Open main menu
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

foretold the time when among the Gentiles, in every place, incense should be offered to God. Gold, with myrrh and frankincense were offered by the Persian Magi to the infant Jesus at his birth; and in Revelation viii. 3, 4, the image of the offering of incense with the prayers of the saints, before the throne of God, is not without its significance. If also the passage in Ambrose of Milan (on Luke i. 11), where he speaks of “us” as “adolentes altaria” is to be translated “incensing the altars,” and taken literally, it is a testimony to the use of incense by the Christian Church in, at least, the 4th century. But the earliest express mention of the censing of the altar by Christian priests is in “the works,” first quoted in the 6th century, attributed to “Dionysius the Areopagite,” the contemporary of St Paul (Acts xvii. 34).

The Missal of the Roman Church now enjoins incensation before the introit, at the gospel and again at the offertory, and at the elevation, in every high mass; the use of incense also occurs at the exposition of the sacrament, at consecrations of churches and the like, in processions, in the office for the burial of the dead and at the exhibition of relics. On high festivals the altar is censed at vespers and lauds.

In the Church of England the use of incense was gradually abandoned after the reign of Edward VI., until the ritualistic revival of the present day. Its use, however, has never been abolished by law. A “Form for the Consecration of a Censer” occurs in Sancroft’s Form of Dedication and Consecration of a Church or Chapel (1685). In various works of reference (as, for example, in Notes and Queries, 3rd ser. vol. viii. p. 11) numerous sporadic cases are mentioned in which incense appears to have been burnt in churches; the evidence, however, does not go so far as to show that it was used during divine service, least of all that it was used during the communion office. At the coronation of George III., one of the king’s grooms appeared “in a scarlet dress, holding a perfuming pan, burning perfumes, as at previous coronations.”

In 1899, on the appeal of the Rev. H. Westall, St Cuthbert’s, London, and the Rev. E. Ram, St John’s, Norwich, against the use of incense in the Church of England, the archbishops of Canterbury (Dr Temple) and York (Dr Maclagan) supported the appeal. Their decision was reviewed by Chancellor L. T. Dibdin in the 10th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and the exposition given by Sir Lewis Dibdin of the whole question of the use of incense in the Church of England may here be interpolated.  (G. B.) 

Incense in the Church of England.—Mr Scudamore (Notitia Eucharistica, 2nd ed. pp. 141–142) thus describes the method and extent of the employment of incense at the mass prior to the Reformation:—

“According to the use of Sarum (and Bangor) the priest, after being himself censed by the deacon, censed the altar before the Introit began. The York rubric directed him to do it immediately alter the first saying of the Introit, which in England was thrice said. The Hereford missal gives no direction for censing the altar at that time. The middle of the altar was censed, according to Sarum, Bangor and Hereford, before the reading of the Gospel. According to Sarum and Bangor, the thurible, as well as the lights, attended the Gospel to the lectern. Perhaps the York rubric implies that this was done when it orders (which the others do not) the thurible to be carried round the choir with the Gospel while the Creed was being sung. In the Sarum and Bangor, the priest censed the oblations after offering them; then the space between himself and the altar. He was then, at Sarum, censed by the deacon, and an acolyte censed the choir; at Bangor the Sinistrum Cornu of the altar and the relics were censed instead. York and Hereford ordered no censing at the offertory. There is reason to think that, notwithstanding the order for the use of incense at every celebration, it was in practice burnt only on high festivals, and then only in rich churches, down to the period of the Reformation. In most parishes its costliness alone would preclude its daily use, while the want of an assistant minister would be a very common reason for omitting the rite almost everywhere. Incense was not burnt in private masses, so that the clergy were accustomed to celebrations without it, and would naturally forego it on any plausible ground.”

The ritual of the mass remained unchanged until the death of Henry VIII. (Jan. 28, 1547). In March 1548 the Order of the Communion was published and commanded to be used by royal proclamation in the name of Edward VI. It was the precursor of the Prayer Book, and supplemented the accustomed Latin service by additions in English to provide for the communion of the people in both kinds. But it was expressly stated in a rubric that the old service of the mass was to proceed without variation of any rite or ceremony until after the priest had received the sacrament, that is, until long after the last of the three occasions for the use of incense explained above. But on Whitsunday 1549 the first Prayer Book of Edward VI. came into use under an Act of Parliament (2 and 3 Ed. VI. ch. 1, the first Act of Uniformity) which required its exclusive use in public worship so as to supersede all other forms of service. Another Act, 3 and 4 Ed. VI. ch. 10, required the old service books to be delivered up to be destroyed. The first Prayer Book does not contain any direction to use or any mention of incense. It has been and still is a keenly controverted question whether incense did or did not continue to be in ceremonial use under the first Prayer Book or during the rest of Edward VI.’s reign. No evidence has hitherto been discovered which justifies us in answering this question in the affirmative. The second Prayer Book of Edward VI. (1552), published under the authority of the second Act of Uniformity (5 and 6 Ed. VI. ch. 1), contains no reference to incense. Edward VI. died on the 6th July 1553. Queen Mary by statute (1 Mary, sess. 2, ch. 2) abolished the Prayer Book, repealed the Acts of Uniformity and restored “divine service and administration of sacraments as were most commonly used in England in the last year of Henry VIII.” The ceremonial use of incense thus became again an undoubted part of the communion service in the Church of England. A proclamation issued (December 6, 1553) directed the churchwardens to obtain the proper ornaments for the churches; and the bishops (at any rate Bishop Bonner, see Visitation Articles 1554, Cardwell’s Doc. Ann. i. 149–153) in their visitations inquired whether censers had been furnished for use. Mary died on the 17th of November 1558. On the 24th of June 1559 the second Prayer Book of Edward VI. (with a few alterations having no reference to incense) was again established, under the authority of the third Act of Uniformity (1 Eliz. ch. 2), as the exclusive service book for public service. There is no evidence of the ceremonial use of incense under Elizabeth’s Prayer Book, or under the present Prayer Book of 1662 (established by the fourth Act of Uniformity, 13 and 14 Charles II. ch. 4) until the middle of the 19th century; and there is no doubt that as a ceremony of divine worship, whether at the Holy Communion or at other services, it was entirely disused. There are, however, a good many instances recorded of what has been called a fumigatory use of frankincense in churches, by which it was sought to purify the air, in times of public sickness, or to dispel the foulness caused by large congregations, or poisonous gases arising from ill-constructed vaults under the church floor. It seems also to have been used for the purpose of creating an agreeable perfume on great occasions, e.g. the great ecclesiastical feasts. But this use of incense must be carefully distinguished from its ceremonial use. It was utilitarian and not symbolical, and from the nature of the purpose in view must have taken place before, rather than during, service. Of the same character is the use of incense carried in a perfuming pan before the sovereign at his coronation in the procession from Westminster Hall to the Abbey. This observance was maintained from James II.’s coronation to that of George III. In the general revival of church ceremonial which accompanied and followed the Oxford Movement incense was not forgotten, and its ceremonial use in the pre-Reformation method has been adopted in a few extreme churches since 1850. Its use has been condemned as an illegal ceremony by the ecclesiastical courts. In 1868 Sir Robert Phillimore (Dean of the Arches) pronounced the ceremonial use of incense to be illegal in the suit of Martin v. Mackonochie (2 A. and E.L.R. 116). The case was carried to the Privy Council on appeal, but there was no appeal on the question of incense. Again, in 1870, the ceremonial use of incense was condemned by Sir Robert Phillimore in the suit of Sumner v. Wix (3 A. and E. L.R. 58).