communionMy congregation has recently switched from wine to grape juice for communion.

That’s right — something like 200 years after the temperance movement started urging Churches around North America to spurn the fermented grape, and 85 years after prohibition ended, the Church I attend finally decided to hop on that particular outmoded band wagon.

To be fair, it probably isn’t their first time.

I grew up with grape juice at communion. That is not to say that I partook as a child. My memories of communion from childhood consist of the sinking disappointment of arriving at Church and seeing the shining silver(ish) communion set crowding out whatever else was on the table at the front of the sanctuary. The sight of that sacramental accessory was a sure predictor of a long and boring service.

It wasn’t all bad. At the end of the service, my parents usually stuck around to help wash up. This meant that I could hang out in the kitchen and down the leftover grape juice one little shot glass-full at a time.

At that age, I wouldn’t have wanted to gulp back wine had it been used. Not even by the thimbleful.

By the time I was adult enough to take communion, the Churches I knew had eased up on their allegiance to Welch’s. This followed growing skepticism around alcohol’s inherent depravity and a recognition that wine was Biblical. It strikes me as a little ironic that the Churches that see themselves as Biblical literalists have no difficulty with substituting grape juice for wine even while the Churches they accuse of straying from scripture are true to the text in the contents of their cups.

I also find it a little ironic that the grape-juice-Churches also tend to be those that are big into a theology of Christ as blood sacrifice. If there is such power in the blood, why remember it with a symbol as bland as kool-aid?

As I am neither much of a Biblical literalist nor huge into substitionary atonement, neither of these issues really bother me too much.

But I still have my gripes.

For one, communion is supposed to be an adult activity whereas sugary fruit drinks are packed in school lunches. I’m not opposed to finding a way to be inclusive of children in the congregation at times of communion but the little cups of grape juice just feel a bit too much like we’re all playing pretend at a little kid’s tea party.  Which makes it odd that the kids aren’t invited to play along. And also, if we’re going to do that, I want fancy little plastic cups with smiley faces on them.

And, like I said, it all reminds me of my own childhood in the old Church kitchen. It’s not a horribly traumatic memory. Just an odd one.

More than the sense that juice infantilizes the rite, though, is my personal distaste at it being associated with the legacy of the temperance movement. That’s the movement that began in the nineteenth century when a number of well-meaning individuals decided that the best way to deal with the social dislocations caused by rapid industrialization and unchecked capitalism was to get people to stop drinking. And so they set up associations and persuaded the populace that any amount of alcohol was sin and that moderation was just a slippery slope.

People did stop drinking. But the broader problems didn’t go away.

To our credit, Mennonites resisted the temperance movement for many years. Or at least some did. Not because our ancestors saw the bigger, structural issues where the Methodists and other Protestants did not. As I understand it, they resisted because they were opposed to joining associations that could divide loyalties,  because the temperance movement called on people to take an oath, and because the commitment to total abstinence could lead to pride.

But eventually the temperance movement did reach our communities and most of the Mennonites of North America started putting aside their wine and spirits and followed the lead of Protestant Churches in patronizing the pasteurized juice makers who served up beverages for both children’s birthday parties and communion services.

And so it was for much of the twentieth century.  Given that Mennonites see the wine and the bread as symbolic of both our commitment to follow Christ, and our commitment to each other in community, it wasn’t seen as a big deal to accommodate the temperance notions of drinking as defilement.

But that’s why it bothers me. So tied to temperance, grape juice is itself symbolic of our complicity with the message of temperance – one that blames alcoholism on personal will-power rather than on the social determinants of health, and one that perpetuates the harmful message that even a thimble-full of wine could send an alcoholic down the road to perdition.

Most liberal Churches try to circumvent this conundrum by offering both wine (for most people) and grape juice (for those few who may have internalized the message that anything fermented is evil and dangerous). Which then requires a complicated list of instructions at the beginning of each communion session.

The people who plan these things in my congregation got fed up with all the complications, found it bothersome to have to buy both, and/or found the communion wine consistently unpalatable. Or so they told me, anyway. And so they decided that if it was a choice between bad wine and good grape juice, we’d all probably prefer good grape juice.

I think there’s a third option.

The Uncommon Cup

This cocktail is based on the classic version of the Bishop, which makes a certain amount of sense since in some of our traditions, communion was  only served when the Bishop or Altester was available and visiting the congregation.

Also, it’s a red wine cocktail. uncommon cup

  • 3 oz dark rum
  • 1 oz red wine
  • 3/4 oz lime juice
  • orange bitters

Shake the ingredients together with ice and serve in a wine glass. Or chalice. Or even a series of little plastic shot glasses.

But no substitutions for the wine.