Thursday, January 12, 2012

Slow it Down!

Where does your Communion bread come from?

Thanks to the Chez Panisse, the Slow Food Movement and Michael Pollan, Americans are more likely now than a generation ago to ask where their food comes from. This is a useful and healthy question, and how frightening is it that we so rarely know the answer? But, honestly, we at the Egg had never spent much time asking it of our most important meal.

Oh, we've served parishes where the answer was pretty clear. We've used a lot of bread baked by parishioners, and in our first call were lucky enough to have an old guy who made wine in his basement, and brought it over in gallon jugs. Provided that you have no theological objection to leavened bread (and we don't), this is probably the most spiritually and liturgically satisfying way to get things done.

Mind you, it's not perfect. The homemade wine was too sweet, not strong enough, and so heavily sedimented that that on the last Sunday before a new delivery, one consecrated sludge. Leavened bread, by its nature, crumbles -- and crumbs at the altar are something to be strenuously avoided. So despite the many charms of DIY Eucharistic elements, we confess that we are just a bit more comfortable with a chalice full of tawny port and a paten loaded with little wafers.

Given the obsessions of the oenologically inclined, it is easy to fine out where your wine comes from; most vineyards will happily cite you their average rainfall and the pH of their soil. Our sentimental preference: Brotherhood Winery, America's oldest and for most of our lives a local house. ("Local," at one point, meant amost within the parish boundaries).

Wafers are more of a challenge. We usually buy them mail-order, from any of three or four suppliers. Over the years, we have tried most the varieties: tiny, giant, "priest's host," whole wheat, gluten-free, stamped with a cross or a lamb or sometimes a crown, wrapped in cellophane or packaged in a jar. While we certainly have our preferences (small and ultra-thin, thank you, so we don't have to masticate our Savior), the truth is that one supplier's product has always struck us as as being pretty much the same as another's.

And now we now why: they're all made in the same factory. According to this fascinating and slightly disturbing article by Rowan Moore Geraty posted at Killing the Buddha, 70% of the communion wafers sold in the US are produced by one company, Cavanagh. Founded in the 1940s, they created the first machinery for mass-producing the wafers, and today (it seems) a great many church supply houses sell Cavanagh products.

According to Geraty, Cavanagh's innovations have had a double effect. One, not really examined in the article, is to centralize production -- bread is no longer a locally-made product, but one shipped long distances from a factory. The other, which occupies much of the article, is that the product has been secularized. What was once largely the work of nuns, and constituted for them both a ministry and a means of sustenance, is now the work of a commercial industry.

Indeed, a lot of the article is drawn from two sources: Cavanagh, and the Benedictine sisters of Clyde, Missouri, who are the largest remaining monastic manufacturer. Geraty makes it pretty clear that the nuns resent Cavanagh's dominance in their industry, but the sisters in Clyde seem to run a pretty big shop themselves. We can't help wondering whether the article would have been improved by interviews with a couple of micro-suppliers as well.

The article has flaws. Its description of pre-Cavanagh wafer production can't be quite correct. Geraty talks about nuns with cookie trays, but we have seen medieval wafer presses in museums -- they look a little like those long-handled sandwich presses that some people use with an open fire. The emphasis falls heavily upon Roman Catholic institutions and practices, to the extent that Protestantism is misrepresented (the move toward weekly Communion among Lutherans and Episcopalians, for example, has a history that long predates Vatican II). But this is small stuff.

For us, the most bluntly disturbing part of the article is not the beginning, in which Geraty's roommate eats unconsecrated wafers as a snack food, but the end, when Geraty describes in passing something called the Chasid Cup:
The online promotions for the Chasid Cup show the hermetically sealed container with a shot of grape juice and an individually wrapped Communion wafer against a purple background with slick font and a tantalizing picture of grapes reminiscent of juice advertisements.
We've heard of this monstrosity, but assumed it was something used by Baptists or community churches or ... well, somebody like that. But the following sentence reduced us to tears, and then prayer, and then tears again:
The product is billed as a sanitary and convenient alternative to conventional methods of serving communion, with sales growing, according to one church goods importer, primarily in the Lutheran market.
Oh, please, no. Please, please, please no.


Anonymous said...

It sounds like something that would make a mess and would produce a lot of waste; plus, you're paying for a lot of useless packaging. Isn't the communion wafer specially made so that it's really dry and won't spoil? They can be kept in an aluminum or plastic box for months and won't get moldy, isn't that why they're so wafer-y?
There's probably enough alcohol in the wine to kill off the germs you get from using one cup-and you can always dunk, can't you? Don't you offer that option?

Father Anonymous said...

Yes on all counts. The Snack-Pack communion ware isn't just an offense against tradition, common sense & God, it's also environmentally irresponsible.

Protected in their packaging or a tightly-lidded box, communion wafers rarely spoil (although they are easily broken). Baked loaves of real bread do spoil, and rarely survive refrigeration well, which is one of their practical liabilities -- easily overcome, but it does need attention.

As for bacteria ... well, yes. Wine (especially a strong one like port, and apparently especially in conjunction with a gold chalice) has a mild antiseptic effect. Add that to some wiping of the chalice rim and you're fine. It's certainly cleaner than little glass cups that have been handled by who-knows-how many-people on their way to the altar.

Intinction, though, is often overrated. Well, sort of. The problem is that many churches actually offer auto-intinction, in which the worshipper him- or herself sips the bread into the wine. For this to be clean, the worshipper needs to have extremely clean hands. This is unlikely, especially after the extensive handshaking typical of modern liturgies.

On the other hand, traditional intinction was performed by the celebrant, who placed the dampened wafer onto the tongue of the communicant. It is cleaner, if -- and only if -- the celebrant has washed his or her hands within the last few minutes (i.e., in the lavabo rite, which is quite rare), and avoids the tongues of the various communicants (easy enough, but accidents happen).

Honestly, I don't worry about this stuff very much. It's a weird modern American anxiety, completely disproportionate to any real danger. Regular communicants don't seem to get colds at a higher rate than non-communicants. I don't like the traditional method because it's cleaner; I like it because it's traditional.

mark said...

Please note that we have heard reports that for many, many years the bread used in two congregations often visited by Pater A were lovingly produced by the hands of his aunt and grand-aunt. Despite any real or imagined difficulties with crumbs, those loaves are much preferred by this writer.

Anonymous said...

just as twinkies & wonder bread go belly up, we get the chasid cup!! woo hoo. kc