Communion and COVID-19: the remaining options

So, communion. I'd better start writing down these thoughts before the pandemic chips all the options away. I'd like to show there are options for regular, Maundy Thursday and Easter communion services.

My thinking has gone from we can be especially hygienic, to perhaps we can hold the service outside, to perhaps we can have walk-by distribution with social distancing and now I don't think any public, in-person service is likely to be safe by Easter. Safety in distribution has long been a communion ethical concern, especially among Protestants, so this isn't exactly a new thought. And even if we (collectively) don't refrain, it's possible civil authorities might stop any meaningful gathering.

If I can, I'll show some of my influences later, but as of March 26, 2020, I think these are the best options for a communion service to minimize risk for communicants and presiding ministers. Please comment, because I'll spell out the effective conduct for those options that grab your attention.

There are four likely options:

  1. The pastor, and perhaps any other ordained ministers of the church, presiding over communion at home, praying for the congregation and informing them of this.
  2. The church having a service of spiritual communion by phone or video conference; that is, a guided visualization which expresses the desire for communion, using the rite (text) for communion, but without the elements or any physical artifacts. It may also take on elements of a eucharistic fast, paradoxically, to stir desire and make the consummation (the return to normal communion practice) that much richer.
  3. The church having a "purely symbolic" communion service, by video conference where participation by the laity in by observation and prayer. The presiding minister (who might broadcast from home or church) might or might not commune by mouth.
  4. The church having a distributed service where communicants provide their own bread and wine, and are led remotely by the minister. More akin to some prayer breakfasts, but with people at home. This assumes the "lowest" ecclesiology of any option.

#1 needs no special technology as such. Only #3 absolutely requires a video broadcast. #3 and #4 are not mutually exclusive.

I can hear you saying "I don't like any of those." Fine, but these are the options I can think of, unless you count "don't do it" or "risk infecting your people" as good options, and I don't.

Please comment and, as I said above, we can work though the details. (Don't comment minimizing the pandemic because I will delete those.)

Communion and COVID-19: historical perspective

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.

Communion and COVID-19: limitations and options

So, I was working up the next installment of my series about using a portable communion set when the coronavirus outbreak created a very long and stressful week. (As you well know.) And this was just the beginning for the United States, western Europe and Australia where most of my readers come from.

Churches and temples of all kinds have closed, at least for this weekend, and for many at least through the end of March. We might still be under some kind of restriction through Holy Week and Easter (April 12) now. That's a hard thought, but people have had to manage living with epidemics before, and it's during difficult times that you learn to make alterations and concessions that both keep people safe and fulfill religious desires and duties. This weekend we'll see a new flowering of online services. What's next? Perhaps a renaissance of mainstream religious broadcasting?

But with Holy Week (specifically Maundy Thursday) and Easter, you have communion services. Unlike the long-televised Catholic mass "for shut-ins" there's not much of a custom for broadcasting the Lord's Supper, at least not at the Reformed end where we come from. In part because, apart from the Campbell-Stone traditions — it's still a "special service," a break from the normal Sunday preaching service. The Lord's Supper, too, is felt but low Reformed administration of the ordinance isn't much to look at if you're not in the middle of it. You might ordinarily broadcast a sermon, but not the sacrament.

So, what to do without risking the spread of a deadly illness? I wanted to introduce the thought, and in short order review the history and map out some options.  Publishing this, to make some momentum…

Opening the communion kits

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.

Advertisement for communion kit
From Du Bois, Lauriston J. (Editor), "Preacher's Magazine Volume 30 Number 10" (1955). Preacher's Magazine. 293.

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.)

Both cases, seen from above, with lids open

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.

Reviewing the communion kit

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.

Two black oblong hinged cases

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.

Favorite gluten-free communion bread?

A request to the readers.

You now have a choice for gluten-free breads for communion, but which are the best to use? The best tasting? Those available from church supply houses are usually wafers. I want to know if there are any communicants or pastors who have experience with these, and can make recommendations by brand.

I'm a bit cautious about commercial gluten-free table bread; many of these contain egg, and that's another common food allergen. I'm also interested in a homemade option, especially for a soft or sliceable bread without any of the major allergens.

Hedge’s Communion Service is up

I have posted the communion service of Fredric Henry Hedge, from his 1853 Christian Liturgy: For the Use of the Church, as a resource page. You can find it and others in the menu from the main page; I intend to post other items in time.

Properly speaking, it is the anaphora, or as Hedge puts it "the concluding or cenatory act. In a service so liable to excess of formality, it was judged best to leave a wide margin for such voluntary exercises or such spontaneous expressions of thought and devotion as the Minister or Church may be moved to connect with it."

I wouldn't expect anyone to use it today as-is. For one thing, it has phrasings — such as dumb for unable to speak — that reasonable people would find offensive. To tell the truth, I wonder how often it was used then. But it was a source for other Unitarian liturgies (and Universalist, as they seemed to borrow heavily from the Unitarians) particularly via the work of James Martineau.

Or so I think. I've never traced out the influences, and liturgical primitivism was in the air. But that's a future project to prove or refute.

Liminal spaces, providing sacraments and Universalist theology

Responding to Tuesday's post, Demas asked in the comments:

I’d be interested in reading your thoughts on what modern churches with less-than-optimal resources could do about the sacraments, and what your underlying beliefs about those are, if you wish to share them.

