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In Defense of Incense

Thursday, November 6, 2008 • 6:50 am

Those of you who know my Calvinist inclinations might find this post ironic and funny at the same time. Good Shepherd is the first and only parish I’ve served. When I arrived in the summer of 2002, I stepped into a parish steeped, for most of her 125 year history, in Anglo-Catholicism. Thirty years before my arrival, my predecessor a VTS grad moved the parish in a more “broad” direction theologically but retained the high liturgical tradition. All of this was very strange and difficult for me but to my mind at the time, there were hills worth dying on and liturgy just wasn’t one of them. While I made a few minor changes, I largely concentrated on what I considered the most vital needs…starting up and leading weekly bible studies (there had not been bible studies for decades), bibles in the pews, starting an adult Sunday school to catechize the parish adults who were largely unaware of the most basic tenets of the Christian faith. Six years later, I am very happy I decided to leave the liturgy alone…in fact, I’ve grown to love it…

Those of you who know my Calvinist inclinations might find this post ironic and funny at the same time. Good Shepherd is the first and only parish I’ve served. When I arrived in the summer of 2002, I stepped into a parish steeped, for most of her 125 year history, in Anglo-Catholicism. Thirty years before my arrival, my predecessor a VTS grad moved the parish in a more “broad” direction theologically but retained the high liturgical tradition. All of this was very strange and difficult for me but to my mind at the time, there were hills worth dying on and liturgy just wasn’t one of them. While I made a few minor changes, I largely concentrated on what I considered the most vital needs…starting up and leading weekly bible studies (there had not been bible studies for decades), bibles in the pews, starting an adult Sunday school to catechize the parish adults who were largely unaware of the most basic tenets of the Christian faith.

Six years later, I am very happy I decided to leave the liturgy alone…in fact, I’ve grown to love it. And, moreover, the bible studies, expository sermons, and adult Sunday school begun my first year, sparked something of a spiritual reformation and renewal that enabled (and continues to enable) Good Shepherd to survive the tumult of 2003 up to the present. In any case, now there is a growing community of college students from Binghamton University’s InterVarsity Fellowship attending Good Shepherd. Most are from evangelical backgrounds and most, who seem to come primarily for the sermons and Sunday school, seem somewhat taken back by the liturgy. Last Sunday, All Saints Sunday, we had incense. There were some freaked out students afterward…so I wrote this brief “apology” or defense of incense, from an evangelical Anglican to evangelical students. I thought some here might find it helpful…

Question and Answer: Why does your church use Incense?

Some college students from church backgrounds somewhat less liturgical than Anglicanism, asked about the use of incense. What is it and why do we use it?

I didn’t really have a chance to answer in a substantive way since the question was asked yesterday in the greeting line after the service. I managed to mention one of the characteristics of Anglicanism that sets the Anglican expression of Christianity apart from many other protestant expressions, namely that while we embrace the essential biblical truths recovered during the Reformation…

1.  Sola Scriptura—the bible is the sole infallible source of revelation, the primary authority in the church by which all doctrine and discipline must be tested and measured.

2.  Sola Fide—sinners are justified through the instrument of faith alone

3.  Sola Christi—Christ’s righteousness, sacrifice, and mediation is the sole basis or grounding for the justification that is communicated to sinner by faith alone.

4. Sola Gratia—the whole arch of salvation, from beginning to end, is due to and grounded in the free gracious gift of God and for no merit or deserving on our part.

5. Soli Deo Gloria—God’s purpose in Creation, Judgment and Redemption is ultimately his own glory.

...we like to think we’ve not thrown the baby out with the bathwater.

We (at least evangelical Anglicans) stand on the above truths together with orthodox Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists, Baptists and other evangelical denominations and non-denominational churches. And yet, Anglicans believe it is important to maintain those worship practices of the ancient Church that can be traced back to the very first centuries after the Ascension of Jesus Christ and that do not contradict the Biblical witness.

Why, Anglicans ask, should we surrender the riches and beauty of ancient Christian worship that conforms in every way with scripture?

God is the author of beauty. Anglican worship seeks to employ all the aspects of God’s creation in worship…to reflect God’s created beauty back to him. God’s created beauty comes to us through sight, smell, taste, and touch. And all of these senses are employed in Anglican worship. Incense, music, bells, color, candles…all of these are used to glorify God at Good Shepherd just as they have been used for 2000 years in the Church throughout the world.

According to the witness of the Old Testament, the use of these elements of worship go back to the very establishment of the holy Tabernacle during the exodus. God gave Moses very specific instructions for the construction of his Tabernacle and these included carefully detailed instructions to produce a place of aesthetic beauty.

“The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the people of Israel, that they take for me a contribution. From every man whose heart moves him you shall receive the contribution for me. And this is the contribution that you shall receive from them: gold, silver, and bronze, blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen, goats’ hair, tanned rams’ skins, goatskins, acacia wood, oil for the lamps, spices for the anointing oil and for the fragrant incense, onyx stones, and stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breastpiece. And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst. Exactly as I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle, and of all its furniture, so you shall make it.” (Exodus 23:1-6)

Notice God’s concern for beauty…the scarlet, blue and purple yarn, the fine linen, the fragrant oil for incense and anointing, the gold and precious stones…all of these elements used in accordance with God’s command would fill the senses of ancient worshipers with sights and smells that would harness every fiber to the task of glorifying God.

Notice the detailed concern God took in the crafting of this piece of tabernacle furniture:

“You shall make a lampstand of pure gold. The lampstand shall be made of hammered work: its base, its stem, its cups, its calyxes, and its flowers shall be of one piece with it.  And there shall be six branches going out of its sides, three branches of the lampstand out of one side of it and three branches of the lampstand out of the other side of it;  three cups made like almond blossoms, each with calyx and flower, on one branch, and three cups made like almond blossoms, each with calyx and flower, on the other branch—so for the six branches going out of the lampstand. And on the lampstand itself there shall be four cups made like almond blossoms, with their calyxes and flowers,  and a calyx of one piece with it under each pair of the six branches going out from the lampstand. Their calyxes and their branches shall be of one piece with it, the whole of it a single piece of hammered work of pure gold. You shall make seven lamps for it. And the lamps shall be set up so as to give light on the space in front of it. Its tongs and their trays shall be of pure gold. It shall be made, with all these utensils, out of a talent of pure gold. And see that you make them after the pattern for them, which is being shown you on the mountain.”(Exodus 25:31-40)

God does not seem concerned for utilitarian functionality. He doesn’t simply want a lampstand. He wants a beautiful lampstand. Why?...because God is beautiful, he created beauty and beauty brings him glory.

These are simply examples but if you take the time to read through the instructions for the construction of the tabernacle found in Exodus 25-29 (and elsewhere) you will find the divine concern for beauty shot through the whole.

If this is so—if God created beauty and is glorified by the use of the beauty he created—and since there is nothing in scripture to oppose it, shouldn’t the church seek to bring beauty into her weekly sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving?

What I have said so far applies to Anglican worship in general—not incense in particular. If you are specifically wondering about the uses of incense in scripture, follow this link where you will find some of the primary scriptural references to incense. You will find in perusing these texts that incense in itself is a neutral element. When used to worship God, in keeping with his instructions to Moses, it is good and pleasing to the Lord. But it can, like anything else, be turned to idolatry.

Here are a few of my favorite texts:

And Aaron shall burn fragrant incense on it. Every morning when he dresses the lamps he shall burn it, and when Aaron sets up the lamps at twilight, he shall burn it, a regular incense offering before the Lord throughout your generations. (Exodus 30:7-8)

For from the rising of the sun even unto the going down of the same my name shall be great among the Gentiles; and in every place incense shall be offered unto my name, and a pure offering: for my name shall be great among the heathen, saith the LORD of hosts. (Malachi 1:11)

“When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. 2 Then I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them. 3 And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer, and he was given much incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar before the throne, 4 and the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel.” (Revelation 8:1-4)

I understand that there are many who find the use of incense foreign and strange, but I think a thorough and comprehensive study of scripture will show that it has always been used in the right and proper worship of the Lord both in the Old Testament and in the New…both on earth and, according to Revelation, in Heaven. Incense draws the senses heavenward, brings to mind the prayers of God’s people ascending to his throne, and represents the unified universal Church glorifying the God of Creation and Redemption.

The question, then, is not “Why do we use incense?” but it is rather, why doesn’t everyone use incense?

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There are two smells in the afterlife - incense and brimstone.  I remind people they should choose one and get used to it.

Here is our parish brochure on the use of incense, written by the late Fr. Homer Rogers.

