It’s a dreary Saturday afternoon in winter, and Eugenie McMullan pads around her kitchen, pulling industrial sized glass jars of hand-milled flour or sugar from the cupboard, butter, eggs and yeast from the fridge. These ingredients join the jumble on her already crammed counter and she talks while mixing – “did I add yeast?” -- then talks some more when turning the lump of dough out to knead.
“In the kneading that’s when I do my best thinking, or praying,” she says, pushing at her short spiked red hair with the back of her hand. “On a good day I end up thinking how good God is to me. On a very bad day I may take the dough and slam it into the counter, which is therapeutic, but also kneads the dough.”
Every week for 40 years McMullan has made this communion bread for her church – Toronto’s Little Trinity Anglican – arising out of a particularly intense period of her life. Arriving from Winnipeg in 1969, she found herself with a failing marriage, a demanding job, three small children, and undiagnosed clinical depression. She reluctantly went for pastoral counselling when it was suggested, and spent every Thursday afternoon “stomping around the rector’s office, shouting -- anger was the strongest emotion in my life – but he was very patient. If he hadn’t been, I would still be a mess.”
Eventually, McMullan felt something give: “I said to God, I can’t run my life anymore, can you do it for me?”
It was the weekend before Thanksgiving – McMullan doesn’t remember the year exactly – and she offered to make the communion bread for the upcoming service. “I had just been healed of something, I wasn’t sure of what exactly, but I was particularly thankful.”
She makes four loaves, one for the morning service, one for evening, one to give away and one just in case, and figures two generations at Little Trinity have grown up on it. Slightly sweet, moist the bread elicits compliments sometimes. “Then people get embarrassed speaking that way about it,” McMullan says. “But it’s Psalm 34, taste and see that the Lord is good, and why should the Lord not taste good?”
Baking the communion bread – and praying while kneading it – is a tradition that started in the middle ages, when each church designated a local baker. Working in solitude, he was required to fast or pray while baking, and to use a separate oven.
Although a 1406 charter stated only men could bake the bread – something that would surely roil McMullan – congregation growth soon outpaced what a single baker could produce, so orders of nuns were asked to start up large scale wafer-baking operations.
At Winnipeg’s Covenant Christian Reformed, the communion meal consists of cubed white bread, and grape juice, but in 2000 when Caroline Booy’s husband, Robert, was diagnosed with celiac disease, she cast about for a substitute. The smallest bread crumb was enough to make him very sick, and he eventually had to stop taking communion, which was awkward since a plate of cubed white bread is passed along the pews.
When Booy came to the pastors with the idea, they discussed going completely gluten-free, but since most people in the church, especially the seniors, were used to the white bread, and liked it, they opted to create an alternative.
So she experimented with different recipes and came up a gluten-free wafer made of rice flour, which turned out a little like a fortune cookie, and kept well in the freezer. To prevent contamination from the regular bread, the wafers are stored in a small tin and passed around on the same plate. Pastors announce before communion about the gluten-free alternative, with as many as ten taking it.
Booy has a few celiac friends in other churches. “It’s such a shame -- they slip the bread into their palms or into their purse so no one sees. Having the gluten free wafers is a small thing, but it means no one feels left out of the Lord’s Supper.”
This kind of inclusion, says Tyndale professor Victor Shepherd, is at the heart of communion. “Christ's presence isn't located in bread and wine. Rather, Christ pledges himself to his people in all aspects of congregational life, including the service of Holy Communion when we most pointedly "remember" his death in the Hebrew sense of "remember": rendering an event in the past -- the reconciliation with God that the cross effected – as the operative truth and reality of our lives in the present.
Communion is an element of congregational life, Shepherd adds, “and so Christ is present to his people in that. But he is also present in every act we do in church.”
That’s what Tony Turner discovered when he started making the communion wine for his small Anglican church in St Bruno, Quebec. Ten years ago, Trinity was having trouble meeting its budget. Someone started making the bread, and since Turner was already making wine – in his condo locker – he thought “why not? Besides, the wine they were using was really awful.”
Using a kit, and a 23-litre bag of grape juice, Turner mashes everything together before letting it sit for a few months, then bottles it and stores it for another year before using. He’s experimented with different varieties – from cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir, to the full-bodied Amarone they now use.
Since the church only uses about a bottle a month, the savings is small, but Turner says there’s a deeper meaning going on. “At first people seemed surprised, especially when they saw me leaving church carrying empties. So I showed them the bottle and its special label, and they liked that it comes from within our community.”
Howard Soon has had similar reactions from fellow parishioners at St Michael’s and All Angels in the diocese of Kootenay, British Columbia. “The smell fills the church as soon as the stopper is taken out of the cruet. Even the kids like it – they used to wipe the back of their hands across their mouths after communion -- now you don’t see that.”
A wine making professional for 34 years – and master vintner at award-winning Sandhill Wines in BC since it started in 1997 – Soon only started making wine for his church five years ago when the priest asked him about making their own communion wine. “It made sense that in one of the best wine growing regions in Canada, we should be able to make an acceptable wine for communion.”
Soon uses only grapes -- no juice or derivatives -- but has experimented with types. There's been a port style wine made with grapes grown by the Osoyoos Indian Band. And he's used Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon , and Cabernet Franc grapes from Vanessa Vineyard in the Similkameen Valley, a smaller river valley running parallel to the Okanagan Valley and just west of the Okanagan.
He makes the wine in barrels at home in his garage, although he has samples analyzed at the Sandhill Wines lab so he knows what is going on with the grapes and the subsequent wine. Once bottled, it gets a real label -- Cathedral Communion Wine.
Not all churches use wine for communion. Many use grape juice – that’s how Welch’s got its start – and anyone who is impatient with that doesn’t understand the social history, says professor Victor Shepherd. “In the 19th century, alcoholism had reached epidemic proportions, with whisky being legal tender in the US. As the frontier moved west, men went crazy and liquor was the thing that blunted the pain of insuperably hard life on frontier. In 1750, colonial New England, people drank 250% more per capita than people do in US today. When William Booth started his ministry in England, bars had a counter for men to lean foot and a counter half size for children.”
The elements used in communion, Shepherd says, express the relationship between what we make and what God creates. “Grapes and wheat are what God makes, wine and bread are what we make. God using what we make is a vehicle of his self-impartation. Since everything we make is tainted by our own sin, the miracle of grace is that God still uses it.”