Dear Readers: You know I live for this, so I'll reply as much as makes sense in one post, with a Universalist hook, of course.

First, what do I mean by the sacraments?

I'll speak out of my belief and tradition, and even there only in brief. Sacramental theology is the kind of thing that could take up a lifetime so I'm not even going to pretend to scratch the surface. I hold two sacraments, or ordinances if you prefer: baptism, and the communion of the Lord's Supper, as commended and ordained by Jesus Christ. I group all other actions, like confirmation, marriage and funerals as pastoral acts, though in practical terms providing them probably requires the same solutions in small and liminal communities.

And yet the sacraments derive not only their origin but their authority from Jesus Christ. He is the great and eternal High Priest, and we have, with boldness, a hope through those who gather in his name. The sacraments are valid and effective because they fulfill his promises. These promises include being known, being present and drawing us towards him. Which is to say the sacraments encourage, revive and sanctify us. They do not contort us into a state of being better or apart from other people, but throw us both morally and mysteriously into a greater likeness to God. Which is hardly a Zwinglian interpretation of the sacraments, though that's probably more typical among denominational Universalists historically.

And the liminal communities?

While I've read about religious services in submarines and on Tristan da Cuhna, communities can be isolated in other, more ordinary ways. Dying towns, linguistic minorities, or cultural minorities — say a predominately gay church — might have a hard time getting a minister for the sacraments, even as an occasional visiting supply, to give three examples. I'd think the greatest isolator would be poverty, which might also rob a church of a pastor, or subject them to bad options out of necessity.

Two typical solutions are lay presidency and local ordination, which are likely to become more common in time. But there are risks. The former rejects officiating the sacraments as proper to, or necessarily from, the clergy, while the later tends to create different classes of clergy. I suppose neither is ideal, but being without the sacraments is worse. King's Chapel in Boston, not Universalist but Unitarian, pivoted away from the Church of England when, denied the sacraments for years because of the Revolution, ordained their reader whom the Bishop of London wouldn't. Thus a local ordination by the laity!

Back to the present. I would think that either a lay president or local minister would need training, perhaps something practical under the mentorship of a minister or (better) a group or association of ministers. That will depend on the setting. But even more, I would hope there would be plural presidents or ordinands as a practical matter, and to ease the responsibility of a single person being the last of last options for each and every service. Indeed, plural eldership (if coming from a low Reformed tradition) might be better still.

Universalist notes

As with most theological points apart from the final salvation of the world, Universalists held a variety of opinions and usually didn't let those opinions get away of the essentials, of which the sacraments were not included. Yet there was tolerance. So while some ministers would not abide communion, it would always be found at meetings of the conventions, for instance. An open table was a condition of ministerial and parochial fellowship for generations, not being removed from the Laws of Fellowship well into the 1950s. In short, the sacraments were recognized, even if there wasn't agreement about what they were or that they were necessary. There was this one point of agreement though: with two particular exceptions, their administration was the province of the clergy.

The first exception came very early on. Delegates at the 1790 convention at Philadelphia passed:

Whereas a great diversity of opinions has prevailed in all ages of the Church upon the subjects of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper; as also upon the subject of Confirmation, the Washing of Feet, Love Feasts, and the anointing the Sick with oil, &c. and as this diversity of opinions has often been the means of dividing Christians, who were united by the same spirit in more essential articles, we agree to admit all such persons who hold the articles of our faith, and maintain good works, into membership, whatever their opinion may be as to the nature, form, obligation of any or all of the above named ordinances. If it shall so happen that an application shall be made to a Minister to perform any of the said of ordinances, who does not believe in the present obligations of Christians to submit to them; or if he shall be applied to to perform them at a time, or in a way that is contrary to his conscience, in such a case a Neighbouring minister, who shall hold like principles respecting the ordinance or ordinances required by any member, shall be invited to perform them; or, if it be thought more expedient, each Church may appoint or Ordain one of their own members to administer the ordinances in such a way as to each Church may seem proper.

In other words, don't get into fights about the ordinances. If your minister doesn't agree, he (women weren't ordained yet) should invite another minister who does to fill in. Or you can "appoint or Ordain" a member to do it. Appoint suggests a lay role within a church. A friend once pointed out to me that the resolutions at this convention were never repealed or repudiated.

The other example came late before the 1961 consolidation with the Unitarians. By that point, the ministerial shortage had become acute. Universalists had long had licensure: originally a probationary year before ordination where a lay person could preach and pastor a church, but could not "administer Christian ordinances." Licensure was also a way to induct ministers from other denominations, and later became a status in its own right. (I think the last of the Universalist licensed ministers lived into the 1990s, and the rule allowing for them was quietly removed shortly thereafter.) By no later than 1946, licensed ministers were permitted "to administer Christian ordinances" "with the approval of the Central Committee of Fellowship," a concession to the ministerial shortage.

But it's worth noting that in both cases, this is an extension of church authority to a lay person to meet a particular need. Which is to say, there is a solution where people do not have access to the sacraments, but not one that individuals can confect in the presence of an orderly church.

Which is not to make it entirely about the Universalists, of course. At least in the United States, and perhaps anywhere Protestant missionaries (foreign or domestic) served: a shortage of ministers and a can-do spirit tends to make exceptions, and consider new options. Distance (literal or social) from seats of power intensifies the process.

And what if there's not an orderly process? In such cases, God provides and ecclesiastical authority yields.