Thursday, June 24, 2010

At the Altar of Incense

Sorry, this one is personal. But surrounded as I am both by little groups and mega churches which claim to be 'Biblical' I always find myself asking those who adhere to them how often they use incense. The answer is always "never!" And for me that ends the argument because it is my firm belief that in order to understand something of the mind of God, you have to be open to the continual use of incense in the services of the Church. This is both the teaching of the Book of Common Prayer and of Holy Scripture, however much we, both as individuals and as Churchmen, tend to ignore it. But on the feast of the Nativity of Saint John Baptist we should find it especially hard to do.

Why? Because it was when John's father, the priest Zacharias, was at the altar of incense in the temple that the angel Gabriel announced to him John's birth and told him what the child was to be called. That place and time have, as the sainted Dr. William Howard Frere, C.R., wrote in his revision of Procter's A New History of the Book of Common Prayer always bothered 'Protestants' because it seemed to close to the ceremonial law of Israel which they have rejected. I suspect they are also bothered by the fact that one of the magi's gifts was frankincense as well. It speaks to strongly of the fact that Christianity is a "yon side religion" with just too many things beyond the bare rationalism of Reformation fundamentalism.

The Book of Common Prayer never specifically orders the use of incense in the services of the Church, but from Elizabeth I's prayer book of 1559 the Act of Uniformity has ordered; "Such Ornaments of the Church and of the Ministers thereof, shall be retained, and be in use, as was in this Church of England by the Authority of Parliament in the second year of the reign of King Edward the sixth . . ." Certainly thuribles and incense boats were among them and we know by the complaints of Elizabeth's bishops to their friends in Zurich that incense was used. Bosher in his book The Restoration of the Church of England pointed out by quotes from the period that prayer book services in the chapels in France during the Commonwealth astonished the French by their copes, profound bows, and clouds of incense. And incense continued to be used in the cathedrals of England until a canon of Ely brought to an end in 1770 by complaining that it caused him headache. Rationalism and the beginning of secular humanism had set in.

But the prayer book reminds us of its scriptural intent and importance with the Sentences as the beginning of Morning and Evening Prayer. "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. Mal. i, 11." "Let my prayer be set forth in thy sight as the incense; and let the lifting up of my hands be an evening sacrifice. Psalm cxli. 2."

And then there is the Book of Revelations with its description of the worship in heaven. Hard core Evangelicals and 'Protestants' of all varieties just might as well consign themselves to hell because you know they are not going be be comfortable with all those bowls of incense burning before the throne of God. And that is why every oratory, mission, parish or cathedral in the Continuum ought to be preparing its people for heaven by the regular use of incense because if Holy Scripture teaches us nothing else, there is no way that we can escape the fact that God likes it, likes it a lot and "the Bible tells us so!" It even gives us his own recipe as to how it is supposed to be mixed.

So if we as Anglicans are going to be good Biblical and New Testament Christians, we need to make sure that we imitate the worship of heaven as it is revealed in Holy Scripture. And that means that we are going to have to use incense both at the offices, in processions and at the celebration of Holy Communion. After all, we have he words of Jesus in the parable of Dives and Lazarus, "They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them." We read them as well, but it is only too plain that we frequently don't hear what they say, what they order. We are so stuck in our own defense against the very word of God that we can not hear it and certainly don't want to obey it. In things great and very small, it is time for that to change.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

An Interesting Bit of Verse

'For this, Seditious Spirits in disguise
Swarm in the Church, tho' they that Church despise:
Loudly they boast her Ancient rights and Fame,
Whilst underhand they play a Popish Game.
The Seed of Loyola with Artful Pains
First fixt this High-Church Poyson in our Veins,
Infecting too, too many of our Youth,
Who, blindly led, fell from the Cause of Truth.

Does that read like an attack upon the Tractarians, the early ritualists or even the late nineteenth century Anglo-Catholics? If you thought so you would be wrong. It was written and published in 1708, more than a century before the beginning of the Tractarian Movement. Those lines came from a poem titled: The Seditious Insects: or, the Levelers assembled in Convocation. I present it as evidence that as Frere wrote in the early twentieth century, the Church has always had its enemies who were in his words "too little of Churchmen to obey her, but too much of Churchmen to leave her."

And so the battle persists. Those of us who think of ourselves as Prayer Book Anglicans or Prayer Book Catholics and who believe that real high churchmen value the Church and express that by a full and complete obedience to our own version of the Book of Common Prayer, must remain aware that the Church still contains those whose real loyalties remain outside "the doctrines, discipline and worship . . . .of the church" as expressed in her classical formularies.