A note about receiving Holy Communion by intinction
After months of extraordinary measures during the time of pandemic, including the administration of Holy Communion in the form of the consecrated bread alone, happily our chaplaincies have restored or are restoring the chalice as in normal times. This step is being taken because it is of extremely low risk in terms of spreading infection. Some may remain uneasy about receiving the consecrated wine from the chalice, and wonder about the practice of intinction (the practice of the communicant dipping the host into the chalice) to receive Holy Communion.
However, intinction by the communicant is not a method of administration which can be condoned. In fact it is a practice that is known to be highly unsafe, actually increasing the risk of spreading microbial and viral infection. Thus, the Church of England has always strictly discouraged intinction whenever there has been a fear of spreading infectious diseases.
For instance, at the time of public concern around AIDS in the 1980s, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York issued guidance about the common cup: “Public concern has aroused fears among some people that the sharing of the common cup might be a possible means of infection. The advice given to us by the highest medical authorities is that such fears are groundless”. Again at the height of the swine flu pandemic in 2009, the Archbishops wrote to the Church of England: “Studies have suggested that in the context of pandemic flu the practice of intinction may involve a greater risk than the common cup”.
This conclusion is based on sound scientific research. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta Georgia, one of the world’s leading public health organisations has reported that there has never been an outbreak of infection related to the communion cup and that a theoretical risk of transmitting infectious diseases by using a common cup exists, but that the risk is so small that it is undetectable.
It seems counter-intuitive to many members of the public, but hands and fingers, as opposed to mouths, are one of the major ways of spreading microbes and pathogens. They are far more likely to be a source of infection spreading than lips or saliva. Quite apart from the normal skin flora there is a much higher risk of hands and fingers harbouring other dangerous pathogens (including, and sorry for being so blunt! faecal pathogens).
It has to be remembered that prior to a communicant coming to the altar and dipping the host into the chalice, he or she may have shaken the hands of another, or touched a hymn book, pew, door handle, bank-note, etc. So it is not so much a matter of an individual’s personal hygiene. The issue is the personal hygiene of everyone who may have touched any surface or object which the communicant may then have touched prior to coming to the altar. So, medically speaking, intinction, rather than diminishing the threat of infection may actually increase it. Even with the greatest care by the communicant, the risk remains that she or he may inadvertently touch the consecrated wine, or the inside or the rim of the chalice with their fingers or hands.
It is interesting that were there any significant risk associated from communicating from the chalice, then there would be evidence of an increased risk for priests who have been performing the ablutions for centuries, consuming the remaining sacrament in the chalice which carries all the microorganisms of all communicants who have received from it. In fact the opposite is true, as insurance actuarial tables indicate that priests tend to live longer than the general population!
There is also another issue which may be forgotten: dipping the consecrated wafer carries the risk of adding gluten to the consecrated wine, possibly endangering a coeliac communicant.
No-one is compelled to receive from the chalice. When a communicant may still have a concern about receiving from the common cup, the option to receive the consecrated bread alone is to
be recommended. It remains Anglican teaching that to receive the sacrament in one kind only, is to receive the sacrament in its entirety.