What could be more of a rejection of what He did for us than to make quibbles about the plate matter more than the substance of the gift or the reality of the relationship with the giver?
If a woman said that her husband had given her a luxury box of chocolates on Valentine’s day, it would not be considered with much surprise.
On the other hand, if a woman said she had been given a frog, it might create some puzzlement.
The gift of a box of chocolates could in practice be anything from the most devoted tribute of heart and mind, to part of a positively abusive relationship – an abusive spouse trying to make out that they are the good one and the other is the more guilty party.
Similarly, the gift of a frog could be anything from a seriously nasty joke, to mutually appreciated fun, to the best gift ever for the keen amphibian hobbyist.
And given the scrutiny given to the unconventional, it might reasonably be suggested that the frog is less likely to be an insincere gift, though in most cases, I would assume the chocolates would be entirely genuine too.
Reverence in church cannot be reduced to mere conventions, nor can actions be considered something separate from the state of the heart (understood not in the sense of mere feeling, but as a sort of conjunction of commitment, feeling, mind and intention).
A certain degree of convention is necessary for the functioning of community. My Church culture generally expresses reverence for the Eucharist with stillness and music. I would imagine that in some places the greatest reverence would actually be to dance down the aisle to receive dancing and clapping. It isn’t possible, however, to do both these things in the same space.
It is also necessary as a language to pray in. We do receive language from others, and the meaning of language is to some extent a convention (massive oversimplification!). However, the meaning expressed in action is not determined entirely by ourselves, but will take on some meaning from our life experience. I associate tartan rugs with picnics, for instance. I would find it disconcerting if someone was to replace the rugs that lie before the altars in the local church with tartan rugs. But that is not because there is anything wrongful about tartan rugs, just that in my subculture they convey a message of fun rather than one of joy and solemnity.
There is, moreover, a matter of situation. I once had reason to acquire a pyx (i.e. the container people carry the Host to the sick in). I was quite bothered to realise how difficult it was to find one without a plastic inside. The conventions of reverence as I know them require the inside of a pyx to be gilded, so what actually touches the Host is the gold.
On the other hand, I would not consider it the slightest bit irreverent if those ministering in the slums of a poor city Church in a less economically developed country took Communion to the sick in upcycled Vaseline tins for want of anything else. Saying that the complete impossibility of maintaining an particular convention of reverence should prevent the sick receiving Communion makes a priority of the wrong set of things – human conventions before the command.
This is, I would guess, an incredible headache for church authorities in countries where most people are better off but there are some very poor areas, as it would be difficult to know when to accept a different standard, and where to insist on a particular standard on the grounds that the sense of what is being done is being lost. However, I would say that I think it is unlikely that it is not possible in this country to provide parishes that cannot afford basic standard pyxes (which are of the order of £10-£20, at least second-hand) with them at wider church expense.
I was quite horrified to be told some months ago that some Churches are too poor to afford wine for the whole congregation at the Eucharist, thus meaning that their congregations always have to receive in one kind: I find it extraordinary that such a need could be known and not assisted by the wider church*. If we were told to value spiritual food before earthly bread, then we should regard that as more important than running food banks. Food banks matter – we were told to care for each others’ physical needs – but we may be in danger of becoming an organisation which justifies itself as good for social welfare, rather than a church which preaches and enables the living of the Gospel. Living the Gospel doesn’t mean being merely moral as the secular world would understand it, though ordinary justice and consideration and truthfulness are part of it, but means opening heart and mind to grace, and that is normally done through conscious engagement with worship (God is not limited to this, but we are bound to seek through the channels He has shown us).
I prefer the use of gilt Communion sets where possible, as I tend to prefer the idea that the use of the best we can provide with reasonable (but not ostentatious or officious) effort is appropriate. What Christ gave us is precious beyond all thought, and using the most precious earthly things we have in token of our value for that seems to me to make sense. This would equally mean that the use of silver or glass or the one teacup with only three cracks would fit the same criteria if those things were the best available.