[1] Posted by stjohnsrector on 11-06-2008 at 07:23 AM • top

So Matt+ figured out what it means to be a High Church Evangelical while I’m struggling to figure out what a Low Church Anglo-Catholic might look like ... interesting.

This is a fascinating piece into your journey and thought processes. I’ll bet it has a lot to do with your “winning over” many who viewed the liturgy as important to Reformation principles as important. Truly becoming all things to all people so the most important Thing is heard.

Thank you for sharing.

[2] Posted by Hosea6:6 on 11-06-2008 at 07:27 AM • top

Back in the Oxford Movement days, William Augustus Muehlenberg wrote a lot about melding the two ideas about how to “do church.” More importantly, he did it.

Some of the dioceses and parishes in TEC, as well as the 815 headquarters, would do well to add a very tiny pinch of sulfur to their incense mixture. It reminds the demons of Home, and drives them out. grin

What’s key is to use high-quality incense (Prinknash Abbey comes to mind), not use a lot of it, and warn the flock that they are going to be fumigated next Sunday. Some people who believe that incense will bother them will dramatically collapse in the nave, and some people with uncontrolled asthma or other chronic respiratory problems may well have significant symptoms on exposure.

[3] Posted by Ralph on 11-06-2008 at 07:55 AM • top

The catholics who are used to it swing it gently and discretely, but in the CofE when I have seen it used it has been with great show.

Christmas Eve a few years ago was a case in point.  Back and forth the censer was swung [thurible?]; great clouds of smoke billowed forth and then the thing went on tour round the church enveloping us in a thick fog. I had to leave coughing and spluttering.

It’s carcinogenic as well.

[4] Posted by Pageantmaster ن on 11-06-2008 at 08:06 AM • top

Thanks for this article Matt!  I will be directing folks to this link as they learn about the liturgy and God’s love of beauty. 

We used incense for years before we left TEC, and we’d be using it now if I was convinced it wouldn’t set off the fire alarm and sprinkler system in the school where we worship.

[5] Posted by Fr. Andrew Gross on 11-06-2008 at 08:13 AM • top

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again.  One of the things particularly appealing about the Anglican tradition to me is the “High Church” end of the worship styles, however one of the great things about Anglicanism is its potential of incorperating (mostly) common pray with a diversity of potential worship styles.  The ideal for me would be a parish with a “low” service that would please even Traditional Evangelicals (surplice only, north side of the altar and such), a “high” service with all the bells-and-smells and “contemporary” non-eucharistic prayer and praise services with praise bands and more casual clothing and liturgy.

In other words, if I could get a parish with a St Thomas 5th Avenue Eucharist and a Falls Church Morning Prayer it would be perfect for me. Throw in a service that follows all the 1662 rubrics to placate those that are inclined in that direction.

[6] Posted by AndrewA on 11-06-2008 at 08:16 AM • top

I have no theological bent against incense in worship; I quite agree with what Matt has written - and I too am a Calvinist.

However - in practice, most of the time I have worshiped in a setting with incense, I have noticed two things: 1) The use of incense tended to take over the service and become the focus, and 2) My nose, sinuses, and lungs could not stand it.  When I get to heaven, I guess my body will be able to enjoy incense, not merely endure it.

[7] Posted by AnglicanXn on 11-06-2008 at 08:18 AM • top

It’s horrible.

[8] Posted by Pageantmaster ن on 11-06-2008 at 08:19 AM • top

Well Pageantmaster, if you were to ever visit my Platonic Ideal Parish you’d have your pick of the Low Traditional and the Low Contemporary services to attend if incense is not your thing.

[9] Posted by AndrewA on 11-06-2008 at 08:23 AM • top

Thanks Matt,

I’m in a community where there is no functional orthodox Anglican worship. I just moved from another community where the same was true, but our Presbyterian church there was gradually moving toward more liturgy (incense would not have happened, though!)

In my new town I’m in a more casual EPC church and will miss the liturgy even more.

Several years ago I was told by a rather dour reformed Baptist that the worship forms of the OT were “swept away” when Jesus came. Now the faith is cerebral and intellectual, almost “virtual” in nature, and not to be despoiled with earthy physicical things.

What misunderstanding about human nature he showed. People are the same in all times, and if God knew that people needed symbols and the physical in the OT, then I suspect we still need them in the NT church.

I’m reminded of the John 1:1 concerning Jesus “That which was from the beginning,which we have heard,which we have seen with our eyes,which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—”

Jesus has come “in the flesh” and honored it thus. The faith is profoundly earthy and physical—indeed that is proven by the incarnation.

[10] Posted by Capn Jack Sparrow on 11-06-2008 at 08:24 AM • top

#9 I don’t mind things a bit high but I like to be able to attend church without my gasmask.

[11] Posted by Pageantmaster ن on 11-06-2008 at 08:31 AM • top

Hmmmmm….High Church Calvinist?

One of the issues I note in modern churches is that they are virtually airtight- and the incense gets recirculated for the next three days.  In the drafty old churches of my youth, the smoke would clear in a couple minutes.

As the congregations age, it is definitely a problem, as noted by 3 and 4, for people with allergies or lung or sinus problems.  I suffer from allergies and sinus problems myself, which, of course, means that often as not, I am asked to be thurifer.  I find that as long as we use a good quality incense, I can tolerate it for the hour or two necessary. 

I have also been in the congregation for a couple services that used a thurible, but did not light it (yes, I’ve had them go out on me too, but I figure if it comes in and out a half dozen times, and they never get it lit, they did not mean to light it in the first place).  I suppose that before too long, we will see the smokeless potpourri thurible, with replaceable air freshener cartridges.  One priest would instruct me to leave the thurible to burn out in the church during coffee hour- so that the church would smell like a church.  Maybe Glade will come our with “frankincense” plug ins.

[12] Posted by tjmcmahon on 11-06-2008 at 08:32 AM • top

Thank you Matt.  My liturgical soul has been warmed and filled by this post from a Reformed Anglican. 

I have consistently pointed out that, contrary to some certain un-named commenters, you do not belong in a presbyterian church and would be cast out in short order if you somehow infiltrated it, as “too catholic” and “too liberal.”

Why isn’t this a feature?  I wish it were more prominent.

[13] Posted by Sarah on 11-06-2008 at 08:36 AM • top

#5- Fr. Andrew,
I recall my visit to your church some years ago and being thrown for a loop when you brought out the thurible.  Please forgive me if I chuckled loud enough that you could hear me.

Now that I reflect on it, it could not have been more than one or 2 years ago.  The last couple years in the church have been very long, haven’t they?

[14] Posted by tjmcmahon on 11-06-2008 at 08:43 AM • top

Agree with all you say, Matt.  And you’re right to point out that incense can become too much a focus of the service.  I have been to high-church Anglican services where the amount of incense used was truly ridiculous: people were hacking, tearing up, and even leaving early because of the fumigation—which the priest by parading up and down every aisle multiple times ensured would happen.  It became a distraction and a deterrent.  I think it’s important that in using incense it be used in moderation so that it contributes and does not overtake the service.  And surely those who use it excessively need to think a bit more about the effect it has on infants, children and adults with asthma, those with COPD and other lung disorders, and those with allergies.

[15] Posted by RomeAnglican on 11-06-2008 at 08:46 AM • top

You can’t have too much incense.  “Incense is our heavenly prayers rising to God”.  Grand, hi-church liturgy should not only convey a sense of the majesty of God, but instill a sense of our insignificance in His majestic presence.  Happy for your choice several years ago Matt.

[16] Posted by Capt. Father Warren on 11-06-2008 at 08:49 AM • top

This is a true story, witnessed by me as church organist.

One Feast Day Sunday, our priest (who used incense with much complaining by various and sundry members) probably more than the usual, found that we were indeed out of it.

He said nothing, but indeed swung the censor with great vigor during the Processional. 

Such coughing and choking went on anyway.  He never told anyone but me and the altar guild what he had done, and certainly did not do it as a joke.

But you would not believe the complaints we heard.

Just shows to go ya,

Grannie Gloria

[17] Posted by Grandmother on 11-06-2008 at 08:50 AM • top

And, Matt, as a Reformed and Calvinist Anglican, how do you explain sanctus bells?  It seems that incense and chasuble and crucifix and other mainstays of high-church worship are much more easy to explain to one of evangelical bent.  But tabernacle, sanctuary light, and sanctus bells seem more difficult to explain.  I hope you’ll continue this Q&A;series!  The idea of having such FAQs for non-Anglican evangelicals is brilliant, and could form a nice little booklet for broader distribution.

