Germs, Viruses, and the Common Cup: Is Intinction Safer?

Whate’er my God ordains is right:
His loving thought attends me;
No poison can be in the cup
That my Physician sends me.

Thus sings an old Lutheran hymn. Surely Episcopalians must agree, yet given the popu­larity of intinction across the country, one wonders. Increasingly, intinction is being adopted as a way to avoid drinking from the common cup. This practice is fueled, of course, by the fear of infectious disease. Twenty years ago we became aware of AIDS. Now there is SARS. Other diseases abound. And so we find more and more Episcopalians intincting. But all of this is happening contrary to sound scientific evidence. We have surrendered to paranoia and fear. What is the truth?

Under normal circumstances, partaking of the common cup poses less a danger to one’s personal health than most other forms of human intercourse.

The common cup has been studied for over a century and has never been identified as responsible for the communication of disease. In 1943 W. Burroughs and E. Hemmens reported: “Experiments on the transmission of organisms transferred from one person to another by common use of the chalice showed that 0.001% of the organisms transferred even under the most favorable conditions and when conditions approximated those of actual use, no transmission could be detected.” In 1967 Betty Hobbs and team concluded that the risk of transmission of disease via the cup was probably much smaller than “other methods in any gathering of people.” In 1973 Dr. Edward Dancewicz of the Centers for Disease Con­trol confirmed that the risk of contracting disease through the chalice is minute. The number of bacteria on a person’s lips is small, and the chance that there are pathogens among them is not great. Moreover, “even if pathogens are present, the risk of ingesting them is small.” In 1985 Dr. David Ho verified that the AIDS virus is not spread through common eating or drinking utensils. In 1988, after an extensive study, Dr. O. N. Gill concluded: “Currently available data do not provide any support for suggesting that the practice of sharing a com­mon communion cup should be abandoned because it might spread infection.” In 1997, after studying 681 individuals over a ten week period of time, microbiol­ogist Anne LaGrange Loving reported that she observed no differences in illness rates between those who com­muned from the chalice on a daily basis and those who never attended church.

And so, in 1998 the Centers for Disease Control issued a letter stating that while there exists a theoretical risk for the transmission of infectious diseases by the use of a common commu­nion cup, “the risk is so small that it is undetectable.” Moreover, this risk, the CDC says, is even further diminished if the community practices certain safeguards, such as wiping the chalice after each communicant. Experimental evidence shows that wiping the chalice with the purificator reduces the bacterial count by 90%.

There are a number of general principles which govern the transmission of infection. Expo­sure to a single virus or bacterium absolutely cannot result in infection. For each disease there is a minimum number of the agent (generally in the millions) that must be transmitted from person to person before infection can occur. Our defenses against stray bacteria are immense and can only be overwhelmed by very large numbers of the infective agents. Thus, while research has confirmed the presence of mouth organisms on the rim of the cup and in the wine after communal drinking, there is no evidence of the transmission of disease from one communicant to another through the common cup.

But what about intinction? Is it safer or more hygienic? The answer is no. Not only does intinction not protect the individual communicant from whatever germs might be present in the sacred wine, but it is probably the best way to contaminate the wine with germs. Why? Because hands are a primary repository of infectious agents. Pathogens are trans­ferred to the wafer by the altar guild member who puts them into the ciborium, by the priest who distributes the sacrament, by the communicant in whose palm the consecrated wafer is placed. The communicant then dips the Host into the chalice, thus completing the trans­mission of pathogens to the sacred wine–sometimes in the process even plunging his or her fingers into the species. All of which provides a strong reason to proscribe the practice of intinction within the public liturgy of the Church; but when we remember that intinction is a clear departure from the Supper’s dominical mandate, then its proscription becomes compelling.

Life in society is risk. We risk airborne infection whenever we gather with a group of people, especially in a closed room. We risk infection whenever we shake hands–or exchange the peace!–with another. We risk infection whenever we touch a doorknob or a tabletop or an altar rail. We risk infection whenever we go to a restaurant and order a meal. Drinking from the common cup is less risky than most forms of social intercourse that we accept every day of our lives; but we irrationally fear and dread the cup. Yes, it is possible, no matter how unlikely, that one might catch a cold from the chalice; but one might just as easily catch a cold standing in line at the movie theater. “If Christ makes us brothers and sisters in the cup,” theologian Robert Jenson writes, “then sharing one another’s human messiness belongs to the humiliation we thereby assume.”

Jesus commands us to drink his precious blood. Faith is trusting that the Lord wills our good; faith is overcoming those fears and apprehensions that would alienate us from the blessings of his holy chalice. Be reassured. We need not fear the cup our Physician sends us.

* * *

This article, co-authored with Dr. David Gould, was originally published as “Intinction: Is it Safer?” The Living Church (16 November 2003). Also see Dr. Gould’s report to the Anglican Church of Canada, “Eucharistic Practice and the Risk of Infection.” Please note that that this piece was written almost 20 years ago. I am unacquainted with any research that may have been done since then, nor do I know how the above applies to a virus like COVID-19. I am neither physician nor scientist—caveat emptor.

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6 Responses to Germs, Viruses, and the Common Cup: Is Intinction Safer?

  1. Dale Crakes says:

    Fr after looking at the picture I realized that it never had entered my mind that the communicant would do the intinctiing. And where’s the patina??


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      This is now a common practice in Episcopal churches.


    • Iain Lovejoy says:

      The practice in the Anglican / Episcopalian church is that the celebrant distributes the bread and the other servers the wine. You can see the celebrant in the background (he’s the one in the robe) holding the bread. Best guess (I’ve not come across this practice personally myself) is the communicant takes a wafer from the celebrant then moves sideways to the person holding the wine and dips it in.


  2. This is why at the last supper our lord himself received kneeling and on the tongue. Dare we presume to do differently? He also spoke the words of institution in ecclesiastical (10th century) Latin while facing ad orientum, which – as all are aware has been scientifically verified many times over – has the effect of cleansing the eucharistic species from all impurities and defilements. The rise of Coronavirus and HIV\AIDS is due solely and exclusively to the widespread and rampant liturgical abuses of versus populum and the use of the vernacular in the divine liturgy. If we don’t return to Latin soon, there will no longer be any church to administer the sacraments.



  3. Iain Lovejoy says:

    I have in the past declined communion and received only a blessing instead when I have been suffering from a severe cold for fear of infecting others, but more recently a priest was kind enough to reassure me, explain the above and set me right. Even though an unnecessary precaution, I can’t see much harm in intinction, since all still drink from the same cup. A practice I did not like which I came across in one church (I forget the denomination) was that of serving the wine in lots of individual cups, something which rather defeats the object. I wonder, however, whether intinction is always really to do with infection at all – looking at the way it is done in the picture I wonder if it is more the case that self intinction is in fact simply more convenient with a large congregation than having to pass the cup back and forwards with everyone or manoeuvre it to everyone’s lips?
    (On a side note, at what point did the church move from breaking and sharing a single bread to individual wafers? That seems to me an equally radical and theologically even more dubious move than intinction.)


  4. Basem says:

    Thank you for this most helpful article Father! Do you happen to have references? That would be very helpful

    Liked by 1 person

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