It is the thing more likely to precipitate a response in church life - one way or the other! I speak not of wearing my underpants over my trousers in a family service, and I speak not of my pious red socks. Having previously mentioned vases of flowers, you can surely set them aside in favour of this red-hot potato. Nothing more than this causes either a sigh of pleasure or the tooth-gritted snarls of Beelzebub and all the Imps of Hades, normally transmitted through the bodies and expressions of good Christian men and women!
I speak of course of incense, the prayerful odours of none less than the smoking handbag - the beloved thurible.
Be it in theological college, or in parish life - if you lob some flavoured frankincense on a hot charcoal, you get a reaction. There is no middle ground here, but rather two extreme poles of feeling, passing from deep spiritual rapture through the wonderlands of allergy and asthma and all the way to irritating skin conditions. Those who love it, love it a lot. Those who hate, loathe with menaces and blame it for just about every condition known to the medical profession.
And I don't know why.
It is but one part of worship, like bells, like robes, like hymns, like readings, like flowers, like Gift Aid envelopes - just one small part of the greater whole. You may not be surprised to learn that I am fond of holy smoke, but that isn't to say that I am in mourning when it does not billow.
What confuses me more and more is the reaction of the 'against' lobby. It borders on (which is to say that it is well past border-control) the irrational. I think there is a part of some human brains that associates incense with some voodoo or child-sacrifice. The reaction is rarely slight - but bombastic and fully vehement. When I am witness to this irrational response, I challenge it - inquiring what kind of hocus-pocus they are afraid of, and the simple fact is that although they HATE it (as distinct from 'dislike', 'not fond', 'marginally irritated by ...'), they don't know why. Ten millenia old it might be; mentioned in the Bible as representing prayer it could be, but when people hate the stuff, it is a formless hatred born of nothing more than silliness, or so it seems.
Now child-sacrifice; there's a thought!