[18] Posted by RomeAnglican on 11-06-2008 at 08:52 AM • top

When one of our Bishops visits a congregation, he takes a deacon with him (unless the congregation has a deacon assigned), so I get to travel with the Bishop to different congregations and worship in all the glory of Anglicanism.  I’ve been where the normal service is “moanin’ prayah” and I’ve been where the congregation worships with clouds of incense and everything is chanted.  I love all aspects of good liturgy.  Anglo-catholic worship recapitulates the perichoresis of the Holy Trinity.  Evangelical Woship emphasises the importance on reading, learning, marking, and inwards digesting the Word of God.  Charismatic worship shows the Joy of the Lord.
To me, liturgy is like a frame around a picture.  The picture, itself, is the Truth and different frames will bring out different aspects of the Truth.  As long as you don’t star changing the picture itself, we should be free to worship in whatever style we desire.  Having said that, bad liturgy can detrace from worship just as a bad frame will cause people to notice the frame and ignore the picture.

Phil Snyder

[19] Posted by Philip Snyder on 11-06-2008 at 08:52 AM • top

Is it important to cite the Solas of Protestantism when defending use of incense?  It reminds me of men who say something tender and then feel they have to make some comment that emphasizes that they aren’t gay.

[20] Posted by monologistos on 11-06-2008 at 08:56 AM • top


If I were not addressing members of the solidly evangelical student group InterVarsity Christian Fellowship then, no, mention of the 5 solas would not be necessary…but since I was I felt it important to affirm for them that no, at least at Good Shepherd, the 5 solas are upheld.

[21] Posted by Matt Kennedy on 11-06-2008 at 09:05 AM • top


So I didn’t like this post very much.  It made my right knee jerk violently, and immediately I rushed for the keyboard to gather a crushing response ad fontes.

Musical Instruments in celebrating the praises of God would be no more suitable than the burning of incense, the lighting of lamps, and the restoration of the other shadows of the law. The Papists therefore, have foolishly borrowed, this, as well as many other things, from the Jews. Men who are fond of outward pomp may delight in that noise; but the simplicity which God recommends to us by the apostles is far more pleasing to him. 
John Calvin on Psalm 32

Which would be a great quote
if only it wasn’t advocating for the end of musical instruments in the church.  My disappointment knew no bounds.  There is that little requirement for consistency.

But my right knee is still unhappy with this remnant of Roman Catholicism, and I would be interested in your response to Calvin’s argument that incense is a shadow of the Law.  Your Scriptural texts are all from Pre-Pentacost Jewish practice , the OT, or Revelation.


[22] Posted by carl on 11-06-2008 at 09:17 AM • top

I have long suspected that Matt is a papist.  It is those who deny it the most who are most probably in the closet as Roman.

[23] Posted by Sarah on 11-06-2008 at 09:26 AM • top

Hi Carl,

thanks for this comment. Its interesting to note that Calvin’s understanding of the Eucharist was not that Christ was made present in the congregation, but that the congregation was made present with Christ in heaven. I understand that my peculiar understanding of liturgy sets me at odds with most Calvinists (though not all…RC Sproul is almost Anglican in his practice…you should listen to his series on the sight, sound, touch and smell of worship) and in particular with Calvinism post-Dort. But at the same time, given Calvin’s understanding of the Eucharist, I suggest that perhaps there is an inconsistency in Calvin’s thought’s here. If the visions presented of worship in Heaven include the element of incense…indeed if the earthly temple was a mere copy of the heavenly one as the author of Hebrew’s suggests, then while I certainly understand an aversion to the use of bells, incense etc…but I do not think we can necessarily, as a certain matter, relegate such things to levitical practice. Are the angels tethered to the Old Covenant as well…?

And if this is true, then when the congregation is taken up to the presence of Christ on Sunday morning, isn’t it appropriate to mark that fact, point to it, in sight, sound and, yes smell?

[24] Posted by Matt Kennedy on 11-06-2008 at 09:26 AM • top

It made my right knee jerk violently,

Oh, you must have that new ‘medical’ problem the pharmaceutical companies have invent in order to push more product. tongue wink

[25] Posted by Hosea6:6 on 11-06-2008 at 09:52 AM • top

Absolutely, Matt!  After all, shouldn’t we all “make a joyful noise unto the Lord?” 

Some of the most beautiful “noise” I have ever heard has come from the organ on Sunday morning, and my favorite organist is Diane Bish.

[26] Posted by Cennydd on 11-06-2008 at 09:55 AM • top

Hi Ralph,
Your comment about catholics using incense discretely has to be countered with this video from the Cathedral of Santiago de Campostela (heh):

[27] Posted by The Little Myrmidon on 11-06-2008 at 09:55 AM • top

TJ, our memory of time has a funny way of warping doesn’t it.  It seems that we’ve packed a whole lot of living into a small period of time, so I can’t remember exactly when it was you were with us (but I do remember exactly where you sat!). 

I hope that the week you visited was a week when the charcoal was actually lit.  It took our new acolytes no small amount of training to get it right, and we found that some folks who thought that they were allergic to the incense were in fact actually allergic to the charcoal.

Before we learned all of that we got some incense that was purported to be better for those with allergies.  I don’t think it was any better for our friends with allergies, but it did release a foul smell that was bad for everyone ; )

[28] Posted by Fr. Andrew Gross on 11-06-2008 at 09:58 AM • top

The Little Myrmidon,

Wow, that is hard core, and a whole series of accidents waiting to happen, not to mention a bit distracting…

[29] Posted by Fr. Andrew Gross on 11-06-2008 at 10:02 AM • top

It takes ten altar boys to swing that censer?  WOW!  Talk about overkill!

[30] Posted by Cennydd on 11-06-2008 at 10:09 AM • top

Oh, yes.  Absolutely. It’s my understanding from a little research that this is only done on special occasions.

[31] Posted by The Little Myrmidon on 11-06-2008 at 10:12 AM • top

Wonder how many stained glass windows they have taken out with that thing over the years.  And, do the ushers measure peoples’ height as they enter the church?  I would be making sure the basketball players sit toward the back.

[32] Posted by tjmcmahon on 11-06-2008 at 10:24 AM • top

I attended the Univ. of the South (Sewanee) which has a magnificent Lessons and Carols service every Christmas.  Im the early 90s I was attending the service when during the processional many of us sitting about halfway back heard a “THUNK” and then human sounds of discomfort.  We found out later that a fellow sitting on the aisle had ignored the “aisle tenders” - they walk in front of the processional and tell people not to lean into the aisle - and leaned out anyway.  The thurifer was doing the 360-around-the-world swing with the thurible, and as he walked by swinging joyfully he clipped the guy on the chin.  Oops.

[33] Posted by zana on 11-06-2008 at 10:40 AM • top

Thanks Myrmidon. That is absolutely beautiful. It reminds me of a movie I saw several years ago about Columbus that had much the same scene.

[34] Posted by via orthodoxy on 11-06-2008 at 10:46 AM • top

We used incense for years before we left TEC, and we’d be using it now if I was convinced it wouldn’t set off the fire alarm and sprinkler system in the school where we worship.

Once, I visited an Anglican parish that was worshipping in a former elementary school that the county had converted into a community center.  It was high church.  Bells and smells along with the Anglican missal.  The ceilings were low and the place could get smoky. The rector had to remind the acolytes to take it easy on the smoke because the week before the fire alarm had been activated.

[35] Posted by Piedmont on 11-06-2008 at 10:46 AM • top

In the drafty old churches of my youth, the smoke would clear in a couple minutes.

My church is still drafty enough to clear it out, but alas, it’s been a long time since we’ve had any incense. The last time the bishop was here, two years ago, we had it. In my first years, we had it every Sunday. Since I burned incense as a teenager (yes, I did), I can tell you that the church definitely uses the good stuff. wink No patchouli. grin

[36] Posted by oscewicee on 11-06-2008 at 10:50 AM • top

The Little Myrmidon, thanks for that clip! With the high drama of the thurible, do they all get up and go home after the cathedral is censed?

[37] Posted by oscewicee on 11-06-2008 at 10:57 AM • top

Well, Wikipedia says this about the incense:

A dome above the crossing contains the pulley mechanism to swing the “Botafumeiro”, which is a famous thurible found in this church. This thurible was created by the goldsmith José Losada in 1851. The Santiago de Compostela Botafumeiro is the largest censer in the world, weighing 80 kg and measuring 1.60 m in height. It is normally on exhibition in the library of the cathedral, but during certain important religious high days it is attached to the pulley mechanism, filled with 40 kg of charcoal and incense. In the Jubilee Years, whenever St James’s Day falls on a Sunday, the Botafumeiro is also attached in all the pilgrim’s mass. Eight red-robed tiraboleiros pull the ropes and bring it into a swinging motion almost to the roof of the transept, reaching speeds of 60 km/h and dispensing thick clouds of incense. One irreverent explanation of this custom, which originated more than 700 years ago—although incense has been used in Catholic ritual from the earliest times—is that it assisted in masking the stench emanating from hundreds of unwashed pilgrims.

