Communion cups and individualism

Picking up from one or two comments in different places on my previous post: does the use of individual communion cups imply, or support, or strengthen, individualism? My short answer would be: not in British Baptist practice; I simply do not know elsewhere. This answer is based on a couple of convictions. One is that practices are not meaningfully narratable without properly thick description; the other is that I want to interrogate hard what ‘individualism’ means. I will deal with the first here; I might return to the second at some point. On the first: ‘thick description’ (for those who do not know) is a term coined by the anthropologist Clifford Geertz. He argued (roughly) that symbols are only intelligible specifically. That is, to take the case in point, the use of individual communion cups means nothing until you have (ideally exhaustively) described in detail how they are used in a particular community. I suppose I might have received communion in a hundred or so different British Baptist congregations; I have celebrated it in approaching fifty, each time interrogating the church about their own practices so that I could both conform to what they expected, and celebrate appropriately reverently by my own lights. On this basis, I think I can speak about the general practices of this tradition–and on this same basis, I make no claim about any other tradition. As I mentioned before, my own congregation presently uses (or pre-Covid used) several communal cups and intinction in our morning Eucharists; we use individual cups when we celebrate in the evening. This is however very unusual. I struggle to remember any other British Baptist celebration I have been a part of that used shared cups. British Baptist celebrations of the Eucharist, however, are (in my experience) focused determinedly on the shared life of the gathered, covenanted, church. In some Scottish churches in which I have celebrated this is first emphasised by a separation of the communion service from the main service. The sermon is preached, a hymn is sung, a benediction is offered, and some people leave: those who wish to affirm their belonging to each other remain, to receive the Eucharist (albeit from individual cups). This tradition, once common, is passing—to my mind with good reason—but the symbolism is surely clear: all may come to hear the Word preached, but only saints covenanted together may received the bread and wine. Outsiders are excluded to emphasise the belonging of insiders. The large majority of churches I have celebrated or received communion in will follow the reception of the Eucharist with a pastoral prayer; a significant minority will take up an offering around the table specifically for pastoral needs within the fellowship. Both practices insist that here, around the table, more than anywhere else, we are one body, in community, joined to each other, and so here we pray for the needs of the fellowship, not just those of the world; here we give to support our own sisters and brothers, not just charitable causes generally. Every Baptist church I know will receive new members, and appoint new officers (elders/deacons), at the communion table. This practice insists that here, around the table, is where we are family together, and so this is where we do our family business. Against all these practices, even if the use of the individual cup might in abstract be perceived as promoting individualism, it is hard to see it as anything other than bound into a profoundly communal set of ritual practices in concrete. The rite it is a part of is a communal rite that emphasises community at every moment; the mere adoption of individual cups cannot effectively challenge that, even if the practice were to be assumed to be inherently individualistic (& of course no liturgical practice is inherently anything; context and narration defines all meaning). To emphasise this I, and I know that I am not alone, use the individuality of the cups to emphasise the community of the church when celebrating the Eucharist. I instruct congregants to keep hold of the cup having been served it, and then, when everyone has been served, state that we will all drink together ‘as a sign of our unity in the Lord’. The shared act of drinking together reinforces all the other signs given to emphasise the community-based, and community-forming, act of sharing the Eucharist. I am not claiming any combination of these practices as perfect: I said in the previous post that I would rather we shared one cup, because that is what Jesus did in the upper room. That preference, however, is based on a Baptist commitment to...

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On the use of individual communion cups

There is evidently a fight going on within the Church of England on the potential use of individual communion cups as a Covid-safe way to celebrate the Eucharist. It’s not my fight, and I don’t want to say much about it. But in the last couple of days a new argument has emerged: that the use of individual communion cups is, historically, racist. That does bother me. Each of the five churches I have been a member of have used individual communion cups as a regular part of their sacramental life. This is hardly uncommon in either the English Free Churches, or Scottish evangelicalism—I don’t actually recall the last time I celebrated or received the Eucharist at a church that did not use individual cups (although our collegiate celebrations use a single cup and intinction). So the suggestion that the use of individual cups is pandering to racism worries me—or it would worry me if there were any plausibility to it; fortunately, there is not, or none that I can discover. As far as I can see, there are two sources for this suggestion: a blogpost by Peter Anthony, which cites a podcast by Barak Wright, which in turn cites (unhappily without reference) the investigations of an American Methodist leader, James Buckley, in the 1890s; and a paper by Hilary M. Bogert-Winkler, which relies entirely (for this point) on Daniel Sack’s 2002 monograph, Whitebread Protestants: Food and Religion in American Culture. Both sources are agreed that the presenting reason for the adoption of individual cups is the C19th sanitary reform movement. With the discovery that diseases were transmitted through ‘germs’ (at the time a rather unspecific term), ways of altering behaviour to prevent transmission were investigated and recommended. There was a general awareness that fluids were important in transmission, and so a concern about a shared cup where potentially, the saliva of the first recipient can enter the mouth of a later recipient. The charge in both sources is that, in the USA, sanitary reform became entangled with racial prejudice, and so that in certain contexts the shared cup was given to whites first, so that they would not be contaminated by African-Americans, and then individual cups were introduced for the same reason. Let us for the moment simply accept this. All that is then demonstrated is entanglement. But that is uninteresting. Suppose I were to campaign against a particular industrial development both because I believed that it would be damaging to the environment, and because I believed that there was a faerie castle that would be destroyed by it; the ridiculousness of the latter belief does not damage the cogency of the former one. Just so, someone who genuinely believes that it is unhygienic to share a single cup, and that non-whites are more likely to spread disease, cannot be criticised for the former belief just because the latter one is appallingly racist. (Were there a demonstration that the former, sanitary, belief was not sincerely held, but merely a cover for the latter, racist, belief, then of course the criticism would stand. Sack is careful to avoid that implication in his monograph; in the absence of references I cannot be sure of all Buckley claimed, but from what I have been able to read, it does not appear that he essayed the stronger argument either.) It is of course easy to survey the arguments around 1900—the material is all out of copyright, and so generally on the Web. What is striking is how much Buckley is an outlier—one can, for example, read through article after article opposing the use of individual communion cups in the old Lutheran Church Review and find no hint at all that there is any concern other than tradition and symbolism. (See, e.g., Drach, ‘Have Individual Communion Cups Any Historical Justification?’ vol. 26 (1907), pp. 567-574; Schuchard, ‘Individual Communion Cup Questions’ vol. 29 (1910), pp. 567-577; Michler, ‘Individual Communion Cups’ vol. 34 (1915), pp. 395-402). (Similar series are easily found in other denominational journals of the time.) There is a second point, however: even if Anthony and Wright are simply correct in everything they assert, they only establish the point for North America. The introduction of individual communion cups in the UK is a separate history, and, as far as I can see, there has never been a single scholarly suggestion that this history has been driven by racism. The medical point is of course to the fore; Dennis raised it in his System of Surgery (iii.803), and it was discussed repeatedly in The Lancet in the first decade of the twentieth century. A remarkable article, ‘The Patience of...

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