I grew up in a Dutch Reformed Church in a tiny town at the very bottom of Ontario, Canada. It’s walls are white and bare, our pastor (*not priest) doesn’t wear robes, there’s no bell, no incense, no choir, no Saints, no Mary, no crucifixes, and communion (*not eucharist) is taken only a handful of times in the year.
Anglicanism was a shock to the spiritual system.
More on that in a previous post, An Unexpected Journey
Walking into an Anglo-Catholic church for the first time in Toronto, I was pretty overwhelmed. Basically, it was the opposite of the church I grew up in.
I don’t want to get into the details of how these two denominations differ theologically because the truth is I really don’t know. I am still learning. But I do want to share a few blog posts about some of the differences that really stood out for me upon first impression. One of the most conspicuous of these was the thurible.
Personal Opinion Disclaimer: For me, all of these differences – robes, kneelers, incense, etc. – are preferences. I know this opinion is controversial, and probably ignorant. I grant these things may have theological importance, and I’m sure I don’t know enough about this to give a fair assessment. But it seems to me that to get hung up on them is to utterly miss the point that Christ died for us. In my view (so far), these things are accompaniments that remind us and bring us into this beautiful truth.
I noticed it about midway through our first Sunday service at a church in Toronto called St. Thomas’s (or, “Smokey Tom’s”). After the homily and before eucharist, an acolyte in a white robe came out swinging a smoking, silver pot on three chains, with incense puffing out the sides. For me, the fragrant smoke, dancing in the light and slowly trailing up to Heaven, was powerful. I felt the nearness of God.
I later learned this person is called the thurifer, and their job is to to ceremonially prepare the people and things of God, including the eucharist, the gospel, the altar, the other deacons, acolytes and ministers, and the congregation. Here is a video of what this looks like at St. Thomas’s in Toronto.
The thurible isn’t used in all Anglican churches. It’s a fairly reliable indicator that the church you’re in is a “High Anglican” church – meaning that it leans more towards Catholic liturgy and less towards Protestant tradition. This is sometimes called an Anglo-Catholic church.
The word “thurible” is derived from the Latin term thuribulum, formed from the root thus, meaning incense.
Censing the people and things of God is an expression of honour, respect, blessing, and celebration in a liturgy. It also expresses the lifting up of congregational prayers, or the prayers of the saints. This idea is taken from Revelation:
And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people. (Revelation 5: 8)
The use of the thurible helped me to understand that worship is not only an intellectual exercise (listening to a sermon, thinking it through, etc.), but it is also a physical one. Incense acts on the senses – smell, sight, and even sound as the chains gently clink on the swinging pot – to bring you, physically and mentally, into a place of worship. I like this description, too:
“Symbols in liturgy help to point our minds in the direction of invisible realities, and speak to us in a language often richer than words alone. As a symbol, incense is exceptionally rich in associations.” (anglicancatholic.org)
- “Beauty so Ancient” – a podcast series from St. Thomas’s on the Anglican tradition