I might also add that, if it wasn’t noticable in the video, they raise the thurible up once it gets swinging.  It seems they use the swinging motion plus tugging on the ropes to not only raise the thurible, but geti it swinging higher and higher.  So I don’t think anyone’s in any danger of being brained

[38] Posted by The Little Myrmidon on 11-06-2008 at 11:22 AM • top

I think I would be more worried about the fate of the stained glass than a braining. I wonder how much training these guys get? wink

[39] Posted by oscewicee on 11-06-2008 at 11:58 AM • top

I’m afraid that many RC Churches have lost the art of proper use of incense at Liturgy.  Fortunately living in NYC, I have been blessed to attend Festal Eucharists and Evensongs at St. Thomas where the incense is tastefully used.  Over the years I also have frequented The Church of St. Mary the Virgin in NYC and have always been struck with how well incense is used there at the Principal Liturgy and Evensong and Benediction.  It seems so natural to the Celebrant and the assistants.  Unfortunately the Church still suffers from that waggish epithet ‘Smokey Mary’s’, but awe, beauty, reverence and yes, fragrance are in plentiful supply.  The congregant feels swept up by the sights, music, and incense and incorporated into that rare and wonderful expression of Eucharist or later Benediction. And, they do this Sunday after Sunday and every major Feastday.  I hope people make a point of visiting St. Mary’s when they come to New York City; there’s nothing like it!

[40] Posted by JP on 11-06-2008 at 12:18 PM • top

And they brought him gifts of gold, Frankincense and myrrh.

Frankincense is the sweetest, least cough inducing and most scriptural incense I was ever been privileged to use in NI, AZ, SD and the RG. Try it this Christmas.

And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth. Jn 1.14 KJV

Not only is this verse probably seminal in our understanding of God, it also reveals what E. Stanley Jones, the Apostle to India, used in arguing with the “spiritually minded” Hindu Brahman and the Buddhist: this verse defines the Christian faith as the most materialistic of all faiths and points to the material as a fit dwelling place of the Holy -Creation, Incarnation and Indwelling the human temple.

And from Martin Bucer, the reformer that shaped Calvin’s understanding and form of the liturgy and then while exiled impacted the 1st & 2nd BCP’s of Edward VI, these words turned to in the restoration of Elizabeth I: Where the Bible is silent, let tradition speak.

[41] Posted by Bob Maxwell+ on 11-06-2008 at 12:23 PM • top

Lots of people do not know how to do incense properly.  You should smell only the fragrance and not the smoke!  It’s the smoke that bothers people’s eyes and throats.  Also, thanks to Matt for pointing out the Bible passages on building the tabernacle.  They make it abundantly clear that God likes beautiful stuff—he created it all.

[42] Posted by Ann Castro on 11-06-2008 at 12:27 PM • top

A quick take on this topic:
1. Do a Bible concordance check on “incense” and see how many hundreds of times incense is mentioned in the worship of the Almighty God;
2. Two of the three gifts from the Magi to Christ were incense; and
3. Is there anywhere in the Bible where the use of incense in worship is denounced?

I serve in an Anglo-Catholic Diocese. My congregation/worship is Anglo-Catholic without all the bells and whistles AT THIS TIME.
I have been here for less than two years and I am currently laying the ground work - educating my congregation on liturgical, theological and other matters of worship, church-life and churchmanship. I am making a good progress in this education. But I am very sensitive and careful in my approach, considering the fact that most of my congregation come from Protestant-Anglican background than from Anglo-Catholicism.

According to the Bible, a sweet-smelling incense is pleasing to the Lord.

Fr. Kingsley Jon-Ubabuco
Arlington, TX

[43] Posted by Spiro on 11-06-2008 at 12:28 PM • top

I loved your article.  Yours seems to be the type of service I want myself.  High church and evangelical aren’t mutually exclussive terms.  Thanks so much for sharing!

[44] Posted by Bo on 11-06-2008 at 12:34 PM • top


Thanks for this helpful article. 

I was not (at all) brought into Anglicanism out of a felt-need for high-church elements in worship, and it’s taken me a bit of time to get used to Anglican worship.  I’ve progressed a lot from that first dreadful year, when everything felt like mountain hiking wearing clown shoes. 

The only thing that makes me wince (inwardly) in our worship is the standing-up / sitting-down distinction made in Scripture readings.  I’ve never gotten over that, but it never was a hill to crawl up and die on, anyhow. 

Other good articles could be on bowing and genuflection in worship, and use of holy water. 


The no-musical-instruments crowd is very interesting, if you can find them.  One of their defenses is that musical instruments masked the bleating of animals who were about to be slaughtered in the Old Testament temple sacrifices.  Since the sacrificial system has been abrogated, whatever went with it (muscial instruments, so they argue) is also abrogated.

[45] Posted by J Eppinga on 11-06-2008 at 01:02 PM • top

I hate incense.  It makes me cough and my eyes swell.  Slightly off topic, one year our parish priest ran out of ashes for Ash Wednesday.  He took some from his fireplace and used that.  Must have been the creosote but half the congregation broke out in a rash from the ashes.

[46] Posted by DaveG on 11-06-2008 at 01:05 PM • top

[24] Matt Kennedy

If the visions presented of worship in Heaven include the element of incense…indeed if the earthly temple was a mere copy of the heavenly one as the author of Hebrew’s suggests, then while I certainly understand an aversion to the use of bells, incense etc…but I do not think we can necessarily, as a certain matter, relegate such things to levitical practice. Are the angels tethered to the Old Covenant as well…?

If I understand you correctly, these visions are taken from the Book of Revelation which is Apocalyptic Literature.  This book is heavily driven by OT imagery, and so I wonder if it is a strong source for determining New Testament worship practices. 

I guess I should consider the use of incense an aspect of Christian freedom, except that it’s Roman, and as well all know, if Rome does it then it’s wrong - unless of course the Protestants did it first.  wink  This logic is ironclad and unassailable.


[47] Posted by carl on 11-06-2008 at 01:33 PM • top


The no-musical-instruments crowd is very interesting, if you can find them.

When doing some research on the PCA, I stumbled upon a (fascinating if less than convincing) 10,000 word essay decrying the evils of the piano in church (and therefore by extension the PCA.)  That is pretty much my only contact with them.  Imagine my distress this morning to discover a connection to Calvin.  I spent awhile trying to find some qualification of ‘musical instruments’ on his part, and haven’t yet given up hope.  As a backup plan, I will find some way to blame Jacob Arminius. wink


[48] Posted by carl on 11-06-2008 at 01:44 PM • top

My former parish is so miserly with the use of incense that it comes off more like a decoration to the service than a true part of the liturgy.  As Ms. Castro points out, too many parishes don’t know how to use it properly creating the bitter noxious smoke.  The first time it was used no one spoke to the altar guild and they had no clue as to how to handle the still warm thurible so they filled it with water! 

Lately I’ve been attending an Orthodox parish.  They use incense profusely and the chapel is very small yet the odor is sweet an no one has to cough or gag.  Christ and the Apostles would be quite at home with incense (and fasting or other “Popish practices”).  I can imaging they would find it curious that Sola Scriptura Protestants would be so negative as it its use.

[49] Posted by Nikolaus on 11-06-2008 at 01:48 PM • top

Thanks for this, Fr. Kennedy.

[50] Posted by evan miller on 11-06-2008 at 01:51 PM • top

I had never been to a church that burned incense until after a wonderful experience that occurred in a difficult time in my life. I had been reaching out to the Lord for weeks in prayer - very deep prayer. After I had finished pouring my heart out before the Lord one evening, I went and took a shower. Upon exiting the bathroom, I was hit with this overwhelming smell of incense. At first I thought the apartment was on fire, but after searching a bit I couldn’t find anything burning or hot. This repeated on several occasions, and it took me a few times to connect the presence of the Lord in some manner had been manifested each time after prayer.  When I finally experience incense in a Church, I caught the symbolism.  I love incense!

[51] Posted by Festivus on 11-06-2008 at 01:54 PM • top

This reminds me of an article I read a few years ago about Canterbury Cathedral.  The Chapter was becoming concerned that the crowds of tourists were growing more rowdy and outright disrespectful at times.  They set up a large bowl in an unused space adjacent to the nave and burned incense.  The concept was that tourists from the Continent were used to the smell of incense and beeswax in RC churches and would associate it with a contemplative atmosphere.  I understand that the experiment worked; however, I have no idea if the practice continues.