Having said this, if a priest and congregation who could use a gold plated-chalice decided that using a pottery cup as similar as possible to the sort used in Israel in the second temple period, was more appropriate in their celebrations, as the best way of connecting with the reality of every Eucharist’s participation in the Last Supper – from which, 2000 years later and in a very different society and with the story very familiar, it is easy to get detached – then I would argue that is perfectly reverent. Because it is being done in order to communicate the reality better, and enable people to engage more, I’d argue that accepting this sort of decision is allowing the substance to take priority over conventions which are becoming less than helpful. A considered decision, however, that it is the best way of enabling a particular congregation to deepen their faith is not at all the same thing as simply not bothering.
Using the most precious things that you have in order to honour the preciousness of the gift is similar to the sincere gift of a box of chocolates. Using a pottery cup for the right reasons is more like the gift of a new type of frog to an amphibian lover. Not bothering is like not bothering with any sort of gift (or gift-equivalent attention if you have love languages other than presents). And that’s not a good idea.
I have heard a lot of marriage advice which is very insistent about the need to carry on with courting attentions in order to preserve the relationship and commitment: sometimes the gift is given sky high in love, sometimes it is given in conscious decision to be true to the commitment and get through the rough patch. I am not married, but if I understand rightly, it’s important as a signal to the other person that you still love and are still committed (whether or not you are currently “in love”, which is a rather different thing from loving). And I think worship and the relationship with God is like that too. But the monetary value of the box of chocolates is not relevant absolutely, only comparatively to the circumstances, and the monetary value of the frog – as opposed to its appropriateness as a gift – is not relevant at all.
The point of all this is to try to explore what it is that we should mean by reverence, what it is for, and how it fits in as a reason for doing or not doing something.
Firstly, though it is not meaningful to take a Humpty Dumpty attitude to language and decide a word – or in this case an action – means whatever you choose it to mean – there is a formation and a sense to what we do – language is fluid to some extent. If there was a fashion for putting tartan rugs in churches, I would probably ultimately build a new sense of association of that item with worship.
Secondly, and following partly from this, almost all normal church reverence is a human tradition. This does not mean it is bad, on the contrary, we need conventions so it is not simply chaos, and we need conventions to reinforce our understanding that the Eucharist is something we take seriously. But it does mean we need to be careful what we are putting our current conventions in front of. Our Lord did not say – or at least, it is not recorded and it is a reasonable assumption that He did not say – “Do this in remembrance of me, but only if you have a gilded chalice to honour me in.” If we use such things with the right spirit, as an acknowledgement of Him and a way of engaging more deeply, they are a worthwhile custom. But when these things stop being an orientation to Him and become burdens getting in the way of fulfilling and engaging with those things actually commanded, they should be laid aside. They should always be the things open to review. Otherwise we are committing the fault of nullifying the word of God for the sake of our tradition.
Finally, what is or isn’t reverent is going to depend heavily on circumstances, and on the particular reasons we have for doing or not doing a particular thing. The principle of using the best we have to honour the Eucharist will look very different in different circumstances. There may be reasons sometimes to use objects which aren’t the best possible, because those things point more strongly to the substance in some other way.
With regard to the refusal of the Precious Blood to the majority of the People of God in response to an epidemic, on the grounds that it would be irreverent to allow the people to do other than to share chalices, I would suggest that the reasoning is extremely flawed. It’s rather like a parent insisting that a wife has to refuse her husband’s Valentine’s day chocolates – or indeed, more like them actually taking those chocolates off her – because the sort of gold plate the family traditionally displays them on as they are eaten in acknowledgement of the gift, runs the risk of spreading COVID-19. The notion that the gift should be refused, rather than it being mutually accepted that while the problem remains you’ll eat them out of the box instead, is an extreme failure of correct priority. (Of course we have no right to the gift – but the clergy have even less right to deprive us of what was given by God, to us as much as to them. Should not the shepherds feed their flocks?)
