Generous Orthodoxy  

Friday, March 24, 2017

Fearing one another in the Eucharist?

I am reprising this blog post from two years ago because I think the issue is important, and because in subsequent months I have gotten the impression that intinction has become even more prevalent. 

The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Michael Curry, has testified that he, a black man, was first attracted to the Episcopal denomination because when he was young, he attended an integrated Episcopal church and was deeply impressed that black and white members all drank out of the same communion vessel.

He did not say anything about the wholesale abandonment of this tradition by the church in recent years.

Until the 70s and 80s, virtually no Episcopalians dipped their communion wafers into the chalice (intinction). I grew up acting as an acolyte in the early 50s (probably the first girl acolyte in the diocese of Virginia), and I can vouch for the fact that, from my vantage point in the sanctuary, no one ever dipped his or her wafer in the wine. Everyone drank from the common cup. I went to many Episcopal youth camps; no one dipped. I was an active Episcopalian in college and early adulthood, going to numerous conferences; no one dipped. It would have been considered very peculiar if not downright irreverent (indeed, I'm afraid we were snootily dismissive of Baptists and others who passed around those teensy little individual glasses in trays). It's possible that occasionally someone would refrain from drinking from the common cup if she had a bad cold and did not want to risk giving it to others, but even that was very unusual, and typically she would not dip but would simply signal for the cup to pass by. I don't recall anyone ever mentioning the possibility that a healthy communicant might catch a germ from someone else.

When I was a seminarian in "Mass class" in the early 70s, we were instructed to "turn the chalice with each sip, wiping as you go" and  "keep the wine flowing over the rim" and "refold the purificator frequently, keeping the stained side in." This counsel hardly seems necessary today. Since I was ordained in the mid-70s, the numbers of people drinking from the chalice has plummeted.

I realize that my anecdotal evidence is not scientific. I admit that I don't know what they are doing in the Dioceses of Eau Claire or San Joaquin. However, I have traveled very widely across the Episcopal church, East to West, North to South, and although I have trained myself not to look at my neighbors when I am actually receiving, when I as the preacher am sitting behind or near the communion rail, I can't help noticing that the overwhelming majority are dipping their wafers. (Generally speaking, the few that still drink from the chalice tend to be of a certain age.) I have also noticed that, in many cases, the amount of wine poured into the chalice has greatly decreased. We used to fill up a chalice, or even two, at a Sunday service in a small-to-mid-size parish, in order to provide for all those who were sipping; now the priest puts in barely half a cupful for the dippers.

For 20 years and more, I have inquired from many people about this, The answer is always the same: GERMS. Sometimes the person giving this reply is being considerate of others, because he has a cold, or she is coughing. But the great majority who receive are not sick. They are afraid of contracting germs from others.

I have consulted two epidemiologists about this. Both of them said that sterling silver, interacting with wine, neutralizes germs (both of them were leery of porous ceramic or pottery). They emphasized what everyone surely knows by now, that colds are spread on hands, and people sometimes get their fingertips in the wine when dipping. I believe it is the case that no one has been able to prove that disease is spread through the common cup in ordinary circumstances. If it was, the clergy would be the sickest people in the nation, since a good many of us consume the leftover wine; I did this without fail every time I presided at the Eucharist during the entire 21 years of my parish ministry.

I don't have a "magical" view of what happens to the wine when it is consecrated. Drinking a lot of leftover consecrated wine at the end of the communion can give a definite "buzz," as I can testify. Many recovering alcoholics, understandably, receive the bread only. I admit that in the case of epidemics of saliva-borne illnesses, such as SARS or--worse--Ebola, exceptions would have to be made. I think I remember that the Roman Catholic Church made such an exception during the SARS epidemic of 2003. I can't say that I would drink the leftover wine in the middle of an Ebola breakout. But these are exceptional circumstances.

I don't see this as an ontological question, but an ecclesiological one. When Paul rebukes the Corinthians because they do not "discern the body" during the Lord's Supper (I Corinthians 11:29), the context indicates that he does not mean the bread or wine themselves; he means the diverse members of the Body of Christ.  It is our mutuality, our union in the Lord that is the central focus.

