Some Christians want incense, and others seem allergic to it. Some call for splendour, but others want plainness. As an Anglican, I think there is something to be said for ‘that vertuous mediocrity which our Church observes between the meretricious gaudiness of the Church of Rome, and the squalid sluttery of Fanatick conventicles’. I favour the occasional use of incense in connexion with church services, though not as constituting worship, on days on which the Prayer Book calls for proper prefaces to the Sanctus; these are the same days on which I think it comely for parish churches to use copes.
As quoted by E. G. Cuthbert F. Atchley, Pseudo-Alcuin did not hold a sacrificial view of incense, but referred it only to its being pleasing to the congregation:
After the oblation incense is offered (ponitur incensum) on the altar, the priest saying, Let my prayer be set forth in thy sight as incense; that is to say, as this incense is pleasing and acceptable in the sight of the people, so let my prayer become acceptable in thy sight.
So, too, has been the practice of the Protestant and Reformed Church of England: incense has been accepted only when it has constituted an ornament to the service but not a ceremony of the service itself. So it is best that incense be kept out of the hands of the priest. It is also uncontroversial that stationary incense has been allowed, as in the practice of George Herbert. Less certain, however, is what place should be given to incense that moves.
The use of moving incense which I think good is in any processions that may be made in the due course of the service, as sometimes a secular procession might in centuries past have had herb strewers. This use is for the edification of the people, not distracting them but enabling them to worship better.
The most obvious place for a procession is the Introit of the Holy Communion service, when the ministers enter and often also bring in the eucharistic vessels. This time is technically before the beginning of the service. Since it is difficult for ministers to enter the church by any other way than walking, the most orderly way should be used, suitably dignified for the occasion. By practical necessity this is a procession, like it or not. And it is clear that the occasion’s dignity, or the perception of its dignity, is enhanced by people’s making way for its opening procession. Some might wish to find a man in a camel hair shirt, eating locusts and wild honey, but most of us would rest content with a verger carrying a rod, followed by a few others.
Likewise, the Gospel reading is another time (especially if read by someone other than he who read the Epistle) when someone will have to walk to the pulpit. A simple procession is in order. In the Gospel procession, the clerk may carry the perfuming pan along the way (cf. Lyons massbook, 1825, quoted by Atchley: ‘continue incensans viam Evangelii’); or, if the Gospel be sung in the sanctuary, ‘on account of the place’s straitness’, he may simply hold the perfuming pan as he stands behind the gospeller.
But the superstitious censing of text and of gospeller is contrary to the usage of a Reformed church, and we should have nothing to do with such practices. The restraint of the old Roman church, simple and practical, and lacking extraneous ceremonial, is most commendable; we likewise should avoid adding to what is required such ceremonies as only tickle the imagination but do not deepen our appreciation of the awful mysteries ordained by God. For this reason we should not cense things or even persons, and so a thurible is less to be preferred than a perfuming pan; but if a thurible be used, it should be handled as it is in the Dominican rite, not swung, in order to avoid distracting the congregation from the substance of the service.
Some may expect a procession for the Offertory, but such movement of the bread and wine is often unnecessary: if they need to move just several feet, from the credence table to the Lord’s Table – and not from a side chapel – then they should not be given an unnaturally large movement for the sake of pageantry. It is solemn and impressive enough that the deacon receives the gifts of the people at the hands of the wardens and then delivers them to the priest to present at the Table, and especially so if (as it may be) the Offertory be done in silence. It is arguable, moreover, that the time to process up to the Lord’s Table has already passed; as Addleshaw says in The High Church Tradition,
The seventeenth-century liturgists regard the structure of the Eucharist as built up round various parts of the Eucharistic action itself into which are worked the preparation of the Church for taking part in the action and its response afterwards. These elements are interwoven to form a unity. In spite of the frequency of Altar Prayers they treat the rite as a whole from the Our Father to the Blessing without any decisive break in its movement, not even at the Offertory; they are fully aware of the distinction between the Missa Catechumenorum and the Missa Fidelium, but it plays no part in their conception of the structure of the Anglican rite. It was customary to speak of the whole service as a ‘holy action’.
If this difference from some other rites does not establish that a procession with incense is unwarranted, it does show that the warrant for such a procession is far weaker than in an order with a strong distinction between a first half and a second half, or even in the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, which retains vestiges of such practices (‘the doors, the doors!’) and calls the Offertory the Great Entrance. Indeed, the Anglican rite would not be the only one to associate little pomp with the Offertory: the Roman rite, before the admixture of Gallican elements, likewise gave the Offertory but little ceremonial. In other words, though the Offertory would seem to be our self-giving corresponding to God’s self-giving signified in the Gospel reading, the whole service has been one process of the congregation’s dedicating itself to God. Especially if the chalice has already been made and the bread already prepared, then, there is little new movement and not much more ceremonial to highlight with incense. Instead, it is probably best to keep the Offertory simple and not encumber it awkwardly with incense.
For those who find the noble simplicity of the old Roman rite too severe, the Anglican rite tempers Rome’s austere structure with an evangelical fervour. Rather than picturesque pageantry, we meet in the Anglican order of Holy Communion with serious exhortations and sober prayers that are nonetheless imbued with the warmth that characterizes the best of Reformed piety. To use incense rightly in this order, we need to respect the strong focus of this rite, which matches that of the old Roman rite. This focus will admit of only two or at most three points at which to use incense, and one of them not even within the service itself. But the focus that so limits us is a focus on the substance of the gospel.