[52] Posted by Nikolaus on 11-06-2008 at 02:13 PM • top

Fr. Kingsley Jon-Ubabuco - I say hit em with it now. They will love it.

[53] Posted by via orthodoxy on 11-06-2008 at 02:22 PM • top

I too have an incense story to tell. Fifty years ago when I was a student in a Lutheran college, many of us took up pipe smoking with a twist: we mixed Frankincense with our pipe tobacco. The dorm and the student union reeked of it. A very “churchy” smell.  The Missouri Synod students were not amused.  You used to be able to buy Frankincense in drug stores. That’s where I got mine.
Years later, I bought a box of “Three Kings” incense at a church goods store and improvised a censor out of a ceramic hanging pot. Our house used to get censed at Christmas and Easter.  I don’t do it much any more as I have allergies and COPD.
Dumb Sheep.

[54] Posted by dumb sheep on 11-06-2008 at 02:49 PM • top

So Matt, I’m a little nervous weighing in on this topic for fear of the response, but I offer it in Christian humility.  Now I am a very low, low church evangelical who happens to love the liturgy thanks to Robert Webber’s Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail (and being born into TEC, also).  So I know little about incense other than in my mind it is a tool to engage more fully our senses in worship of the Almighty.  That part is cool.

We’ve started an evening eucharist built around the “Ancient-Modern” model from Webber with acoustic music (guitars, violin, some piano) playing both old and new arrangements of hymns (not praise music).  During the prayers, we have the guitar playing and I’ve kinda thought that music was incense for the post-modern generation (somehow the music combined with the prayers really focuses my mind on Christ better than without it).

[55] Posted by Widening Gyre on 11-06-2008 at 03:38 PM • top

How do you burn incense so that you only smell the fragrance and don’t get the smoke? I had always thought that was a function of where you sat in church. wink

[56] Posted by oscewicee on 11-06-2008 at 03:49 PM • top


I can feel you on this but I think a big difference is made when proper attention is paid to ventilation.

My Anglo-Cath church does incense. Sometimes it doesnt smoke much. Sometimes it does. But I never get the sense that it is treated as any kind of show. What helps me, a person with both asthma and allergies, is a good ventilation system in the church. I am never bothered by it these days although at first I was a little sensitive. It never seems to get thick or choking. A high pitched ceiling may also help in that regard. 

If you are ever in Dallas, drop by St Matthias’ to see for yourself. It doesnt have to be unpleasant to worship using incense.

Frankly, I can’t imagine church without it anymore.

[57] Posted by StayinAnglican on 11-06-2008 at 03:57 PM • top


I am not sure what a low church AC is like but I would suspect that a few may be found at Low Mass wherever it is offered.

As for the High Church Evangelical, well now we have proof that such a creature exists. I never suspected it for a minute. Quelle suprise!

Maybe these folks are the same as the Evangelical Anglican which has always deeply confused me. I have known about them for years but I have never witnessed them in action. My mind has always run aground on where the bishops fit in that particular scheme of things. I may never figure that one out.

BTW, I cannot say how delighted I am to find out that Father Matt is a high churcher. I always knew that I liked him in spite of his occasional ultra-reformed broadsides lobbed at AC’s like me!

[58] Posted by StayinAnglican on 11-06-2008 at 04:10 PM • top

On the rare occasions that incense has been used in the deep South parish I attend, it has induced the expected praises and complaints.  As the LEM (thurifer) that carried the thurible (smoke-on-a-rope), it was all I could do to breathe because of the smell/aroma (depending on your point of view).  It was also a very big concern that as we went into the congregation to read the Gospel, I was afraid the wisps ascending heavenward might set off the smoke alarm.  Wouldn’t that be something?  I realize traditionally, the incense was used to glorify God but it was also used to mask the odor of the animals brought for tithing; not to mention some of the attendees that might not yet have had their Spring bath!  As in most traditions, there is both a utilitarian function as well as an aesthetic one.  Of course in college during the 70’s, the only time I smelled incense was when someone in the dorm was trying to cover up those “funny” cigarettes!  Hopefully those that sing the praises of incense today are not reminiscing! (lol)  Nevertheless, if someone could suggest different types of incense, maybe I can find one that does not crinkle my nose or invite a sneezing fit when lit.  I love the formality of the liturgy but not the fragrance of the fuel.  Please advise.  Thanks.

[59] Posted by fsbill on 11-06-2008 at 04:19 PM • top

Festivus, thank you for posting that. Anglo-Catholic/charismatic here, but such grace as you were given - I don’t hear stories like that so often as one could wish. It becomes like a place of such sweetness to think of it - a place of holiness…

May God’s blessings continue with you.

...connect the presence of the Lord in some manner had been manifested each time after prayer

[60] Posted by Wren King on 11-06-2008 at 04:43 PM • top

BTW, Fr. Kennedy, kudos for a beautiful example of a true “thinking” Anglican.  You demonstrated the classical Anglican formulary of how to use Holy Scripture to inform your Reason.  Too many of us assume that we are sufficiently formed as Christians that our faculties of Reason are already guided by Scripture.  The result is often disasterous.  If our Revisionist friends would learn from your example and apply it to their agenda we might actually be able to dialogue about our differences.  But it is nearly impossible to debate someone who can only rely on personal conclusions. 

I look forward to future articles on other Protestant bugaboos like fasting or Mary! smile

[61] Posted by Nikolaus on 11-06-2008 at 04:56 PM • top

#57 StayinAnglican

I take your point and also that of Anne Castro.  As I understand it the purpose of good liturgy, ritual, dress etc are that they allow the worshipper to concentrate on the service and worship rather than the person of the priest, the components of ceremony etc.  Well done, one should be hardly aware of them, but they should aid the worshipper’s journey into concentrating on praising God and being drawn into His presence along with the congregation.

There is a long history of course of the association of smell and fragrance with God and his presence, right up to the annointing of Christ with costly balm.  One of my favorite and very personal descriptions, coming I think from St Augustine is this:

You called, you cried, you shattered my deafness. 
You sparkled, you blazed, you drove away my blindness. 
You shed your fragrance, and I drew in my breath and I pant for you. 
I tasted and now I hunger and thirst. 
You touched me, and now I burn with longing for your peace.

[I am sure that I would enjoy visiting your church and thank you for the invitation to see how it should be done properly - the church I was asphyxiated in was in the country, and they are not very subtle!]

[62] Posted by Pageantmaster ن on 11-06-2008 at 05:28 PM • top


I’m glad you’re open to using incense.  I love the stuff myself, enough that I sometimes burn it in my office.

May I point out that there is an important typo in your first major biblical text that you cite?  You quote (very aptly) Exodus 25:1-6, but then at the end the reference given is said to be from the 23rd chapter.

A couple historical notes.  Lutherans continued to use incense in Germany and Sweden for decades after the Reformation began, before the practice gradually faded out.  And the use of incense also persisted a long time in England as well.  That great Caroline Divine, +Lancelot Andrewes (died 1626) used it in his private chapel.

But there is a very amusing footnote in Gregory Dix’ classic history, “The Shape of the Liturgy,” where he dryly notes that the last English cathedral to stop using incense (sometime in the 1700s) did so when one prominent member of the gentry objected that the smell bothered him, and—here’s the good part—that “gentleman” (in the original sense) was a constant user of SNUFF.  Obviously, Dix enjoyed the absurdity of a snuff addict complaining about the smell of incense.

David Handy+

[63] Posted by New Reformation Advocate on 11-06-2008 at 06:18 PM • top

Didn’t read all the posts here, but resonate with the incesaphoric amongst you. The Orthodox Christians offer incense because we fulfill the sacrifices of the Old Testament, we don’t just get rid of them. Christ,our Paschal Lamb is our ongoing Sacrifice in the Divine Liturgy and in fulfillment of the Old Law, incense is offered morning and evening at Matins and Vespers.
On a more practical note, one could use incense from and Eastern Orthodox source, which tends to be sweeter and more subtle than some western ones.
Holy Cross Hermitage makes some wonderful scents and even has a sampler.
You will have to cut and paste to get the full url.
They have really good products.
Good luck, and holy smoke to you!
Rdr. James Morgan
olympia, WA

[64] Posted by rdrjames on 11-06-2008 at 06:50 PM • top

Steelites, most likely, if they’re chaffing at the PCA, in huge essays.  There are a couple of NAPARC denoms that are into strict observance of the Regulative Principle, but unlike the Steelites, they are in ecumenical fellowship with Reformed folk who don’t observe the RPW as strict.  So, they’re behaved. 

