There was no bar in the home in which I grew up.

My Dad had a beer now and then, and Mom and Dad had a party or two at which something alcoholic was available. They weren’t teetotalers, but alcoholic beverages weren’t exactly prominent at the Kellam house. Except the afternoon that Dad slipped on the icy steps to the house, breaking open a bottle of wine meant for a party that night, and having to explain to the dry cleaner (with no little embarrassment) why his coat reeked of alcohol.

I went to a small Presbyterian college in a dry county in western Pennsylvania, and I had no reason to not follow the rules. Of course classmates drank, either driving 15 miles into Ohio, or smuggling beer into frat houses and dorm rooms. And, when rumors whispered that a faculty member had imbibed, well, there was a scandal. One professor in the religion department included a handout in his course on the Gospel of John that debunked the very idea that the answer to “What would Jesus drink?” would be alcohol in any form, not even wine springing from water jugs.

In the Presbyterian Church in which I grew up, and in every other congregation in which I had been served the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, or Holy Communion, we ate a small cube of white bread, and sipped grape juice. But no one ever called it grape juice. It was usually just referred to as “the cup” or “the fruit of the vine.” I wasn’t paying much attention to what school classmates might have drunk in their Catholic or Lutheran or Episcopal churches. I just knew we Presbyterians drank Welchs.

My first wine came in a communion cup in Watts Chapel in my first week at seminary. As soon as the cover was lifted from the communion chalice, I caught the whiff of fermentation. I was neither appalled nor offended. It’s just the way the seminary offered the sacrament, and I kind of liked it. But somehow we knew that once we got out into the real world of churches, especially in the south, we’d be back to grape juice.

I’ve already written something of my ministries in my first three churches, from my seminary summer internship, to a year’s part time “stated supply” pastorate, to my youth work in a large urban setting. It wasn’t until my half-time position as Associate Pastor at Richmond’s Bon Air Presbyterian Church that I served wine for communion. Sometime before I took that call, the church had begun offering both grape juice and wine for the sacrament.

I don’t recall hearing how that practice came to be, or what the debate must have been that led to the decision. But there in the round communion trays were those tiny glasses filled with two versions of the fruit of the vine. The paler colored wine was on the inside of the trays, and the darker red juice was in the glasses in the outer circles.  Those who preferred the juice, presumably children and those who preferred (for a variety of reasons) to avoid the wine, just took from the outer part of the trays. It seemed a good compromise. I know there were members of AA in that congregation, but they never complained that their addiction might kick in as the tray was passed from person to person. In fact, I recall no discussion at all about the presence of both options in the trays.

For the record, I took the wine each time.

When we moved to Vermont, our church was way smaller, very rural, and had been planted in a community populated by very conservation Covenanter-related Presbyterians. Without going into detail about all their beliefs, it suffices here to mention that alcohol is still frowned upon by many in the older generations. It isn’t necessary for a good time, it is an acquired taste (so why bother?), and it leads to troublesome consequences. Wine most certainly would not be available for Holy Communion. In fact, when Joan mentioned using wine for a particular recipe at home, one parishioner cautioned that it wasn’t really a necessary ingredient. And when a medical report had suggested the anti-oxidants in a daily glass of red wine would be good for one’s health, another church member questioned why a plain glass of grape juice wouldn’t be just as good.

Living in the manse next door to the church brought the possibility that should communion elements be unavailable at the church, I might send someone to the manse cupboards for extra bread or juice.So, being respectful of the older members of the church, Joan kept her bottle of cooking wine well toward the back of the cupboard. We didn’t want anyone’s face to be wine-red with embarrassment.

I did notice that at a wedding reception held at one of the family farms surrounding the church there was a cooler of beer available, as well as some champagne for the celebration. Only the younger generation enjoyed those drinks. I make no judgments regarding the adult choices folks made. I certainly never campaigned for adding wine to the communion elements while at my Vermont church, but I did accept a glass or two at people’s homes, particularly those of folks who had recently moved into the community and for whom wine was not an issue, but a rich, festive drink.

After ten years in Vermont, Joan and I moved into the Finger Lakes region of New York State. Wine country. Big time. The church that called me included among its members at least one vintner. Wine abounded when the church Session held a reception in a member’s home for Joan and me. That first time, it seemed strange to see wine offered socially at a church function. but we got used to it. Quickly. A couple of years later, when we were planning the church’s Bicentennial Celebration Banquet, one item on the agenda was where we would get the wine for the big party. It would be a Finger Lakes wine, of course, from the winery owned by a church member.

That said, whenever the question of using wine for Holy Communion came up (and it did), decision-makers wanted to err on the side of caution, being respectful of those for whom even the aroma might be a problem. While our church never offered wine for communion, there was no restriction at Presbytery meetings. At one celebration of the Sacrament at a Presbytery meeting, no one had a problem with the wine itself; it was the very visible presence of the bottle’s label, a shapely female form prominently displayed for those in the front pews to see. (I’m guessing THAT wasn’t a Finger Lakes wine.)

After living and serving in that neighborhood for five years, I’m still not a big fan of wine. The sweeter the better for me. But I still like the approach that the Bon Air church took, offering both juice and wine. Whatever one’s choice, I like the “more is better” approach to the sacrament, all the better to celebrate the generous grace of the God who withholds no love, who offers forgiveness unsparingly, so that our cup doth indeed overflow. A chunk of fresh bread, a gulp of rich wine. All the better to remember a life rich with compassion, healing, and sacrifice. The gifts of God, they say, for the people of God.

Maybe next time I lead a Communion service, I’ll say,  “Chow down and drink up!” (But probably not.)

Tomorrow, I’ll write about the church and technology. It’ll be short.

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