Project Canterbury


Presented to both Houses of Parliament by Command of His Majesty

transcribed by Mr Thomas J W Mason
AD 2001


(9) Incense.

The evidence given before us appears to show that incense is used ceremonially in ninety-nine, and non-ceremonially in ten, out of the 559 churches as to which reports were made. It is doubtless used in many more. In the O`TouristOs Church Guide,OL 1902, the number is given as 393 in the whole of England and Wales.

The prominence which has been given to this practice makes it necessary to treat it with a fullness which might otherwise seem disproportionate.

By the O`ceremonial useOL of incense is here intended a use of incense in and as part of public worship, whether there is any censing of persons and things in a technical sense of not. By a O`non-ceremonial useOL of incense is meant the fumigation of the church either before service, or, if during service, outside of worship altogether. It has been held in the Court of Arches that the ceremonial use of incense is illegal. the question has never been before the Judicial Committee. At the Lambeth Hearing in 1899 on the lawfulness of the liturgical use of incense and the carrying of lights in procession, the Archbishops (Temple and Maclagan) were of opinion that the use of incense in public worship and as part of that worship is not at present enjoined or permitted by the law of the Church of England. They came to the conclusion that incense, O`if used at all, must be used, in George HerbertOs language, to sweeten the church, and outside of worship altogether.OL

In 1901 all the Bishop except the bishop of Sodor and Man signed a joint letter to the clergy generally containing these words:N O`We therefore put before you that we as a body uphold the duty of submitting to the decision of the Archbishops lately given on questions referred to them, in accordance with the direction in the Book of Common Prayer.OL

The ninety-nine churches mentioned above, in which incense is used ceremonially, are distributed over the English and Welsh diocese as follows:N London twenty-nine, York ten, Exeter seven, St. Albans seven, Southwark six, Norwich five, Oxford five, Birmingham four, Bath and Wells three, Bristol three, Chichester three, Winchester two, Gloucester two, Lincoln two, Peterborough two, Canterbury one, Ely one, Lichfield one Llandaff one, Liverpool one, Manchester one, Newcastle one, Salisbury one, Southwell one.

It appears from the Bishop of LondonOs evidence before the Commission that there were in May, 1901, about forty churches in his Lordships diocese in which incense was used, namely, ten where is had been in use for thirty years or more, six for twenty years, ten for ten years, thirteen for five years, and one where incense had been introduced within the last five years. Apparently in all or nearly all these cases the use is ceremonial as above defined. No increase in the number of churches using incense occurred between May, 191, and the date of his LordshipOs evidence, May, 1905.

It will be seen from the list given above that the churches using incense are more numerous in the diocese of London than elsewhere. It is important, therefore, to state how this matter has been dealt with by Bishop Creighton and the present Bishop, especially with regard to what has been frequently referred to by witnesses as the O`compromise.OL

The ArchbishopsO Opinion that incense and portable lights are not permitted by law, and where used ought to be discontinued, was dated July 31, 1899. Shortly afterwards Bishop Creighton addressed a communication to his clergy containing the following. O`It becomes a universal duty to abandon the ceremonial use of incense and the use of lights carried about during the service.OL About twenty-five incumbents of the diocese presented a protest to Bishop Creighton which contained the following statementN

O`On the one hand our duty compels us even at the cost of great distress to our people to yield whatever compliance we can to the expressed wish of our Father in God. On the other hand we dare not abandon altogether O^a laudable practice of the whole Catholic Church of Christ,O conspicuously scriptural and hitherto held to be sanctioned by the Ornaments Rubric of the Book of Common Prayer. We beg respectfully to remind your Lordship that the use of incense was unquestionably practised by Bishop Andrewes, and has been revived among us for more than forty years with (to say the least) the acquiescence of Bishops, notably that of your LordshipOs predecessor in the see of London. We would explain that for these and other reasons we are obliged to regard that use of incense as involving a principle, the violation of which we could neither submit to ourselves nor ask our people to accept. Moreover, we find ourselves utterly unable to do anything by which we may be held, either explicitly or implicitly, to admit the binding authority of the ArchbishopsO Opinion or the force of the reasons on which that opinion is based.OL

This protest was present to Bishop Creighton at an interview on October 16, 1899. There is no official record of the conversation which then passed; but the incumbents, on October 30, 1899, addressed a letter to the Bishop containing the following statement of their view of the arrangement which had been arrived at:N

