The Prayers Rose Like Incense: Anglican Worship and the Normative Principle


Matthew M. Kennedy

Article ID:



Apr 2, 2024


Jan 9, 2020

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First time visitors to an Anglican Church, especially a parish of the high church tradition, are often bewildered. Worship abounds in written prayers, vestments, acolytes, a robed choir, candles, hymns accompanied by an organ. People cross themselves, kneel for certain prayers, stand for others. Communion wine is just that, wine served from a common cup. If it happens to be a feast day, there may be incense. To the uninitiated all these elements may feel positively arcane and certainly alien. To top it off, if the preacher knows his business, the sermon will not be a five-minute opinion piece, nor five steps to a better you, but rather a thorough exposition of one of four biblical texts, an exaltation of Christ, a calling for repentance and faith, and a proclamation of the finished work of the cross. Done well, the worshiper partakes of a hearty meal, Word and Sacrament, liturgy and fire, beef stew not thin soup; bewildering, yes, but beguiling and beautiful.

People from non-liturgical traditions often find it difficult to categorize Anglican worship. The liturgy looks Roman Catholic, but the preaching sounds Reformed. What are you, visitors sometimes ask, Catholic or Reformed? The answer is yes.

Liturgical and Reformed. Anglicans occupy a unique space within Christendom. The Anglican Confession of Faith, the 39 Articles of Religion, is one of the older Protestant confessions. Students of the Reformation will note that the Articles seem at once Lutheran and Reformed, a kind of via media between Geneva and Wittenberg. Archbishop Thomas Cranmer would have, no doubt, preferred to be described as an Augustinian, though he was influenced first by Luther and then by Reformed thinkers, such as Martin Bucer and Peter Martyr Vermigli. Reformed theology gradually became predominant for him; thus the 39 Articles are usually categorized among the Reformed confessions.1

Yet the churches that have sprouted from the Reformed trunk tend to reject much that the Anglican tradition embraces. You will not find many Orthodox Presbyterian congregations, for example, chanting psalms or swinging incense. Had the Puritans gained ascendency in the Church of England, as they nearly did, Anglican worship today might resemble that of the Orthodox Presbyterians. The Puritans, and most continental Reformed traditions following Zwingli, and later John Calvin, embraced a liturgical theology that came to be known as the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW). “Put simply,” Derek Thomas explains, “the regulative principle of worship states that the corporate worship of God is to be founded upon specific directions of Scripture.”2 Some Reformed traditions forbid musical instrumentation and restrict congregational singing to the psalms. Others allow hymns and instruments but forbid religious art, depictions of Jesus in particular. The threat, from the Regulative perspective, is idolatry. The worshiper must not be tempted by images, music, or the bodily sensations to direct worship toward or through created things. The mind must be fastened on heavenly things and the affections of the body must be quieted.

But Thomas Cranmer’s project was not to recover a pure form of first-century worship. Like Luther, Cranmer sought to retain, but reform, western liturgy. While there were stages of the English Reformation during which stained glass windows were smashed, religious art destroyed, and “Romish” vestments burned, Cranmer himself was, in the words of Roger Beckwith, cautious. “The only points at which Cranmer recognized a necessity for change were points where the liturgy had gone astray from scriptural teaching, or was understood in an unscriptural sense, and there indeed antiquity often provided the best model for change.”3

While the early stages of the English Reformation reflected stricter liturgical proscriptions (incense, for example, would not have been used), thereby disassociating the English Church from Roman eucharistic doctrine, an ethos gradually emerged, articulated in Article 34, called the Normative Principle of Worship (NPW).4 The rites and ceremonies of the Church are to be “normed” or measured by the Scriptures rather than “regulated” by them. The Church is free to retain or establish whatever does not conflict with Scripture so long as it is done decently and in order. “Decently and in order” requires that worship be governed by both the Book of Common Prayer and episcopal authority rather than by the private judgments of parish clergy. Within these bounds there is latitude. In some parishes you will find the liturgy accompanied, as described above, by richly ornamented vestments, candles, ancient hymns, acolytes, and incense. In others, simplicity of dress and movement will be the rule. Elsewhere, you will find the Book of Common Prayer projected onto a screen, music led by a band rather than a choir, and clergy dressed more casually, even, in some places, without vestments, though in America that is rare.

This is not to say that these differences spark no controversy. Indeed, quarreling about who is and who is not conducting worship properly is one of the historic joys of Anglicanism. Those of the low church tradition contend that those of the high church tradition5 employ too many elements associated with Roman Catholicism and thus confuse the worshiper with regard to the nature of the sacraments. Those of the high church tradition, likewise, sniff at those who employ screens and worship bands as irreverent and barely Anglican. While those of the big screen often view both parties as outmoded, irrelevant, and most certainly non-“missional” (a word few high church or low church Anglicans can utter without guile). All sides nevertheless agree, worship must be beautiful. It should captivate the mind, move the heart, and stimulate the senses.

A Theater of Divine Glory. It is within this broad agreement that arguments over the use of incense arise. I am a strong proponent of its use. A look at creation, even in its fallen state, reveals that God is not a utilitarian. He has not consulted Ockham. He is the extravagant Artist filling His canvas with complex and monstrous grandeur, much of it functionally unnecessary. Consider food. God could have designed our bodies to be fueled efficiently by gray-glop swilled from gray-glop pools, out of which we might drearily drink in dark sadness. But He so designed our bodies that we enjoy the functional act of eating. Creation, as John Calvin observes, is a theatre of Divine glory. Sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and textures bespeak a God who loves all that He has made and wants His creatures to enjoy Him forever.

