Thursday, May 26, 2011

So whose tradition are you talking about...?

One of the fascinating - and sometimes infuriating - challenges of doing "church renewal" in New England happens whenever  "tradition" is called into question.  It could relate to music, preaching styles, robes and vestments - who knows?  Whenever a beloved tradition is challenged... watch out!

Now, to be fair, New Englanders are usually no more change-phobic than any other people in the United States. With some unique exceptions, people in my church have been profoundly thoughtful and engaged as we've done some of the hard work of change. Generally, I think all people tend to hate those changes that call us out of our comfort zones and support the changes that reflect our preferences - especially if they don't interrupt our habits and mostly affect someone else. 

I know I bump up against this whenever road construction forces me to get to church by a new route:  I LIKE the way I drive to church and feel annoyed when I have to change.  I like road repairs, too, so I deal with it - but I get why change is problematic. So, the real problem isn't exactly change; it has more to do with calling certain beloved traditions into question - and here New Englanders  are clearly the winners.
Take the individual communion cup: old time Yankees LOVE these relics - I've heard people claim that the Eucharist just isn't holy without them - and fully act like these little cups have been used since the time of Jesus.  (Only a slight exaggeration!) 

Tonight, I asked my clergy prayer/support group, "Does any body know when these bad boys were first introduced to the liturgy?"  I had thought they might have shown up during the heady days of the Protestant Reformation when so much of the baby was thrown out with the bath water.  In fact, I was ready to lay the blame at the feet of Calvin. (When I mentioned this to my once Roman Catholic son in law, he burst out laughing:  "What a bizarre thing - it has NOTHING to do with Eucharistic spirituality - or community building!" Amen.)

But one of my wiser colleagues said, "You know, I think it was probably MUCH later.  In some of our oldest sanctuaries, why don't you see when the little cup holders were added as they will probably answer your question."  Hmmmm.... and as I did some research I discovered that this wasn't Calvin's fault at all. 
It seems that the little sacramental shot glasses were introduced to the US in 1891 in Cleveland, OH.  And then took off like wildfire for a variety of reasons - mostly having to do with the ascendancy of individual piety - but often blamed on the needs of increased sanitation.  Damn... they are only 121 years old - but treated like the freakin' Holy Grail. 

Some old time New Englanders literally freak out if these little "McEucharist" cups aren't used - and they swear it is our eternal tradition - when, in fact, most of our churches have been using the COMMON CUP for most of our history.  And I'm not exaggerating here: listen to clergy talk about intransigence sometime; it is often a very sad and sobering experience.  (check it out: )


Black Pete said...

Actually, in times of plague (as we are now), I can relate to individual communion cups.

And here you go from our side of the Medicine Line:

Q: How many United Church of Canada people does it take to change a light bulb?

A: You can't change that light bulb! My grandfather donated it in 1910!!

RJ said...

Yes... perfect. And I get the small cups, but don't like them. Thanks, Peter.

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