Thursday, April 30, 2009

A Plague Year

"... [T]he plague was returned again in Holland; for it had been very violent there, and particularly at Amsterdam and Rotterdam, in the year 1663, whither, they say, it was brought, some said from Italy, others from the Levant, among some goods which were brought home by their Turkey fleet; others said it was brought from Candia; others from Cyprus. It mattered not from whence it came; but all agreed it was come into Holland again."

This is from the beginning of Defoe's classic account of an early-modern epidemic.  Does it sound familiar?  He opens with the sort of conversation people always seem to have in the face of a new and frightening disease:  Where did it come from?

In the 1980s, when AIDS was new, fingers pointed first at Haiti, then at Africa.  With Mad-Cow, they were pointed at Britain and the US.  A few years ago, the media made it seem as though the bird flu sweeping west from China would mark the end of civilization.   Today, as both Americans and Europeans begin their swine-flu panic, the fingers point at Mexico.

The finger-pointing is not entirely without purpose.  Scientists who study the origins of a disease may be better able to cure it.  Certainly, there are countries whose agricultural practices seem likely to create sanitary disasters, and they (okay, we, since the US is a primary offender) deserve public censure.  But little of this has much to do with the average non-lab-coated citizen.  For most of us, identifying a putative national origin for every disease serves principally as a way of distancing our own nation from it, and attaching blame to some other. It is a way of saying, in only slightly veiled language, "We aren't dirty -- they are dirty."  It is a reaction steeped in the water of racism and nationalism.

So we'll call A (H1N1) swine flu, rather than Mexican flu, thanks very much.

But that's not what's really on our mind this evening.  Rather, this, as summarized by the WaPo religion blog:

The North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention ... has reissued Pandemic Flu Preparedness Guidelines, including the possibility of limiting mass gatherings: "This may include canceling Sunday services, weekday events at the church, weddings, and funerals."

"Limiting Mass -- sorry, we meant mass -- gatherings?"  Brrr.  This is especially shocking when we consider how Christians responded to Defoe's plague.  At least among "the serious people," he says that:

The Government encouraged their devotion, and appointed public prayers and days of fasting and humiliation, to make public confession of sin and implore the mercy of God to avert the dreadful judgement which hung over their heads ...

Okay; that probably won't fly in a secular nation, at least during a Democratic administration.  But we might still hope for this:

[the] alacrity [with which] the people of all persuasions embraced the occasion; how they flocked to the churches and meetings, and they were all so thronged that there was often no coming near, no, not to the very doors of the largest churches. Also there were daily prayers appointed morning and evening at several churches, and days of private praying at other places; at all which the people attended, I say, with an uncommon devotion. 

Instead, people seem to be making plans to cut back on church attendance, or to bowdlerize their rites:

Methodist churches in Texas are changing the way they do communion, ordering shipments of individually wrapped communion wafers and juice packets to be used instead of passing the same loaf of bread of a common cup.

And okay, we all know the Methodists were just waiting for an excuse.  But Roman Catholic bishops in several dioceses have asked priests to stop distributing wine to the laity at Communion.   (Actually, they may have been waiting for an excuse as well).  The North American Old Catholic Church has prohibited its parishes and ministers from "physically exchanging the sign of peace by shaking hands, hugging, or other bodily contact," as well as from allowing laypeople to hold the chalice or to receive by intinction.

Let it be said that none of these reactions (except for the Baptists') is entirely unreasonable.  The flu is serious business, especially a new strain for which the health establishment is unprepared.  It's not hard to catch, and it can be devastating.  So keeping your hands off each other, and skipping the chalice for a few weeks, may be the better part of parochial valor.

On the other hand, ideas that are sound in a crisis may become absurd when they become institutionalized afterward.  Germ theory developed quickly during the second half of the nineteenth century, and with it came the ruinous idea that churches ought to begin distributing communion in shot glasses instead of a shared chalice.  after all, science said the common cup could make you sick.  (Better science might have observed that, over the previous eighteen centuries, mortality rates among regular communicants had never been noticeably higher than those among pagans or Deists).

But those stupid little glasses began to catch on, albeit slowly.  There were alternatives, to be sure.  Catering to those who wanted the chalice but not the risk, an Episcopalian came up with a swank little eucharistic straw, made of silver by Tiffany, with a one-way valve.  The idea was to bring your own to church, in its velvet bag -- we're not making this up; it was in the Times -- and sip from the cup.   The Orthodox spoon made a comeback, and the pouring chalice was developed. 

Another idea, even more profoundly stupid, also began to take hold:  auto-intinction.  In intinction properly so-called, as readers are surely aware, the celebrant dips the host and places it into the communicant's mouth.  Assuming a scrupulously well-washed celebrant, this is a  pretty sanitary way of doing things, at least for a few minutes.  eventually, you will get some saliva on your hand.   Nine people in a row will present their tongues extended, but the tenth will lick you like a puppy. (Trust us; we do it a lot).  But auto-intinction is worse:  people take the bread into their own hands, and dip it into the chalice.  And sooner or later, some of those hands -- comparatively few of them washed, some of them cracked and flaking skin -- will graze the wine, or the rim, or both.  Or maybe not so much "graze" and plunge into, up to the knuckles, fishing around for a dropped wafer or a chunk of bread that fell apart.  Trust us, it isn't pretty.  Auto-intinction, although often favored by the germ-o-phobes, is widely reported to be the least sanitary way ever devised to share a meal.

Lutherans (along with Papists and Episcopalians) resisted these innovations.  The faculty of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia issued a strongly-worded statement on the theological weaknesses of individual cups.  But they lost, and although it may not have been decisive, we expect the 1918 "Spanish" flu helped sway the debate.  (St. Bartholomew's, a prominent PECUSA parish in Manhattan, proudly withdrew the cup from the laity during the pandemic, and later proposed that their practice be made general.)

For some pastors now in their 50s and 60s, it has been a life's work simply to make communion, externally, what it had been through most of Christian history: a weekly celebration, in which a cup of wine and pieces of some bread-like substance are distributed to the faithful.  One wouldn't want to see that work undone by this year's flu, or by any other transitory scare.

And people are scared, which leads them to say and do stupid things.  Consider the Episcopal Diocese of Texas, which (per the Houston Chronicle)

... issued an advisory earlier this week suggesting clergy explain to parishioners how to decline the communion cup. The letter also said parishioners can intinct, dipping bread in the wine and then eating it.

That's right.  As a possible pandemic ramps up, these dimwits advised people to take the least sanitary option known.

So.  We're not telling anyone what to do.  These are difficult decisions, and there are legitimate arguments on most sides (not auto-intinction.  No legitimate argument there.)  But we are begging our friends and colleagues not to do anything in a panic that they or their posterity will have decades to regret.


stynxno said...

I don't think anyone who's actually been a chalice bearer can possibly think that it is the most sanitary option. But maybe it has to do with the fact that we all grew up in elementary schools where kids would stop other kids from stealing their drinks by backwashing into them. An entire civilization of mentally scarred children. It's sad really.

stynxno said...

Oh, and just in case you haven't seen this yet:

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