As a backup plan, I will find some way to blame Jacob Arminius.

Nah.  Deep down, a guy who tries explain how someone who is spiritually dead can grasp at God, just wants people to grasp at God.  There’s nothing at all un-Reformed with asking people to repent and embrace Christ. 

Also, there are “Reformed” femto-denominations where 99% of the members don’t take Lord’s Supper because “they’re not sure” if they are Elect.  Even some of the elders won’t take it.  ‘ridiculous.  If I had to choose between that, and being an Arminian, I’d choose Arminian, hands down.

(Fortunately, that’s not a false choice I was predestined to take). 

Nah, the no-musical-instruments guys (and their cousins) are ours, and they are there to keep us humble.

[65] Posted by J Eppinga on 11-06-2008 at 08:19 PM • top

A couple historical notes.  Lutherans continued to use incense in Germany and Sweden for decades after the Reformation began, before the practice gradually faded out.

It’s not completely dead.  While living in another city, we found ourselves in an ELCA congregation (we didn’t have a car, and the TEC congregation in the neighborhood was Not An Option, and despite a fascinating experience in RCIA wecouldn’t quite walk the Roman Road).  Interesting, if liberal, parish.  The worship was “contemporary high church” that used Lutheran pipe organ hymns sometimes fused with world music (think singing Alleluia before the gospel to bongo drums)... We usually sang the Sursum Corda and used incense on certain occasions, such as Easter Vigil. 

I’m glad to see that the “old categories” are not hard and fast—Calvinists can find biblical warrant for ancient practice, and high-church folks can find ways of fusing elements from the global south or evangelicalism into their worship.  There are many “right ways” worship the Lord (and, to be sure, many “wrong ways” as well).

[66] Posted by Via Mead (Rob Kirby) on 11-07-2008 at 12:11 AM • top

Then there is the legendary story told about when the famous actress Tallulah Bankhead attended Midnight Mass on Christmas at St. Mary the Virgin in New York. The well-vested deacon with the thurible was standing near her, and she reportedly said to him, in that raspy, quasi-alchoholic voice of hers: “Dahling, your dress is divine, but your purse is on fire…” Does anyone know if this is a true story, or fiction? Or, as one of my former Church History profs would say, “If it isn’t true, it should be.”

[67] Posted by mike458 on 11-07-2008 at 10:33 AM • top

#59 - Fsbill -
A fine source of incense would be the Holy Rood Guild, of St. Joseph’s Trappist Monastery, Spencer, MA.  Their Laudate - spicy; and Cantica - sweet, would certainly meet your standards.

For the ‘homeburners’there -  I took a wire hanger and cut it below the joint.  Bend the long leg in 1/2, and flatten 2” of the arms.  I use a tea lite in a votive glass to heat the bottom/top of a # 10 can on which is placed a spoon of incense - sometimes mixed.  No charcoal, pure fragrance.  Adjust height of the arms to avoid ‘burning’.

[68] Posted by JP on 11-07-2008 at 10:43 AM • top

I heard it 35 years ago, attributed to a gay choir member at Christ Church Cathedral in Lexington.  Told by another choir member (paid professional - not a Christian as far as I know).  they had a superb choir.  Probably still do.

[69] Posted by evan miller on 11-07-2008 at 10:43 AM • top

As I now worship at a non-instumental Church, I can assure you all that acapella musical worship can be quite beautiful and moving. But, then I always found instumentally accompanied musical worship beautiful and moving. I must confess that when we sing praise hymns I wish I could pull out my Martin HD-28vr guitar and play a few chords that would add to the music. And, I fully expect to hear the sound of insturments in Heaven. I’ve accepted that I will never find a “perfect” Church but at least I don’t have to worry about Buddist or Hindu rites being held in my Church.

[70] Posted by Miata on 11-07-2008 at 12:19 PM • top

Our parish uses incense in every service, but it is used in a way I’ve not seen any place else, and have heard about similar use very rarely.

First, we almost never use a thurible.  Usually only when the bishop visits.

Second, incense is offered during the portions of the liturgy devoted to the Prayers of the People.  This conforms with extensive Biblical pattern and precedent.

Third, we use an incense advertised to be “non-choking.”  We find that it does, indeed, not provoke coughing, though that happy situation may be more tied to the stationary censer.

Fourth, the incense is always burned in a “table censer” which is set in the middle of the altar.  Immediately before the Prayers of the People, incense is laid on the coal (ignited earlier, just before the homily).  The smoke rises straight up about four to six feet, and it then “pools” in a cloud over the altar.  Behind the altar is a window with colored panes, and the sunlight pouring through the cloud of smoke makes it glow with the colors of the window.  The smoke will dissipate slowly toward the nave, so the congregation will smell a faint odor.  Most of the smoke remains in a gently undulating blanket about 8 to 10 feet above the floor of the nave.

Aesthetically, symbolicly, spiritually—this use of incense edifies, instructs, and strengthens those in prayer without subjecting them to pulmonary distress.

[71] Posted by BrotherQuotidian on 11-07-2008 at 12:44 PM • top

I hope you don’t mind a few comments on incense from an Orthodox priest. We use incense in just about every service, but we never use any musical instruments at all (except the bells on the censer). Also, when I cense, I was taught to use a crosswise motion: the censer is extended to the end of the chain; the first swing is high, marking the top of the cross; the second swing is low, marking the bottom of the cross; the third and final swing goes across between the other two, marking the cross arm of the cross.

I was taught the incense should be placed NEXT to the charcoal, but not on it directly. This eliminates most of the smoke, but produces a nice smell. This may be part of the answer for those cases where people are being choked. We get a little smoke this way, but it isn’t overwhelming, even for the priest or deacon doing the censing.

Also, if you are bothered by the incense, you might try to obtain pure Ethiopian incense tears. They’re kind of expensive and a little hard to find, but they don’t have any additives. At lot of times, the irritation is caused by the various perfumes that are added to produce special scents. The plain incense tears usually don’t cause irritation. The late Metropolitan Philaret was bothered by most scented incense, but he had no trouble with the plain incense tears.

[72] Posted by Fr. S. J. on 11-07-2008 at 08:56 PM • top

#67 I heard the same story at Columbia University in the early 60’s.  In that version, it took place at St. Patrick’s cathedral during what would now be described as a Gay Pride mass. The person swinging the censer was none other than Cardinal Spellman. (Cardinal Spellbound to the New Catholics among us.)
Dumb Sheep.

[73] Posted by dumb sheep on 11-08-2008 at 01:12 PM • top

I admit to enjoying this thread like few others that I have.  Like threads on mission, good works and proclaiming the Gospel, it’s something to remind us of what is truly important; in this case, the worship of the Holy Trinity.

Historically, two uses of incense should be distinguished:  a ceremonial use; and a symbolic use.  The symbolic use is clearly informed by Revelation 8.4, as Matt noted in his article above.  Hence historically we see the offering of incense (an important distinction to rememeber - we offer the burning of incense to the Lord, we don’t just burn it as fumigation or for show) associated in the West with the Gospel canticles, Nunc dimittis and Magnificat, at Evensong/Vespers, as a reminder that the prayers of the saints ascend to God even as the smoke of the incense ascends.  This symbolic use also informs the latter day offering of incense during prayers of intercession, like the Prayers of the People at the Eucharist.  I’ve know of at least a couple of Anglican/Episcopal parishes (including my own) who offer incense in this symbolic way, with the prayers - and interestingly enough, the supplemental liturgical resources jointly produced by the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in the 1980s, which eventuated in a new Book of Common Worship in the 1990s, advocated the offering of incense at Evening Prayer in this symbolic way (a musical setting of Revelation 8.4 was given to accompany the offering of incense before the psalmody).

The ceremonial use of incense is the one most associated with Anglo-Catholic and historic Western (and Eastern) use:  incense offered in processions, the censing of the people at various points in the liturgy, etc.  (This is the most common use in my parish.)  In fact, I suspect that the ceremonial use of incense was probably the reason that incense was introduced into the Christian liturgy, probably in the 4th (perhaps late 3rd?) century, despite the verses from the Psalms and the Apocalypse that infor a symbolic use.

