A view backstage at Beverley Minster

Swine flu makes us all Catholics

Some people say the Church of England can’t move with the times – but why should it? Neil Pickford gets scientific about a recent issue of controversy.
Last Sunday saw a revolution in the way we celebrated communion at Beverley Minster – there was no wine to drink!
Actually that’s not true, there was wine but only the priest got to slurp it – and that’s something that’s highly symbolic.
Thanks to swine flu we had ditched five hundred years of history overnight. Now the egalitarian Anglicans are now doing what the clannish Catholics have been doing for the last two thousand years; viz. reserving the wine for the head honcho while the rest of us choke over our bits of dry bread or old wafers.
The difference may not sound much to the outsider – I’ll be honest, it’s not something that makes me want to pick up a box of matches and set fire to a Papist – but as this symbol represents a fundamental point of disagreement between Beverley Minster’s current keepers and its former owners, it’s worth looking at in greater detail.
I must remind you that, until 1548, the Minster was a Roman Catholic church – they built it, paid for it, and lavished uncountable fortunes to maintain and beautify the building, creating an elaborate stone structure that was brightly painted on every conceivable surface.
In those days the Minster staff would have firmly believed that God only spoke Latin and you needed a special kind of person as intermediary between ordinary people and the deity. The common man (and the wealthy lord) needed to give lots of money to these special people who would then plead their case.
It was also only these people who were holy enough to quaff the communion wine once it had mysteriously been transformed into the blood of Christ.
Henry VIIIth permitted a massive change in this attitude. The Protestants believed that God spoke all languages equally well (well, logically, he had to as he was omnipotent- that’s pretty much what it means). Furthermore, they didn’t believe that there was a sort of middle or special level of holiness which had to be gone through – we all became equal in the sight of the church which meant that everyone was holy enough to drink the wine, and everyone should.
In fact we Anglicans are normally so open-minded about the whole thing that we invite people from other churches to have a sip as well if they want one – even Catholics.
Until last Sunday.
And, speaking purely for myself, I wonder if the church has fallen for a rather cynical piece of government-inspired hysteria.
There is now so much fear about the current swine flu ‘pandemic’ that our Archbishops have issued guidance. This invites churches to avoid contamination by no longer sharing the wine from a cup.
Going beyond this guidance, Beverley Minster has also acquired some alcohol rub which those who give out the bread or wafers can use on their hands before the service.
It strikes me that this doesn’t do much to stop air moving around if anyone with the flu happen to sneeze within the church, but hey, if we go through the motions then no one can say we’ve been negligent.
Not that I’m complaining, you understand, because it means a bit less fussy work for the virgers. On a normal Sunday we prepare a large silver flask with wine which is then taken in procession to two services before being returned to our office. We also pour a bottle of wine into a special decanter and prepare a tray with six chalices or cups for the 10.30 service, getting it into position under the organ screen for someone else to prepare. Then all this stuff has to be washed down and put back in the safe.
But last week, there was just a small bottle by the side of the altar and one chalice – much easier for the virgers and also representing a saving in the number of servers required, which is quite useful during the holidays. 
However, on a purely personal note, I just don’t think this reduction in our workload is worth the disruption to tradition.
I know the government seems determined to convince us that we’re all going to die unless we pray to Gordon Brown but, frankly, I think they’re talking cobblers so I’m going to get scientific and examine the evidence.
OK, according to recent statements from their Chief Medical Officer, they expect between 3,000 and 65,000 people will die from this howwible, tewwible, tewwibly  fwightening swine flu .
Yet, according to previous statements by the same man back in 2005: “Ordinary flu occurs every year during the winter months in the UK. It affects 10-15% of the UK population, causing around 12,000 deaths every year.” Look at the figures: ordinary flu normally kills a full one fifth of the worst-case figures being quoted anyway, but do we panic?
Official figures show there were as many as 29,000 deaths attributed to ordinary flu in 1989/90 –  but I don’t remember wholesale terror and bodies piling up in the streets that year, do you?
And does anyone remember the huge fuss about Bird Flu a few years ago, which was supposedly going to wipe out the entire human race by Christmas? I have a vague feeling that those who were driven witless by this news, especially those who stocked up on baked beans to survive the apocalypse, are feeling a bit foolish now.
Given my cynicism about this present Government’s inability to predict a single darn thing correctly, or even tell us the truth, I rather feel that we’re been fed a pup.  After all, even when we were going to be wiped out by AIDS, all we were told to do was wipe the communion cup after each sip.
But because of all this hysteria we’ve (temporarily?) given up half a millennium of Anglican tradition. It’s making me angry.
Hmmmm. I think I’ll have a soothing glass of red wine. Anyone want to join me?
First published August 2009

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