participation. You still see these for sale in old-fashioned church supply stores, but while there used to be named versions for all major denominations, you hardly see any other than Baptists today; the generic “attendance” variety prevail today. And they’re not nearly so refined as the one I saw some years ago: the treasured possessions of elder Universalists, kept from childhood.
Back in 2002, I bought up the last of the Universalist “Cross and Crown” pins from Whittemore’s, a much loved but now defunct New England church supply house.