Early Christians likely avoided the use of incense for the same reason that they avoided the use of musical instruments in worship (particularly organs, until probably the 8th or 9th century in the West):  these practices were associated with paganism, as incense was burned in pagan religious ritual; and musical instruments, particularly the hydraulus, a kind of organ that worked on water pressure to produce wind, were associated with the theater and the games (you know, the kind where gladiators killed each other and wild animals, and where both killed Christians).  Flutes (like recorders) were associated with pagan religious ritual and particularly with mystery cults.  Incense was associated, most scandalously for Christians, with the emperor-cult.  Smoking incense was born in procession before the Caesar (to whom cries of “Kyrie eleison! were made), and the worship of Caesar’s genius, the refusal of which act brought many Christians into persecution by the authorities, was accompanied by the burning of a little incense.

But with the legalization of Christianity under Constantine, and the correspondingly more public nature of Christian liturgical practice, the Christian diffidence about musical instruments and incense began to wane.

So why would Christians want to offer incense in procession, censing the air before the Gospel book and the Cross as though Caesar were being led into the assembly?

Because coopting a ceremonial practice of the imperial court was and is a way of dramatically and sensuously proclaiming that Jesus is Lord, and a way of offering worship to him as the Lord of all creation.  The Christians who began using incense in this ceremonial way subverted particularly its Roman imperial use by declaring that Jesus, and not Caesar, was Lord.

And we do the same today when we offer incense to our God and King, Jesus Christ our Lord.

[74] Posted by Todd Granger on 11-08-2008 at 01:39 PM • top

The Rev’d Hely H. Smith, in Tract #23 of the Church Association, stated clearly that “Our Church makes no provision for incense-burning, there are no rubrics decreeing when it is to be introduced; nor does she afford any opportunity for its introduction: surely it cannot be said in such a case, that silence gives consent; but in her Homilies, she is not silent:-
  Let us honour and worship, for religion’s sake, none but Him; not in lighting of candles, BURNING OF INCENSE, &c;., for all these be abominations before God.”
-3rd Part of Sermons against Peril of Idolatry, towards the end.

[75] Posted by RMBruton on 11-09-2008 at 11:27 AM • top

RMBruton, how can the burning of incense be an “abomination” if it is offered by the angels before the Throne of God?

[76] Posted by Nikolaus on 11-09-2008 at 03:48 PM • top

76, Nikolaus, these are the words of the Rev’d Hely H. Smith:
It is said again, that in the Revelation we find incense offered with the prayers of the Saints. It is true - but then that is in Heaven, not on earth. It is offered by an angel, is supplied from Heaven’s treasury, and is followed by the most solemn indications of God’s wrath against the disobedient.
  Thus much for the Scripture testimony, from which I conclude that God’s verdict on this revival of a popish custom is given in His own words: “Incense is an abomination unto me.” - Isaiah I. 13. And that the very ground occupied by those, who persist in this innovation, instead of being strong enough (as they would have us believe) to make it their duty to defy the laws of the land, is in reality no ground at all, but only a dangerous quicksand.

[77] Posted by RMBruton on 11-09-2008 at 05:38 PM • top

Why then did God direct Isreal to offer incense in Exodus?  Why shouldn’t worship here on earth resemble heavenly worship?

[78] Posted by Nikolaus on 11-09-2008 at 07:25 PM • top

I assume that the use of incense is an abomination in the same way that Church organ music might be called an “abomination” by some.

[79] Posted by Cennydd on 11-09-2008 at 08:29 PM • top

Here we go again. It is argued that incense was offered by God’s command in the worship, which He Himself instituted; this is true, but it is also true: -
  I. That God Himself prescribed the ingredients and quantities, and that His penalty for making it of any other substance or in different proportions - in short, that to attempt to imitate it was - death
  II. He decreed, that only the priests He had appointed might offer it, and the penalty for infringing this rule was - death.
  III. He commanded, that it should only be lighted by fire from heaven, and those, who presumed to use any other fire, found that the penalty of their disobedience was - death.
  I will give you three other passages to read to understand this: Numbers XVI. 35,39,40.; 2 Chronicles XXVI. 16-21.; Leviticus X. 1-2. If after that you still don’t get it, then, I’m wasting my time.

[80] Posted by RMBruton on 11-09-2008 at 08:34 PM • top

Cennydd, you must have heard the caution concerning assuming. Isaiah I. 13. reads: ” Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me ...” If you believe Scripture, then you must believe these to be the words of the Lord.

[81] Posted by RMBruton on 11-09-2008 at 08:47 PM • top

[81] RMBruton

Listen, O heavens, and hear, O earth; For the LORD speaks,      “Sons I have reared and brought up, But they have revolted against Me. ”  Isaiah 1:2

This is the context of Isaiah 1:13 - the rebellion of Israel, and the resulting spiritual emptiness of its worship.  The whole point of the passage is that external ritual cannot cover up internal corruption.  Which then deserves the condemnation - the incense or the man who offers it as decoration on a whited sepulcher?  True worship is defined by spirit and truth; not by form and ritual. 


[82] Posted by carl on 11-09-2008 at 09:00 PM • top

The Vainness of the oblation is the problem. 

He doesn’t want sacrifices that don’t come with a contrite heart either….

[83] Posted by Bo on 11-09-2008 at 09:05 PM • top

Go back and read the three passages which I referred to in #80.

[84] Posted by RMBruton on 11-09-2008 at 09:07 PM • top

2 Chronicles describes the attempt of the unfaithful King Uzziah to usurp the role of a priest and offer incense in the temple.  I fail to see how this passage is in any way relevant to the liturgical use of incense today.  It is surely not being argued that Fr. Kennedy is prohibited from using incense because he, like Uzziah, is not a descendant of Aaron?  Is it really being suggested that the Jewish tabernacle/temple regulations regarding incense are still to be enforced in the church today?

[85] Posted by Nevin on 11-09-2008 at 09:34 PM • top

[84] RMBruton

Go back and read the three passages which I referred to in #80.

OK, I did so.  Here attached is my bona fides.  But what have you shown except that offering incense contrary to the Law was worthy of death?  This does not change at all what I said. For the judgments in Isaiah 1 are pronounced against offerings that were in strict conformance with the Law.  Strange fire was already condemned, but God does not pronounce such a judgment.  Here God condemns an external ritual that does not agree with the internal spiritual reality.  Here is the judgment that God pronounces.

Your hands are covered with blood. Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; Remove the evil of your deeds from My sight.  Cease to do evil, Learn to do good; Seek justice, Reprove the ruthless,Defend the orphan, Plead for the widow. Isaiah 1:15-17

This is not about a strict violation of ceremonial Law.  This is a condemnation of the hearts of a people.


[86] Posted by carl on 11-09-2008 at 09:43 PM • top

Mmmmmm…I have severe asthma. Incense smells pretty, but it is the cough of death for me. I have to leave the building when a censor starts swinging overhead. It is too embarrassing to start coughing spasmodically in public. I have tried to stay in the past, but came too close to passing out. Also embarrassing. I would rather not have a problem with it, but have not found a way around it.

Take It for What It’s Worth

[87] Posted by Pat Kashtock on 11-11-2008 at 09:30 PM • top

You may want to read the following article on Anglicans Ablaze

[88] Posted by RMBruton on 11-12-2008 at 10:08 AM • top

I assume Bruton that you don’t eat shellfish, wear blended fabrics or have any photographs or other depictions of loved ones, especially ones departed.

[89] Posted by Nikolaus on 11-12-2008 at 11:23 AM • top

Nikolaus - Why would RMBruton disobey the LORD like St Peter, who not only had St Paul get in his face but the Lord, Himself ‘Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.’ It sounds like you need a SFIF coffee mug with one of Greg’s favorite passages on it.

[90] Posted by Hosea6:6 on 11-12-2008 at 11:34 AM • top

I think the topic has been well covered and we are at the point where we are simply talking past each other.  Next…?

[91] Posted by Nikolaus on 11-12-2008 at 12:32 PM • top

Thank You for sharing your assumptions; but did you take the time to read Robin Jordan’s article, as refernced in #88?

[92] Posted by RMBruton on 11-12-2008 at 04:52 PM • top

[88] RMBruton

The argument in AnglicansAblaze seems little more than guilt by association.  “The Romans used incense to represent the sacrifice of the Mass and therefore incense is forever scarred by the association.”  This does not persuade. 

The arguments of “Not all things edify” and “Not causing a brother to stumble” have considerably more weight.  Surely that is why the Reformers removed the images - to expunge the papist connection.  But such arguments have expiration dates.  Ask any RC on this board, and they will testify I am an “Anti-Catholic.”  And yet the use of incense does not strike me as incentive to return to the errors of Rome.  I suspect most people are just like me - absolutely clueless to the symbolic significance of Roman ritual.  Even now that I know, it has no impact on me.  If the purpose of the ritual is lost, then the opportunity for stumbling is also lost.  One use of incense does not permanently fix all uses of incense into that framework.

