The use of incense is an integral part of our worship and devotion, and something we deeply and reverently love. It is a symbol of the fact that prayers always rise to God, reminiscent of the antiphon at Evensong, "Let my prayer be set forth in Thy sight as the incense and let the lifting up of our hands be an evening sacrifice." It also brings to mind Revelation 8:3 and 4 which say: "3 Another angel with a golden censer came and stood at the altar; he was given a great quantity of incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar that is before the throne. 4 And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel."

In recent times, the use of incense is "compounded" by one simple fact, i.e., since most of our churches are now air-conditioned, the natural ventilation which existed for centuries is no longer there. Air conditioning primarily circulates existing air and primarily does not introduce fresh air.

This means, simply put, that worshippers are now impacted by second hand smoke in a way that our forebears never were since they had natural and ample ventilation. Whether it be cigarette, cigar and pipe smoke or incense smoke it is all SECOND HAND SMOKE, which has been proven medically to be bad for one's health: it causes cancer and other respiratory maladies.

This issue is further complicated by the fact that most churches use charcoal briquettes as their heat source in thuribles, rather than the self-lite coals, or locally-produced charcoal. This is because briquettes are far less expensive and more readily available. However, these are made for external use on barbeque pits and grills. They produce chemical fumes. Even if you cannot smell it the emissions are there...and briquettes ARE NOT designed for or recommended for indoor use. The packaging states that clearly.

Medical and safety personnel would advise and have advised that this is an unhealthy situation with deadly possibilities, i.e.,

    Air-conditioned spaces (which equals no ventilation) + smoke + a heat source recommended for external use + chemical emissions.
For centuries, smoking in public places was the norm. There were smoking and non-smoking areas in planes, trains and many public venues. It was acceptable and it continued for some time after it was known to be deadly. Then the world made a shift to what we see now: smoking allowed only in designated areas.

Every thurifer had/has as his/her goal to create zero visibility in divine worship (yours truly included) and many achieved this in various degrees of success. Many congregants desire this "cloud" also and revel in it. I can remember persons "rowing" the thurifers in St. Agnes when we passed their pew in procession and did not have enough smoke billowing from the thuribles to suit their fancy, if not their devotion.

Conversely, we have seen many persons either fanning the smoke away or actually exiting the service because they find it hard to cope with.

The time has come for the Church to make a shift corresponding, in essence, to the one made for medical reasons in the secular world with regard to smoking.

As a matter of policy, I now ask the clergy to observe the following guidelines:
  1. Cease the use of charcoal briquettes.

  2. Use self-lite coals or locally produced charcoal.

  3. Use small amounts of incense. As incense is symbolic, God's grace is not proportionate to the volume of incense. Direct thurifers to be moderate (in fact, traditionally and liturgically, they have no authority to put in incense). Bear in mind the size of the space in a chancel, sanctuary or nave, the crowd present and the way that your particular air-conditioning system works.

  4. Be sensitive to those who may have challenges with incense smoke, whether they be members or visitors. (There are even some of our priests who have respiratory challenges). Taking the attitude that persons having difficulty simply need to "put up with it" or to "get over it" is not healthy, helpful, charitable, nor does it draw persons to our church.

  5. Where space, circulation and sparse distribution of worshippers allow, discretion may allow an increase in incense use, but this must be monitored carefully.

  6. Generally, we need to be more moderate.
Conclusion: Please note that whether we love incense smoke or not, it is second hand smoke and we should therefore limit our inhalation of it, especially in closed, air-conditioned, spaces with limited ventilation.

Yours in Christ,

The Rt. Rev'd. Laish Z. Boyd Sr.,