Monday, 21 November 2011

Un-Holy Smoke and Brass Handbags

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!


  1. I must admit that as an RC Altar Server, I loved messing around with the thurible. Not sure about letting young lads loose with hot charcoal and smoke, to much danger of fire and smoke signals being tried. (Just sorry I got caught :)).

    However, I have no objection to it, and while I know that our benefice doesn't use it, we do possess a thurible, and I've teased the Vicar about using it. He's all for it (he has a high church background) but appreciates that some might not even know what it is and what it's used for in our more sedate, middle of the road comfort zone.

    One of our churches still uses the hand bell at appropriate times and the altar hasn't been turned around either. And they even have the Statue of the BVM prominently on display. I sense secret hankerings for a former high church type of service as they only do traditional language and older members of the congregation speak lovingly of the services at St Mary Bredin in Canterbury. Some even go occasionally for auld-lang-syne.

    I can't see the problem, I've even offered to sew lace onto the Vicar's chasuble, which met with some thoughtful laughter.

    I can't see the problem myself. If smoke and bells are a part of traditional worship, use them. Even with my allergies, I wouldn't take offence and don't see why others should.

  2. I love incense, David, but only in very small amounts. I'm asthmatic and can't cope with much smoke of any kind, however wonderfully perfumed, but I still find the smell of incense evocatively prayerful. Just don't swing that thurible in my direction!

  3. "It is but one part of worship". Yes Father, but it is quite in-your-face (literally, most of the time). Could this be an explanation for what you are observing?

  4. Can you imagine Jesus waving incense through a thurible?
    I can't. He was too real, too cool, too rooted in "real" life?

  5. Hahahahaha¬

    Anita, fair point, but neither did he do anything that St Ollies would recognise!

    Pep - fair comment again, and I am a great believer in 'less is more' - the fog becomes a barrier in more ways than one!

    Charlie - ...not unlike having the back of my head slapped during a chorus (which has happened when the Spirit did His thing), but you are right. That said, when you go to a church with 6 gold candlesticks behind the High Altar, smoke shouldn't come as a surprise, non?

  6. oh, and UK - if you feel like lacing again, let me know.

    Incidentally, I understand that incense churches never have death-watch beetle. Just saying ...

  7. So difficult to comment on here - it keeps throwing up an error message. Will have to be anonymous.
    See my final paragraph - I hate the stuff.

  8. You are a brave man, vicar! Incense! Sacrificial babies! What more, I ask? Personally, I like a bit of incense here, a bit there -- though I do spare a thought for those with allergies. Gas masks at the end of pews might solve the problem for those at risk.

  9. On your last point, Tenon, I completely agree. Thankfully, such students are fewer. I know those thurifers and they are architects of the barrier I describe.

    As for the smell - a nice high quality one leaves a nice smell in my modest experience :)

  10. Since I know that your "modest experience" includes singing in a choir, I'd have thought you might have remembered that attempting to breath, never mind sing (often for quite a while), through dense acrid evil-smelling fog is not conducive to good sound. nor good prayer.
    Only saying!!!!

  11. The professional and world-acclaimed choir at St Mary Magadalen in Oxford seemed ok with it :)

    Acrid is bad though and speaks of bad charcoal! Evil smelling? Only if it is Prinknash Priory - the rest are pretty :)

    Anyhoo people - as a wise man reminded me last night, Jesus was an owner of incense. The Bible tells us so!

    This was fun, but the point is proved, I think!

  12. Second attempt at commenting. I don't hate incense, just think it can detract from the main focus of worship, which is God. (1) because it makes some people feel faint(me!) (2) because it aggravates some people's allergies, so they are excluded or diverted from worship when it is used (3) because the ritual surrounding its use can become the centre of a service which it shouldn't do. We had incense at a Taize service at the cathedral - thurible burning quietly in the corner,no processing or swinging it in your face - it was fine. But in most circumstances I have experienced it it is not.

  13. Though I know how much you like the last word......
    Final mutter - It kills deathwatch beetle does it?
    I rest my case.

  14. I'd like to just point out as a fellow chorister with Ray (litterally - I stand next to her frequently) The problem can be when it gets 'over the top', I love incense but on more than one occasion I have had a problem seeing the director of music let alone singing. But it can have an amusing side as we wonder what is happening around us, frequent flapping of service sheets to disperse the cloud, clergy have been seen to pull faces. Those of us in the choir see it all - and inhale it all too!!!



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