My reaction was just as I described - visceral but without reasoned foundation.  I am looking for a biblical reason to reject incense, and have not yet found one.  Right now, all I have is “Rome does it, and so it’s bad.” That’s not enough for me to restrict Matt Kennedy’s freedom.


[93] Posted by carl on 11-12-2008 at 10:20 PM • top

For me, whether or not a parish uses incense is truly where the rubber meets the road. This is one area where I wholeheartedly interpret scripture literally. Incense is an ESSENTIAL element of Christian worship. Yes, I am an unapologetic liberal on many issues—I support female and gay ordination and same sex marriage—but faced with attending a liberal parish that eschews incense and a conservative one that uses it profusely, I will attend that conservative one every time.

I am 56 and have been a thurifer since age 13. I know how to stoke up that pot so it pours out so much smoke you sometimes can’t see the altar. And I can do 360’s, double and tripe 360’s, figure 8’s, corner swings, you name it. I do have asthma and I do sing countertenor, and I can tell you incense has never had an ill effect on me. As you may probably guess, thurifer is for me the most fun job in Church (singing alto is second). I can recall serving as thurifer at midnite Mass in a desert parish in about 1999. As I led the procession in, a strange man in the tenth or so pew fanned the incense away with his bulletin. So on the recessional,  I made sure he got a really good dose!

In about 1995, I wrote an article on the use and history of incense that appeared in The Living Church. It is widely quoted on Church websites. In that article, I said: “Holy Scripture contains all things necessary for salvation, including the proper odors for worship.”

Smoke’em good, Father Matt. Right on!

[94] Posted by DesertDavid on 11-23-2008 at 11:00 PM • top

As you can tell, from my pseudonym, I like incense…which this born and bred Church of Christ guy didn’t have until his 20’s.  But I agree that some is less desirable.  I have discovered that, indeed, QUALITY and type have a lot to do with it.  I have had good experiences with Monastery Incense.  But some cheap brands shock you and then leave that harsh, dry after-stink…bad or worse than that…perish the thought…CONE/STICK c**p.  I tend to enjoy the Eastern style…the monks pound the scents into powder, make a “dough” and cut it up…it burns more gently and is softer and sweeter.  The “gum” and more “woody” types like frankincense, myrrh, are drier and more “spicy”...I have heard more complaints about those.  Some priests use “dry” in penitential seasons and “sweet” in ordinary/festal seasons(kind of like some churches with their sacramental wines).  I like drier types on occasion for contrast…of better quality.  You do get what you pay for.  I would advise buying a variety pack of incense and trying them each out in the church.  And I agree, there is nothing that annoys me more than “over-actors” swooning, flailing, hacking, and having seizures over actually a small amount of incense while you’re still baking the coals in the Sacristy…especially when they were warned many times in advance…and given alternative services to attend.  Some do anything to put on a show of discomfort.  Yes, you could bring in an “unleaded” thurible with placebo consequences.

[95] Posted by TXThurifer on 11-25-2008 at 01:58 PM • top

One question I have for Matt Kennedy as the author of this piece is the following: What you’ve described are many of the “High Church” externals: “bells and smells”, candles, eucharistic vestments etc. How would you have handled it if the Anglo-Catholic parish you arrived at recited the Angelus at the end of every service? And what if they didn’t follow the Anglican liturgy for the Lord’s Supper, but instead used the Roman Missal? Here the differences wouldn’t just be external (and arguably “adiaphora”). Would you have taken the tough step to abolish such practices because they were not scriptural (or authentically Anglican)?

[96] Posted by hapax on 01-12-2009 at 07:01 AM • top

Hi hapax, good and fair questions. I would have had a lot more difficulty adopting the practices of which you speak…I probably would not have accepted the call.

[97] Posted by Matt Kennedy on 01-12-2009 at 07:04 AM • top

If you are using good quality incense, and the hackers and swooners still go into their act, I suggest having kleenex available for them, and then ignoring them.

[98] Posted by GB on 01-12-2009 at 07:57 AM • top

I love incense.  I love watching it swirl up with our prayers and watching it waft down as God’s answers to our prayers.  And the bells.  A reverence that is missed in more casual services.

Having said that, I cough.  Deep.  No matter how little there is - hypoallergenic or not.  Yes, there are some who do it for attention.  But there are some of us out there who have asthma or respiratory problems.  Have the same problem with perfume.  My spouse has it even worse.  Both of us get migraines from it.  Those of you who have no physical problem with it - consider yourselves even more blessed.

[99] Posted by The Lakeland Two on 01-12-2009 at 08:08 AM • top

Sorry, #99, it won’t fly.  I have allergies, also.  I take a decongestant or allergy tab before I leave for church, put a handkerchief in my pocket, and then forget about it.  Most of the time I never pull out the handkerchief. (I could say its all in your mind, but I won’t.)

[100] Posted by GB on 01-12-2009 at 12:01 PM • top

Like I said, if you don’t have the problem, consider yourself blessed.  Until you have the level of allergies I have seen, and luckily not experienced, you have absolutely no clue.  I guess people who die from peanut allergies should have seen a shrink instead?  I think not. 

What I have learned about allergies over the last 10 years is amazing.  Anyone who has really bad allergies, please contact me through the private message feature.  We have a board-certified doctor who has done wonders and more than a couple of miracles.  My spouse is alive because of this doctor.

GB, the tenor of your response is easily treatable - go read your Bible and pray.  Essentially you called me a fool and that isn’t Biblical nor Christian.  God bless you.

[101] Posted by The Lakeland Two on 01-12-2009 at 04:33 PM • top

#101, I haven’t called you anything.  You just said yourself that the doctor could treat your condition.  Fine, go to the doctor and get treatment.  The large majority of churches do not use incense.  If that’s your problem, go to one of those churches instead. Why do you ask the entire congregation to cater to your condition? Grow up! and may God Bless You.

[102] Posted by GB on 01-12-2009 at 07:33 PM • top

Sarah, Matt would not be a papist for such.  More properly, a patriarchalist.

I warned the 10am congregation yesterday that now that one of our craftswomen has finished a series of beautiful banners, we would be blessing them in a couple of weeks and using incense to do so (we have rarely used incense here - the ceiling is low, and incense does so much better in taller edifices). I quickly added that the 6 banners would all be displayed on our banner rods (which extend perpendicular to the wall), and we would move underneath them with the incense wafting up from below.  Immediately I was asked out loud, “But why incense!?” by one who disdains it. “Because”, I said, “I don’t want to risk ruining the material by throwing holy water on them.”  Seemed to be a reasonable solution; no objections followed.

[103] Posted by Rob Eaton+ on 01-12-2009 at 07:55 PM • top

St. Thomas the Apostle in Hollywood, CA says the Angelus at the end of the Sunday High Mass. This parish is ultra liberal politically (gay rector, gar associate priest) and ultra conservative liturgically (three sacred ministers, birettas, eastward celebration, bells, smells). It is not the first time I’ve seen the Angelus; my first parish, St. Andrews Stamford, CT it in the 1960’s, and St. Stephens Providence, RI did it in the 1970’s. On occasion, St. Pauls Pomona CA uses Roman Eucharistic Prayer III (which I re-wrote for them in Anglicized form). All of the foregoing parishes had predominately ex-Roman congregations, so the usages at issue were pastorally appropriate to the situations.

[104] Posted by DesertDavid on 01-12-2009 at 11:19 PM • top

As I said, I love incense.  I think it does add to a service.  It visually represents our prayers.  And it represents us offering the gifts of frankincense and myrrh to God as the wise men did to Jesus.  I never said don’t use it.  Only that there are people who have real, valid physical problems with it.

I would be interested in learning if a specific type has less reactivity rates.  Our priest doesn’t use incense because his wife is allergic to it, so it’s not an issue for us personally.

The anger I’ve received at this is representative of what we and others have experienced in expressing our problems in breathing incense and worse, perfume worn in excess.  Breathing is an act necessary to our survival.  GB writes “Why do you ask the entire congregation to cater to your condition? Grow up!” following his/her prior comment: “(I could say its all in your mind, but I won’t.)”

We don’t expect it.  We would rather that individuals would have and show compassion - much like Jesus would.  I think Jesus would rather we all fellowship.  And the amount of people who do have problems would surprise you - they just try to keep it themselves because of reactions like this.

1 Corinthians 10:23-33 says much about our freedom.  I would rather someone come to church rather than skip it as we have so others could have the experience. 

Again, would love to know what’s the least irritating form of incense.

[105] Posted by The Lakeland Two on 01-13-2009 at 02:30 PM • top

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