Compare the creation account in Genesis 1 and 2 to God’s instructions for the tabernacle in Exodus. In Genesis, God creates, fashions, and fills the earth. He plants a garden in the midst of the earth and creates a man to dwell in it with Him. Adam works the garden like a priest serving in the temple, mediating God’s presence and offering himself to God as the representative of His creation.6 In Exodus, God, likewise, establishes a people and instructs Moses to fashion and fill a tent in their midst and set apart a man, a priest, to meet with Him there. God does not say: pitch any old tent, build an Ikea table, and switch on a fluorescent bulb. The tent must be the work of skilled craftsmen; the furniture, made of acacia wood, coated in decorated gold; the high priest’s vestments intricately woven of blue, gold, and purple thread with an ephod of precious stones. In the midst of the tabernacle, in the holy place before the curtain, which leads to the holy of holies, Moses was to place an altar of acacia wood, gilded in gold, where the priest would burn incense every morning and evening. There the priest stood on the threshold of heaven, before the veil, his prayers rising like the smoke from the altar.7

When one points to the tabernacle as grounds for use of incense, candles, ornate vestments and other such elements in modern worship, the rejoinder is often, “But these were types and shadows. The tabernacle pointed to Christ. Employing forms of worship associated with the Old Covenant implicitly communicates the insufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice and the New Covenant.” Indeed, the tabernacle, its furnishings, and its sacrifices were types and shadows. Christ made by His one sacrifice, once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient satisfaction for the sins of the whole world. And now those who believe dwell with Him in the heavenly temple by the Holy Spirit and He with us in the temple of our hearts and in the temple of His church by the same Spirit. We reside by grace as priests, clothed in Christ’s righteousness, not only at the threshold, but in the holy of holies itself, seated with Jesus our High Priest. But while there is no more propitiation or atonement to be made, does Scripture restrict the elements of the Old Covenant tabernacle to the Old Covenant?

Consider God’s words through Malachi, “‘My name will be great among the nations, from where the sun rises to where it sets. In every place incense and pure offerings will be brought to me, because my name will be great among the nations,’ says the LORD Almighty.”8 God points forward to an era, still in Malachi’s future, when the nations, the Gentiles, will know and revere the God of Israel. God fulfilled this prophecy by sending His Son. His Son commissioned apostles to proclaim this good news and call all people to repent of their sins and trust in Him for forgiveness and eternal life. This gospel has gone out to all the nations. Then, God says, incense and offerings will be brought to Him in every place. This is prophetic imagery. Incense and offerings represent genuine faith and grateful worship. And, yes, the text is descriptive, not prescriptive. Even so, the incense and offerings9 call to mind Old Covenant ceremonies in the midst of New Covenant worship.

The Altar of Incense. For readers of the New Testament this should be no surprise. In Revelation, John receives a vision of heavenly worship: “And when [the Lamb] had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.”10 The language is apocalyptic and highly figurative. John sees that the bowls of incense are prayers. They are pleasing and sweet to the Lamb who was slain.

Incense is mentioned again in Revelation 8: “And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer, and he was given much incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar before the throne, and the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel. Then the angel took the censer and filled it with fire from the altar and threw it on the earth, and there were peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake.”11 Here incense is offered with the prayers of the saints. The prayers appear to be prayers for rescue and justice in the midst of tribulation. The reader should not understand the imagery in a wooden-literal sense, but do notice that incense accompanies the prayers.  It is an element of worship alongside prayer. In chapter 5, the incense is prayer.

In heaven, Christ reigns in glory. The Lamb that was slain sits on the throne. His work is finished. And yet there is an altar, singing, a crystal sea, the voice like the sound of many waters, the bittersweet scroll, and fragrant incense. Heavenly worship involves the body and all of its senses.

When Christ returns and heaven and earth are remade and joined together, the sin which now inhibits our enjoyment of God and His creatures will be washed away. We will walk on the green grass, breathe in the fresh air, and taste life in bodies made new. Our senses will then become instruments of worship to praise and enjoy the One who made us.

Christ Jesus does, even in this fallen world, preside over the Feast. His voice, like thunder, breaks stony hearts even in our humble congregations. Should our worship while waiting for His bodily return be disembodied and cerebral?  Shouldn’t Christian worship reflect, if dimly, the beauty of heaven and involve all the senses? Has God somehow become displeased by beauty? Should earthly worship fail to reflect heavenly verities? —Matthew M. Kennedy

The Reverend Matthew M. Kennedy (M.Div, VTS) is the rector of The Church of the Good Shepherd in Binghamton, New York.


  1. Andre Forget, “Luther and the English Church, 500 Years of Influence,” Anglican Journal, October 2017, The sacramental theology of the Articles, in particular, push them into the Reformed camp, being primarily receptionist.
  2. Derek Thomas, “The Regulative Principle of Worship,” Tabletalk Magazine, July 1, 2010,
  3. Roger Beckwith, “Thomas Cranmer After 500 Years,” Churchman 104, January 1990, 9,
  4. “It is not necessary that Traditions and Ceremonies be in all places one, or utterly like; for at all times they have been divers, and may be changed according to the diversity of countries, times, and men’s manners, so that nothing be ordained against God’s Word” (Article 34).
  5. “High church” is not synonymous with “Anglo Catholic.” Anglo Catholicism originated in the 19th century promoting a sacramental theology similar to that of the Roman Catholic Church, while opposing both the Reformed understanding of the Articles and the universal claims of the Papacy. Traditional high churchmen by contrast share the Reformed commitments of their low church brethren.
  6. See Genesis 1–2.
  7. See Exodus 25–31.
  8. Malachi 1:11 NIV.
  9. Thanksgiving (eucharistic) offerings rather than propitiatory ones.
  10. Revelation 5:6–8 ESV. The “saints,” according to New Testament usage, are believers.
  11. Revelation 8:3–5 ESV. 
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