Therefore the most significant problem with this shift in church practice, it seems to me, is that people are acting out of fear. Children and visitors from other denominations are instructed that they should receive by intinction because they might catch something harmful from a fellow Christian. Surely this undermines the central reality of the sacrament. I have recently watched large numbers of young children coming to the rail in Episcopal churches; every single one of them dipped. Apparently this is what they are taught as the norm. I don't see how this can properly teach the Body of Christ. When we are at the altar rail we are brought into the closest possible personal communion with other disciples of Christ in the fellowship of His conquering love, and "there is no fear in love; perfect love casts out fear" (I John 4:18). Should fear dictate our practice in this most intimate of all settings? It seems to me highly ironic, to say the least, that this precipitous decline in the use of the common cup should have coincided with the wholesale shift toward the centrality of the Eucharist in the worship of the Episcopal church.

In Terrence Malick's deeply religious film, To The Wonder, a central episode shows a young woman receiving the sacrament. She drinks from the chalice. The symbolic power of the image of her receiving the blood of Christ would have been a reductio ad absurdum if she had merely dipped.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

A man without a soul?

Is Donald Trump anti-Semitic (or, as he says, "anti-Simetic")? Is he a racist? I am somewhat embarrassed to admit how much time I have spent analyzing the unique way this man speaks (but would be even more embarrassed if so many other people weren't confessing the same thing). Is Trump really a Republican, or a populist, or a conservative, or what? Here's my answer, for what it's worth:

Trump is not anti-Semitic, nor is he a racist. He isn't a Republican or a populist. He isn't a conservative. He isn't anything. He is entirely hollow inside.

I have never before listened to anyone speak who apparently has no significant connection to anything outside himself. As far as I have been able to discover, he does not belong to any association of other human beings--no church, no clubs (except of course his own), no groups, no special friends with whom to kid around. He pretends to care about veterans, but there is no evidence of his actually doing so. No one has been able to show that he has made any significant donations to charity, or that he has ever really supported any causes other than his own. He will pass out hundred-dollar tips frequently, at his whim, but without any real human connection to the recipients. None of his children, not even Ivanka, have ever spoken with authentic feeling about any loving attention he ever gave them until they were grown and could be groomed by him (and from all I can gather, he has ignored Tiffany and Barron altogether). We have not heard him speak with any genuine, sustained affection about anyone except himself, or any organization except his own businesses. He does not seem to have any stable beliefs. One day he's in favor of free transgender use of public bathrooms, the next day he's against it. He does not seem to have any genuine attachment to any groups of people in his past, or mentors who have helped him; he seems only to need flatterers, sycophants, minions, and people he considers larger-than-life like "my generals" and flamboyant ideologues like Bannon. David Brooks has written that what he needs most of all, even more than prudence, is "fraternity," and that is a good word for what he so obviously lacks.

But even more striking than the lack of connection to those outside himself, there does not seem to be any connection to anything inside himself either. He has no hobbies, no interests, no soul-filling pursuits. He has only two changes of clothes--a suit, or golfing attire (can he be imagined as a member of an actual sports team?). Photos of him at religious events (like the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Dinner) have shown him as the only person who does not bow his head during prayers. He does not look at art, or listen to music, or read books, or analyze ideas. He does not seem to have what I would call a sense of himself at all. To say that he is not reflective would be to understate the matter. George W. Bush (candidate for worst president ever) was famously lacking in curiosity--he would walk through museums and historical sites as quickly as possible, taking no interest in anything; he said, "I don't do nuance," without any self-doubt; he habitually (and sometimes hilariously) mangled the English language; but he had at least some modicum of intelligence, read at least a few books, was capable of critiquing himself occasionally, enjoyed many friends, sincerely cared about poverty and disease in Africa, had a mature and faithful marriage, and definitely had a sense of humor (it speaks well of him that Michelle Obama enjoys him). In contrast, in recent years at least, Donald Trump has never been seen to laugh. He seems to have no sense of humor whatsoever. Not to have a sense of humor, it seems to me, would be one of the worst traits of all; one would be trapped forever inside one's own self-regard. And if there was nobody home to be trapped with, that emptiness would be a kind of hell.