Under normal circumstances, I would have my hair standing on end at the notion of receiving the Precious Blood in tiny disposable plastic cups, one for each member of the congregation**. With more force than something like tartan rugs, it feels to me like a picnic outing not a Eucharist. In fact, I think there are better safe ways of doing it – but if the option is between individual plastic cups, and refusing to allow Christ to be with those He loves in the way He chose, then plastic cups hands down. If the reason for doing that is to protect and save life, made in the image of God, it is not irreverent, but a respect for the life that God has given. And it is not anything like as irreverent as refusing to allow people to receive at all. If reverence is about engaging with Him through what He has given us, refusing to let people receive or engage at all is much worse than losing, for good reason, some of the things used under non-crisis circumstances to express respect and aid engagement.
How can we wound the giver more, than by treating their costly gift as if it did not matter? What could be more of a rejection of what He did for us than to make quibbles about the plate matter more than the substance of the gift or the reality of the relationship with the giver? We are not being denied to protect life (whether that would be right or not) we are being denied reception rather than alter the conventional manner of receiving. The common cup is scriptural, but as it is not a common cup if only the priest receives from it, the common cup cannot be defended by refusing to allow the congregation to receive. In any case, we do not scruple to use 20 chalices or more at large celebrations for practical reasons. What’s the difference between using eight chalices for a congregation of eight, and eight chalices for a congregation of eighty – other than that the one is conventional and the other is not? If there really are numbers of laity who don’t know how to be reverent with a cup after receiving then it is a wonderful opportunity for teaching them***. The rest of it is entirely our own accretion, good if it helps and bad if it does not. Nothing could be more unhelpful than not being allowed to receive in fullness. If some people don’t choose to, that is between them and God, but the priests should not be standing between God and the way He has chosen to relate to us. No relationship can function if others will not give it the space it needs to do so.
In fact, my suggestion for reception if people are worried about sharing chalices, would be intinction by the priest. The priest should have scrubbed his hands anyway, so it should not be a risk from that point of view, and it means both the use of a normal chalice and no extra risk of spills (as far as I can make out, this does seem to be the case – it might well actually be safer from that point of view than a hundred people trying to drink from a cup held rather awkwardly by someone else while trying to negotiate an obstacle course!). We would continue to receive from a common cup, though not literally drink from it.
*It is necessary to avoid treating the middle class congregations as mere milk cows to be squeezed for poorer churches, but that is another subject: the rightness of giving assistance, and the social attitudes which cause me to think the middle class congregations have a point in resenting the way they are regarded, are different issues.
**Which is not to say that those whose churches do it like that are being irreverent: it could be irreverent, or it could be a different language of reverence.
***In any case, the obvious thing to do if using separate cups in the context of an epidemic, in a church usually set up to receive from common cups, is probably to have each person put their own cup in a bowl of clean water as they leave the altar. It is difficult to see how that holds more risk of accident than sharing the chalice. If fear of an accident is to prevent reception of Communion, where do you stop? I’ve heard Tridentine Catholics say that congregations should never receive the Precious Blood for fear of accidents. If we never celebrated at all, there would never be any risk of an accident. To be careful is entirely right – it is respect – but to disobey the command (worse, to prevent other people obeying it) in the name of that care does not make sense.
N.B. I should say that what I am objecting to is the church institution denying people the Precious Blood. If an individual has made the decision to receive only in one kind for whatever reason, that is between them and God, and those who advise them: it is not my problem to judge that, though there might be academic discussion about the sense or otherwise of the reasons people might give. Space for relationship has to mean that – the freedom to receive, and the decisions a particular child of God makes about reception, are not the same thing, and are subject to different processes of thought even if some of the technical reasoning is common to both issues. Assuming respect for the other person’s relationship with God as one would the internal dynamics of a marriage seems to me about right (though no analogy is perfect). If someone was saying “It doesn’t affect my marriage if I commit adultery,” then we would be right, at the least, to say that someone was not talking about Christian marriage, but we would not rightly start telling someone that their not bothering with Valentine’s day could not possibly matter: it would depend on their own relationship. Similarly, we cannot say that serious sin is not affecting our relationship with God, but we are wrong to start saying that it cannot be important to another person’s relationship with God to receive the Precious Blood.