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.
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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.