As an undergraduate at Wheaton College, there was a moment at the beginning of each term that everyone anticipated. The first chapel of each semester was a sharing of Holy Communion (Wheaton is inter-denominational; communion was shared with bread and grape juice after a reading of the institution narrative from 1 Corinthians). Wheaton’s chaplain back then was a beloved figure known affectionately as “Chappy K.” He had a slightly stiff, nasally delivery that, combined with riding a Harley Davidson and being a sensitive pastor, made him a favorite of the student body. The memorable part came when he introduced Communion. In his dry, nasal tone (think Stanley Hauerwas minus the volume and the profanity), he would explain: “Today, we will receive communion by a method known as [pause] intinction.” As soon as he articulated intinction, a word with which no one else was apparently familiar either, a snicker would ripple through the chapel. His method for articulating the word made it sound exotic, even slightly forbidden or mysterious, and the snicker indicated that the word was so unusual, that it sounded naughty.
Naughty it is not. But the frequency with which intinction–self-intinction, in particular–takes places within Episcopal churches is slightly perplexing. While versions of intinction are quite old, self-intinction when attending Mass is (as far as I can tell) rather novel. In the Catholic Church, only a priest is to intinct:
If Communion from the chalice is carried out by intinction, each communicant, holding a communion-plate under the chin, approaches the priest, who holds a vessel with the sacred particles, a minister standing at his side and holding the chalice. The priest takes a host, dips it partly into the chalice and, showing it, says, Corpus et Sanguis Christi (The Body and Blood of Christ). The communicant responds, Amen, receives the Sacrament in the mouth from the priest, and then withdraws. (General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 287).
Eusebius (HE, 6.44) recounts one form of intinction (sometimes now called “unsacramental intinction”) where the consecrated bread is softened with unconsecrated wise to make reception easier for the sick (one can imagine this happening if the consecrated bread is brought to a sick person’s home and they are unable to eat solid food). The ODCC describes a now outdated practice indicated in the Ordines Romani where unconsecrated wine is consecrated through contact with a previously consecrated host. Then, of course, there is the regular practice in many Eastern churches of the bread mixed with wine and both are administered with a communion spoon (λαβίς). Related to this was the practice of dipping consecrated bread in consecrated wine and allowing it to dry so that both kinds could be reserved for the sick for the Liturgy of the Presanctified.
Interestingly, one of the reasons given by the USCCB for why intinction might be desirable is this:
In practice, the need to avoid obscuring the role of the Priest and the Deacon as the ordinary ministers of Holy Communion by an excessive use of extraordinary minister might in some circumstances constitute a reason either for limiting the distribution of Holy Communion under both species or for using intinction instead of distributing the Precious Blood from the chalice. (Norms for the Distribution and Reception of Holy Communion under Both Kinds in the Dioceses of the United States of America, 24.2)
The current American Book of Common Prayer has the same basic posture toward the ministers of the Sacrament, namely, that ordained ministers are its ordinary ministers:
When the celebrant is assisted by a deacon or another priest, it is customary for the celebrant to administer the consecrated Bread and the assistant the Chalice. When several deacons or priests are present, some may administer the Bread and others the Wine. In the absence of sufficient deacons and priests, lay persons licensed by the bishop according to the canon may administer the Chalice. (BCP, p. 408)
What remains perplexing is why self-intinction became so common, especially when the American Book of Common Prayer indicates that while “the sacrament may be received in both kinds simultaneously,” this can only take place “in a manner approved by the bishop” (BCP, p. 407-08). In my conversations with priests, the decision to allow the practice is made at the level of the parish and the bishop is not often consulted.
The most likely explanation for the growth of self-intinction is that it came out of fear of disease through use of a common cup, which is ironic since it turns out to be the least sanitary method to receive the Sacrament (think: bacteria under fingernails). Since moving to the midwest, I’ve observed self-intinction in many parishes where I have served as a supply priest, and in many instances, it’s not just the consecrated bread that makes it into the consecrated wine. In the wake of the AIDS crisis (and a misunderstanding about how it could be spread), intinction was explicitly described as an option by the Abps. of Canterbury and York in June 1989 in a statement on ‘Hygiene and the Chalice.’ In the wake of the SARS outbreak, places like the Diocese of Toronto engaged with the scientific communion in research that produced the following:
Intinction, long thought to be a practice which reduces the risk of contagion, may actual increase such risk. Hands, (children’s and adults) are at least as likely to be a source of contagion (often more so) as lips. Dipping the wafer into the wine may contaminate the wine with pathogens clinging to fingers, thus spreading contagion to others. Intinction offers no additional protection to the communicant.
Because of this, intinction (presumably self-intinction?) has been forbidden in Toronto since 2009.
Given the long history of reception in one kind only, the instinct amongst Anglicans in the face of severe health concern to turn to intinction rather than simply receiving only the consecrated bread might seem strange to Catholic ears. But it is important to remember that communion in one kind was a point of concern at the Reformation in the wake of the “denial” of the cup to the laity, and the English prayer book, for instance, is very clear that the people are to receive in both kinds. The current American BCP makes the direction even more strongly: “The ministers receive the Sacrament in both kinds, and then immediately deliver it to the people” (BCP, p. 363). Related to this emphasis on receiving in both kinds in the relatively unusual development of reserving not just consecrated bread, but wine as well, at least amongst American Anglicans.
I have to admit that I have an instinctual aversion to self-intinction, though I struggle to articulate why in a way that I find completely satisfactory. In addition to the rather ridiculous exegesis which highlights the fact that Judas dipped his bread in the dish as a reason against intinction (presumably all the other apostles did as well!), some have suggested that self-intinction is more like “taking” the Sacrament, rather than receiving it, thereby obscuring the fact that the Sacrament is a gift. But it’s hard to see how this is really any different than receiving the chalice from a minister and drinking from it (as opposed to having someone guide it to one’s lips and tip it until one receives the wine).
I’ve also heard it critiqued because it obscures the “one cup” imagery and makes the act of communion more individualistic than communal. But the same could be said for the use of individual communion wafers and not bread which is literally broken and then shared.
The driving concern in official Catholic directions on the question seems to center on two matters: concern that the sacramental species be handled as reverently as possible and the centrality of the ordained ministers as the ordinary persons to administer the Sacrament. It is the first of these reasons, combined with the fact that it is the least sanitary method, that seem to be to be the most compelling reasons against the practice.
I’m interested to learn not only why the desire for self-intinction is so strong in some circles and if there are additional, persuasive arguments against self-intinction than the ones I have articulated.