O`Having heard from your Lordship that such a measure of acquiescence, as includes the use of the censer before the beginning of the service of Holy Communion in the Prayer Book, together with the use of incense in procession before or after the service, is agreeable to you, we are accordingly prepared to modify our practice by suspending for the present in our several churches the customary ceremonial use of incense, by which we understand the censing of persons and things during the service as set out in he Prayer Book. But we beg to remind your Lordship that such a modification of the accustomed use is made without any reference on our part to the ArchbishopsO Opinion, the binding authority of which we have felt it our duty respectfully to deny, and the reasons of which as stated we have ventured in our letter of the 16th inst. definitely to repudiate. We would explain that we make this alteration solely in compliance with the wish of our Diocesan and in dutiful regard for his person and office and for the good of the Church. Neither would we hide from our Lordship that such an alteration, however temporary, can only be made at what will be felt by our congregations to be a great loss; and to risk the causing considerable misunderstanding and irritation after, as in some cases, so many years of undisturbed enjoyment of what we believe to be our rightful liberty not forbidden by the Prayer Book.OL

This letter was acknowledged by Bishop Creighton on November 1st as follows:N

O`I am obliged to you and to the others who have signed the letter which you send me, for their willingness to discontinue the ceremonial use of incense in their churches. I know such a change will be a source of regret to some members of their congregations; but I believe that they will not long regret a step which they have taken for the peace and unity of the Church.OL

On November 2, 1899, the Reverend W.B. Trevelyan, the spokesman of the protesting incumbent, in order, as it would seem, to prevent misunderstanding, wrote as follows:N

O`My Lord, in thanking you for your kind letter I must point just out that in speaking of the proposed change in our churches, the actual words used were O^during the service as set out in the Book of Common Prayer.O This, of course, requires no acknowledgement.OL

The Bishop appears to have made no reply to this letter; and the result of these communications was that incumbents in his diocese who had prior to this time used incense during services continued its restricted use in the following ways:N

(1.) The use of the censer before the beginning of the Communion Service, and also the use of it during processions before or after the services.

(2.) A swinging of the censer during the service for the purpose of keeping it alight, but not for the purpose of censing persons or things.

In reference to these terms of compromise it must be point out that as already stated, it had been decided by Sir Robert Phillimore in the Court of Arches that processions in a church immediately before or after the regular services, taking place in the presence of the congregation then assembled, constitute a ceremony so connected with the regular services as to be bound by the same legal restrictions as those services. And in a case where incense was used in the short interval between Morning Prayer and the beginning of the Communion Service, almost the same congregation being present at both services, the same learned judge decided that this use of incense was illegal because O`it would be unreasonable and unjudicial not to conclude that the burning of incense was intended to be subsidiary and preparatory to the celebration of the Holy Communion.OL

Archbishop Tempe, in response to a request for advice from the then Bishop of Winchester, wrote on October 28, 1899:N O`A procession with incense is clearly an additional ceremony not ordered in the Book of Common Prayer and clearly neither enjoined nor permitted as a part of public worship. Every clergyman has promised to use the form in that book prescribed and none other. A procession with incense would be an addition to that form. According to our present law, incense cannot be used in any way to be a part of public worship.OL

In addition to the compromise mentioned above, a special arrangement was made by Bishop Creighton shortly before his death (December 1900) with two churches, St. CuthbertOs, Pilbeach Gardens, and St. AlbanOs Holborn, to the effect that these churches should altogether suspend their use of incense on ordinary occasions, but that on great festivals they should be allowed their full accustomed use. No attempt seems to have been made to define what was meant by O`great festivalsOL in this context; and the phrase was, in fact, construed, by some of the clergy concerned, with such latitude as to include All SoulsO Day.

The present Bishop of London has made an arrangement of this type with the incumbent of St. ColumbaOs, Haggerston, and has allowed fifteen anniversaries to be defined as the great festivals on which incense may be used. Among these is Maundy Thursday in lieu of Corpus Christi Day and in commemoration of the institution of the Holy Communion. Prior to this arrangement, incense was used in this church on sixty or seventy days during the year. His Lordship appears to have offered a similar arrangement to the incumbent of St. ClementOs, City Road.

With regard to this subject the Bishop of London explained:N

O`If I cannot get a church in on one compromise I try it on another; that is to say, finding two compromises existing, if a church like St. ColumbaOs, Haggerston, will not come in on any terms on the one compromise, that I have allowed them to come in on the other compromise which I found in the case of St. AlbanOs, Holborn, and St. CuthbertOs, Pilbeach Gardens. It is a very great grief to a bishop not to be able to visit his churches. I regard it as almost a personal wrong when I cannot visit my people.OL

It appears from the Bishop of LondonOs evidence that, at a date soon after he had succeeded Bishop Creighton, the result of the latterOs action was as follows. Of the churches in which incense had become customary, two had abandoned its use altogether; in twenty-five the use had been modified in accordance with one for or the other of the compromise; in six the practice had been altered very slightly or resumed during the vacancy of the see; in eight on change had been made at all.

