No ashes, no problem

Dear colleagues,

Several years ago, I found myself worshipping on a Sunday morning in a Free Church of Scotland (Continuing) congregation in Stornaway, a small town on the Isle of Lewes off the northwest coast of Scotland. It was a true Reformed and Protestant service: the church was entirely unadorned, the music consisted of singing psalms, and the centrepoint of the service was a 50-minute sermon. I reflected afterwards that the service engaged essentially a single one of my senses—my sense of hearing—and I could as easily have listened to the service on the radio as attended in person. I was meant to hear the word, understand it, and so be deepened in my faith.

Anglican and Episcopal worship has changed substantially since the 1960s and 1970s. One way of describing these changes is that our worship now engages more of our senses. We have made the Eucharist the main Sunday morning service, engaging our senses of touch and taste. Some churches have introduced incense, engaging our senses of smell and sight. We have reintroduced the services of Holy Week, which from a Maundy Thursday foot-washing to an Easter Vigil bonfire engages a wide range of senses. Christian faith is not simply about hearing and understanding (though it is about that); it’s about a much broader engagement of our whole bodies in the mystery of faith.

This week we come to Ash Wednesday, a service that, as many of us have come to know it, is one that centres on touch, the feeling of being touched and ashed on the forehead. This year, that touch is not possible. That might make us remember that the imposition of ashes is a relatively recent innovation in Anglican worship. Our service this week will be modeled on the Penitential Service in the 1962 Book of Common Prayer of the Anglican Church of Canada, still the official prayer book of this church. Dating as it does to an earlier generation of Anglican understandings of worship, it’s a service that does not call for ashes to be imposed and so is ideally suited to this time of virtual worship.

What can we glean from this? Three things, I think. First, so much of what we have come to take for granted in the life of the church is relatively new. As the church continues to change as a result of the pandemic, we may wish to ask ourselves what we want to hold onto and what we can let go of. Second, it is a good thing to engage all of our senses in worship. We are people with bodies and we are called to orient those bodies towards God. At the same time, particularly in our ever-more virtual world, that kind of engagement is not always possible. Engaging the ears and mind is no bad thing. I have been thinking about this especially in the last few weeks as we have heard a series of stellar sermons from our graduating students. Our Anglican tradition has much to learn from its Protestant roots and emphasis on the word.

Finally, our tradition provides us a wide range of resources to help us respond to our ministry needs. Let’s know them—and use them.

Faithfully yours,

This message was written by Principal Jesse Zink for this week’s Wingèd Ox, a weekly news digest distributed to the college community.