Sunday, 31 March 2013

Warnings on the use of incense


Many people have seen the World War Two poster:
“Hitler will send no warning so always carry your gas mask” 

This is, in essence, a responsible, public health warning (H&S warning). Rather alarmingly, no such warning was offered to me in my service sheet this morning at the Easter Service at Rochester Cathedral. I found myself in my backrow seat, five minutes into the service, in a sudden state of complete panic, as the incense swinger started getting into his stride and within seconds the aisle was enveloped in pungent “holy smoke”.

Clearly, Rochester’s clergy had not thought about “H&S issues” nor those at Canterbury Cathedral, where the same happened on TV broadcasts. Yet Rochester Cathedral is the only place where I have ever been offered gluten-free communion bread. I would suggest that their clergy urgently wake up to the dangers of “smells” to allergy sufferers in their congregations.

I got over a crippling illness by staying within chemical-free parameters. I never inhale chemicals, I never take drugs. I try to avoid all “E” numbers. I never use cleaners at home with chemicals, I avoid all smells. I simple hold my breath and run. I never wear perfume or deodorants, after very expensive treatment on my immune system to get me to the stage of full-time work. I recall my allergy specialist once telling me that the thing to fear most is not food allergy, but the nose. The nose is closest to the brain. She said that the quickest way to get anaphylaxis, the potentially life threatening sudden allergic response, is to get something “into your brain straight up your nose”. My workplace realises this and warns staff, for example, when it is going to paint and exactly where.

Today, instead of being uplifted by Easter choral worship, I found myself, without warning, subject to a terrifying, enveloping cloud of “smelly smoke”. I literally ran for the door holding my nose, chased by a concerned female member of the clergy. Outside, she asked me what I would expect in a “High Church” service on Easter Day? “Light incense - at most”, I replied. I told her about my concerns about the lack of warnings and forethought about H&S in the light of their exemplary performance regarding communion bread.

I have theological concerns too:
  • Incense swinging mimics Catholicism which is not that heavy on incense mostly, these days.
  • Incense swinging follows the Old Testament instructions on Temple worship about "incense and sacrifice", which I believe have been superseded by what Christ accomplished on the Cross.
  • Temple worship was ended by Christ at the first Easter by His sacrifice once for all for all time and by the Temple curtain torn in two, opening the way for all repentant believers to approach God, not just the High Priest, once a year.
  • Early Christian worship followed mostly synagogue worship, not Temple rituals.
If worship does not follow New Testament instructions, it can easily obstruct the worship of Christian believers. Nowhere in the New Testament is incense swinging instructed. Instead, what is commanded in worship is the reading of the Bible, the sharing of bread, public prayer and the singing of Psalms.

On a personal level, I do not happen to have been confirmed by a Bishop, as a Catholic. If I wanted heavy incense, I can find a Catholic Church. So I am proposing to all CofE Cathedrals which intend to use moderate or heavy incense, that out of concern for H&S, if not out of respect for theological beliefs of all CofE believers, they include my accompanying public health warning attached above, or one of their own design, in all service sheets.

1 comment:

  1. I am pleased to say that Rochester Cathedral have taken this seriously. They are now considering how to offer "incense warnings" to those, like me, who are sensitive to smell.

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