Scenes from a pandemic
In these unprecedented times I thought it might be interesting…
ABILENE, Texas — The practice of passing the Lord’s Supper in gold, silver or wooden trays became common among Churches of Christ and other Christian groups a little over 100 years ago.
The flu pandemic of the early 20th century led to a strong push for more hygienic practices, according to Doug Foster, scholar in residence and professor emeritus at Abilene Christian University.
Prior to the 1918 pandemic, “you had a silver pitcher and a chalice and passed that around. There’s some evidence where there were several cups but not individual cups,” the Restoration Movement scholar explained.
“The tray is just a tool to hold the individual cups,” he added, “and the individual cups came primarily during the great flu pandemic.”
A century later, as COVID-19 infections and deaths surged, churches again grappled with how to partake of communion while protecting members.
Many turned to the so-called “rip and sip” communion cups — a small wafer contained atop a tiny cup of grape juice.
Now, as vaccination numbers rise and coronavirus cases decline, the single-serve communion sets may become a new norm, according to two recent surveys.
It wouldn’t be the first time a pandemic changed things.
A century ago, trays became the norm — though a few Churches of Christ, representing less than 1/100 of 1 percent of adherents, remain one cup by conviction.
Mac Ice, director of special collections and archives at ACU’s Brown Library, sees a certain irony in the shift away from individual cups.
“One hundred and ten years ago, individual cups were not the problem but rather the solution to our awareness of germ theory,” Ice said. “There were germs, we discovered, and so we stopped using the common cup and went to individual cups. Now there are germs, we discover, and we are going from individual cups to individual sealed cups and crackers in plastic bags.”
Indeed, prior to the coronavirus pandemic, few congregations made regular use of single-serve cups.
Before COVID-19, 21st Century Christian — a major source of communion supplies to Churches of Christ — sold the “rip and sip” communion cups to only two congregations that used them weekly. Others would order small boxes for hospital visitation or homebound members, said Matthew McInteer, CEO of the company, based in Nashville, Tenn.
“Come March 2020, we sold more in two weeks than the entire previous year — a 16-fold year-over-year increase,” McInteer recalled. “We couldn’t get them from suppliers fast enough.”
Demand slowed slightly by April 2021, but McInteer attributed part of that to churches being stocked up. Other congregations have switched to a Chiclet-style bread square placed in a plastic communion cup stacked beneath a second cup filled with juice.
“We’ve definitely talked to a lot of customers who have said, ‘We may end up using these forever,’ but they are more expensive, and they don’t taste very good,” McInteer said.
No one seems to like the Styrofoam-textured wafers in the single-serve sets. That’s pretty much where agreement ends.
A one-question survey by The Jenkins Institute, a ministry based in Nashville, asked, “When do you expect to return to using regular Lord’s Supper emblems?”
Among 351 respondents, 62 percent had no plans to change the prepackaged emblems any time soon. Another 17 percent did not expect to ever go back to trays, said Dale Jenkins, institute co-founder and minister for the Spring Meadows Church of Christ in Spring Hill, Tenn.
An online Christian Chronicle survey posed five open-ended questions to email subscribers and social media followers.
About a quarter of those who responded said they would characterize their personal experience of communion and/or the offering during the pandemic as “better.” Only about 1 in 10 thought it was “worse.”
Most respondents said it was just different: They liked online giving but not single- serve communion. Or they liked single-serve communion but not online giving. Some thought it was efficient or more hygienic. Others said the changes make it easier to focus, but some said it feels more rushed.
The Chronicle survey also highlighted the many different solutions congregations sought to address the concerns presented by COVID-19.
The use of single-serve cups was most common. Others referenced having masked ushers with gloves pass trays containing the single-serve cups or double stacking the cups with a Chiclet-style cracker in the bottom cup.
“I do not enjoy the single-serve communion cups, but I don’t think I want to have communion from a tray that has passed under dozens of mouths and noses.”
Some passed communion but not the collection plate. Others passed the collection plate but not communion.
“We did not change anything,” wrote Craig S. Young, a member of the Crescent Ridge Church of Christ in Irondale, Ala. Young said he attends a “one-cup” congregation.
About a third of respondents said they believe their congregation will return to the former way of doing things at some point. Many were unsure what the future of communion may look like, while others hoped for some hybrid version.
James Waggoner, an elder of the Sanger Church of Christ in Texas, said he doesn’t want to go back to trays at all. He added that his perspective as a retired firefighter and paramedic is different from some.
Sarah Stirman, a member of the Greenville Oaks Church of Christ in Allen, Texas, north of Dallas, said she found the changes distracting.
“Fighting with the cellophane to partake. Fighting with my mask to partake,” she wrote. “My mind is not on the cross but the minor distractions.”
However, she said she’s not sure what the best solution would be.
“I do not enjoy the single-serve communion cups, but I don’t think I want to have communion from a tray that has passed under dozens of mouths and noses,” she wrote.
John Dobbs, minister for the Forsythe Church of Christ in Monroe, La., wrote that he thinks the changes have made communion more meaningful and less rushed.
“I would be happy not to pick up some bread everyone in the whole church has touched,” Dobbs said. “I do not consider myself a germaphobe, but at the same time there is no necessity to pass along germs with trays.”
At least a few acknowledged they didn’t like the changes because they don’t like change. Period.
But some found it more meaningful to all be partaking at the same moment.
Ice said the roots of such a response are found in the earliest days of the Restoration Movement, modeled in the Reformed tradition from which Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone had come.
“Presbyterian Holy Fairs, of which Cane Ridge was one example,” Ice explained, “involved sitting around tables and sharing from common vessels of some kind or number.”
As with many aspects of faith and culture, the perspective of decades may be required to know the pandemic’s broad impact on the traditions surrounding the Lord’s Supper.
“We are so radically congregational, but we consult with each other informally,” Foster said.
He thinks ideas like sharing the Lord’s Supper simultaneously play into the early convictions Campbell had about the communal experience.
“Obviously, there will be things that will not be exactly the way they were before.”
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