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 mimesis—we should do what was then done—not on a belief that the individual cup must somehow tend to individualism.

get facebook like button