The Bishop of London explained to the Commission the only alternative courses which, in his LordshipOs view, were open to his under the difficult circumstances in which he took up the government of the see of London. He says:N

O`I had, of course, to face the situation, and I wanted to place before the Commission the different courses which were open to me. Of course there was prosecution; but if I prosecuted any I must prosecute these all, that was quite clear.... I made up my mind that to prosecute these forty-three churches would make it impossible to do my work as bishop at all, that it would put the whole diocese in a flame, so that my position and my work would be absolutely impossible if I did begin by prosecuting these forty-three churches. And then another alternative was the sanction of some modified use, that is to say, regulating it, and by regulating it, sanctioning it. [the Bishop here quoted a letter from Archbishop Temple disapproving of this course.] That and other considerations convinced me, at that time at any rate, that regulation in the sense of sanctioning was not wise. Then the third alternative, of course, was to continue the arrangement which I found existing, which I did, and a latter which I shall subsequently read, which governs the situation now in London, embodied really the continuation of the toleration of incense, not the sanction of it, but the toleration of it which I found existing, so long as it was in this modified form which had been arranged between Bishop Creighton and the incumbents.OL

The letter above refer to, dated June, 1901, which was sent round to each incumbent concerned, was as follows:N

O`Dear Mr. NN, I thanks you most cordially for your ready response to the questions which I have recently put to you as to the use of incense and the practice of reservation in your church, and for the open and most friendly confidence which you have reposed in me throughout the whole inquiry which it has been my duty to make. I have anxiously sought to approach your position, not merely with the most careful consideration, but with a sympathetic understanding of your difficulties; and I ask you to believe that the one great thought which weights upon me in this matter is the consideration of my responsibility towards you and your people as your Father in God. I cannot but recognise the claim to special consideration which is constituted by the fact that the use of incense, and the custom of reserving the sacred elements after the Holy Sacrament have been observed in your church for a number of years [I need hardly say that this letter was sent only in its entirety to those who had both], and I had hoped to be able to define certain uniform limits within which in exceptional cases such as yours, these usages might be permitted. But after much earnest thought I have come to the conclusion that it is not possible for me to adopt this course. I do not, indeed, propose myself to take any active measure against the continuation of such as modified use of incense and manner as reservation as shall conform to the limits which you have already in private consultation with me expressed your willingness to observe. But as Bishop of the diocese I cannot be present at any service where incense in ceremonially used, or visit any church in which the limits already referred to with regard to the reservation of the Holy Sacrament are transgressed. I do earnestly add my prayers and ask for yours that in these matter we may all learn to be at peace with one another, so that we may be set free to devote ourselves without distraction to our real work of bringing all men into the true belief and active service of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.OL

The present position in the London diocese with regard to this matter appears to be that, of the churches which in 1899 used incense, all but six have adopted some form of the compromise in which the Bishop acquiesces. These six churches, namely, St. PeterOs, London Docks; St. Mary MagdaleneOs, Paddington; St. MaryOs Edmonton; St. AugustineOs Stepney; St. MichaelOs, North Kensington; and St. ClementOs, City Road, are placed by the Bishop under O`discipline,OL which consists in the church not being visited by a Bishop for Confirmation or any other purpose, the non-renewal of curatesO licences after existing licenses have lapsed, and the withdrawal of curatesO grants paid by certain Church Societies. The Bishop forbids, and uses all his influence to prevent, the adoption of incense in any church in which it has not hitherto been employed.

It appears from the evidence that the London compromise of 1899 has been adopted in its general lines in some other dioceses, for examples in the diocese of Southwark (formerly part of Rochester) and the diocese of St. Albans and Lichfield. In some other dioceses also there are cases in which the use of incense, and even its full ceremonial use, has been allowed to remain virtually unchecked.

It is generally admitted that the religious use of incense was unknown in the primitive Church; and there is no certain mention of its use in connexion with Christian worship before the later years of the fourth century. From this time onwards various indications of its use from time to time occur; but it has been thought that up to the ninth century the portable censer was used at Rome only in processions from church to church. O`The route which the cort?ge had to follow was thus made sweet-smelling with incense. As for censing the altar or the church or the clergy or the congregation, such a thing is never mentioned.OL From the ninth century onwards there was a considerable development of its use; and by the twelfth century not only had the censing of persons and things become general, but also forms of blessing the incense had been introduced. Prior to the Reformation in England, and in the Roman Church to this day, when incense is used at a celebration, the altar, the Gospel Book, the oblations after they have been offered, the celebrant and other ministers and the congregation, are censed. The symbolism of incense has give rise to great difference of opinion, but it appears to be agreed that it signified in a general way the power of intercessory prayer and the mediation of our Blessed Lord. The Lambeth Opinion already quoted contains the following statement:N

O`Further, it must be remembered that the Church has never spoken of incense as an evil thing. There are some expressions in the Homilies which have that character, but the Homilies are hortatory than imperativeNthey have never been taken as having high authority on points of doctrine or of ritual. Incense was excluded from public worship not as an evil thing, but as unsuited to the needs of the day.OL

(10) Portable Lights.

In 79 out of the 559 churches lighted candles carried by acolytes or other subordinate ministers, were used at various parts of the Communion Service, especially in the procession before the beginning of the service, at the reading of the Gospel, and at the consecration.

The ceremonial use of portable lights has been condemned by the Court of Arches in the same way as the liturgical use of incense. At the Lambeth Hearing, already mentioned, the Archbishops expressed the opinion that the law of the Church of England does not permit the carrying of lights in procession.

Bishop Creighton condemned the use of portable lights, but does not appear to have taken any further step in the matter. The present Bishop of London in giving evidence prior to his visitation (1905), stated that he had not taken O`anything like the same clear decisive actions about [lights] or investigated the matterOL as he had with regard to reservation. As to the action of other Bishops, individually and as a body see paragraphs 126 and 348, etc.

During the first three centuries lights were not used ceremonially in public worship. Their use was at that time associated with heathen rites. The first clear mention of lights at the reading of the Gospel is found about the beginning of the fifth century; and by the seventh century it was customary for them to be carried by the acolytes (or cerfararii) O`when the Gospel is to be read or the Sacrifice to be offered.OL

(11) Lights upon the Holy Table.

The evidence given before us appears to show that two lights only are used on the Holy Table at the Holy Communion, when not required for purposes of illumination, in 308, and more than two in 172, out of the 559 churches.

Lighted candles placed on or behind the Holy Table during the Communion Service have been declared to be illegal when not required for the purpose of giving light. It was, however, held by Archbishop Benson in the Lincoln case that two such lights kept burning during the Communion Service, but lighted before the service began, were not illegal. This decision formed part of the subject of an appeal to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council; but the appeal was disposed of without any opinion being expressed on this particular question.

In the ninth century the rule was laid down that there should always be a light at Mass; but not till a later date was it definitely ordered that there should always be two lights at the celebration.

The O`two lights upon the High Altar before the Sacrament,OL ordered in the Injunctions of Edward VI. (1547), were stated to signify O`that Christ is the very true light of the world.OL

(12) Holy Water.

In 19 out of the 559 churches there are stoups for holy water placed inside the church door for use by the congregation as they enter to worship. Of these, six are in the diocese of London, three in that of York, two in each of the dioceses of Ely and Exeter, and one in each of the dioceses of Liverpool, St. Albans, Southwark, Norwich, Durham and Oxford. In addition there were reports of five services, namely three in the diocese of London, one in that of Chichester, and one in that of York, in which the ceremony of sprinkling holy water was introduced.

Objections to the presence of holy water stoups in churches, and to he sprinkling of holy water, in connexion with services, have been sustained in one or two ecclesiastical suits; but the matter has not received much attention on the ecclesiastical courts.

The earliest mention of holy water connects it with merely private use. A form of blessing holy water is found in the fourth century; and from the same date legends are told of miracles wrought by the use of holy water accompanied by the sign of the Cross. But there does not appear to be any evidence that it was customary for the priest to sprinkle the people in church before Mass until the ninth century.

The water used to be, and still is, mingled with salt. Its original symbolism may be inferred from the words which the choir sang while the priest went round and sprinkled the people with a bunch of hyssop dipped in holy water: O`Purge me with hyssop, O Lord, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter then snow.OL Salt was said to be the type of an uncorrupt and innocent life. But, in procession of time, the idea spread that some intrinsic benefit resulted from the physical application of holy water, independently of its mystic meaning. Prior to the Reformation it had come to be regarded as a sort of charm.

The use of holy water was clearly not intended to be sanctioned by the Reformers, as no services for the blessing of water for this purpose is included in the Prayer Book.

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