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Ash Wednesday: An Anglican Tradition?

Screen Shot 2017-02-23 at 8.18.16 AMAsh Wednesday marks the beginning of the Season of Lent, historically a season of fasting and penance.  The service that many will be most familiar with is a formal, sober liturgy, which includes (a) an invitation to keep a holy Lent, (b) the imposition of ashes, (c) readings from Holy Scripture, including the corporate reading of the Miserere mei Deus, (d) a corporate confession of sin, (e) the hearing of a sermon or homily and (f) the Holy Communion.  In various iterations the rite will be observed in Anglican, Roman, and Orthodox churches (Western Rite only).

My concern isn’t with the Roman or Orthodox observance of Ash Wednesday, but rather with the Anglican.  Specifically, my concern is with the claim that the observance of Ash Wednesday is part and parcel of historic Anglican liturgical practice.  Such a claim, like Barry Bonds or Mark McGwire’s batting average, should come with an asterisk.  The purpose in pointing this out is not to lead a Quixotic tilting of the windmills against Ash Wednesday.  But rather to inform the reader that (a) a significant number of Anglicans have historical, theological and Biblical objections to the imposition of ashes (b) that their convictions are consistent with a stream of historic Anglicanism and (c) that such should not be made to feel “un-Anglican.” 

Historic Background

 It is said that King Henry VIII was the type of man who would throw you off the Tower of London and then bid you stop halfway down.  This is a fitting description not only of his personal relations, but also his ecclesial.  The English Reformers were well acquainted with the stop/start motion of the Henrician reformation, and in January 1547 they were eager to transition into a more fully consistent reformation, which they were able to do with the ascension of the “young Josiah,” King Edward VI following Henry’s death.

Cranmer and his colleagues turned their attention to a variety of projects under Edward, including liturgical revision.  In January of 1548, Cranmer announced to the bishops of his province that Candlemas candles, Ash Wednesday ashes and Palm Sunday palms would henceforth be banned.  Though it is common amongst modern Anglicans to argue that the ban was nothing more than a paper tiger, there is much evidence that the ban was strictly enforced (see MacCulloch, Cranmer, p. 383).  The ban by Archbishop Cranmer was followed up with a royal proclamation forbidding private innovation (Haigh, The English Reformation Revised p. 120), meaning that the imposition of ashes in the private chapels of the nobility was also forbidden. Further reinforcing the ban was Nicholas Ridley’s Ash Wednesday sermon “Against Idolatry.”  The sermon itself has vanished, however details survive through an account by Stephen Gardiner (that crafty and sophisticall man!).  Ridley preached against “idols,” which typical of the Reformation was meant to target icons.  However, in an interesting twist he applied the term “idol” not only to icons but also to objects such as holy water, ashes, and palms.  Ridley went farther than simply preach, but in his “Articles to be inquired of in the visitation of the diocese of London” he included a query wherein the parish priest and wardens would be questioned as to whether “any useth to hallow water, bread, salt, bells, or candles upon Candlemas day, ashes on Ash Wednesday, palms on Palm Sunday, the font on Easter-even, fire on Paschal, etc.”  In other words, Cranmer et. al. went parish to parish seeking conformity to the new laws concerning Ash Wednesday, amongst other things.  What are we to make of this?

The temptation for the interpreter of these events would be to assume an anti-ritualistic bent in the English church, consistent with the iconoclasm that took place in England and Europe during the 16th century.  But this is misleading.  This wasn’t carte blanche anti-ritualism, but a very specific type with a specific target.  Cummings has described the sentiment that swept the reforming church not as anti-ritualistic, but as against a certain kind of ritualism which he describes as a “revulsion towards….the religion of material things” (Cummings, The Book of Common Prayer p. xxiv).  In other words, the Reformers had a revulsion to the association of spiritual virtues and powers with material objects such as holy water, blessed palms or relics.  When such powers are attributed to material objects, superstition abounds.  Or at least this was the thinking of the Reformers.

Screen Shot 2017-02-23 at 8.21.15 AMWhat Cummings calls “the religion of material things” is brought into sharp focus by the Ash Wednesday service.  The ashes for the Ash Wednesday service came from burning the palms from Palm Sunday.  In between Palm Sunday and Ash Wednesday, blessed palms were kept in homes, tucked behind icons or crucifixes.  In England, by at least the later Middle Ages, it is documented that both clergy and laity were using blessed candles from Candlemas and palms from Palm Sunday as talismans to ward off illnesses, storms and other calamities (Watkins, History and the Supernatural in Medieval England, p. 110).  Here Ridley’s sermon “Against Idolatry,” begins to make more sense.  On Ash Wednesday, a day when the ashes would have been made conspicuous by their absence, Ridley preached against idolatry, or the attribution of divine power to material objects, something his listeners might have been doing with the Palm Sunday palms all year.  The Reformer’s message couldn’t have been clearer.  This type of devotion is coming to an end.

Superstition isn’t the only reason that the English Reformers marked Ash Wednesday as ground zero for their liturgical reforms.  Ash Wednesday in the medieval church was a day of significant penitential activity.  As I’ve written elsewhere, the transformation of the doctrine of purgatory in the latter middle ages had a direct impact on the Roman penitential system.  In the early middle ages purgatory was understood as a training ground for heaven bound sinners where they could purge themselves from sinful inclinations.  Thus in Dante’s Purgatorio, those the traveller meets are surprisingly happy.  By the latter middle ages however, the understanding of purgatory changed from a place of spiritual training to a place of painful, often torturous payment for sins.  In the penitential system of the latter middle ages, it was understood that penance done in this life could lessen the burdens of penance in the life to come.  As early as the 10th century, the Anglo-Saxon  Regularis concordia drew an explicit link between the imposition of ashes and penance (Hamilton, The Practice of Penance p. 93).

That penance would be linked with the imposition of ashes in the 10th century makes sense considering in its early iterations, ashes were not imposed on the entire community as they are now but rather only on those who had sinned grievously and had been placed under the penalty of public penance.  In time even individuals who had not sinned grievously, but who wanted to observe Lent in a particularly devoted manner, could elect such an observance after consultation with the local priest or in some cases Abbot.  Upon such penitents ashes were imposed and they were excommunicated from the church until Maundy Thursday, whereupon they would be readmitted to the church.  The imposition of ashes as we know it today (imposed upon each and every congregant) developed from a rite of public penance for individuals into a public corporate rite for the whole church as the corporate church yearned for the same access to penitential merit as the individual penitents (Jungmann, Die lateinischen Bussriten, p. 313).  It should come as no surprise that the church community’s zeal for penance developed alongside the darker version of purgatory.  As the pains of purgatory were more imaginatively conveyed, the longing in the corporate church for acts of penance to lesson time in purgatory increased.  Thus the public, corporate ashing of the community rides the rising tide of a grim and torturous purgatory.

Thus Ash Wednesday was not only linked to the superstitious and idolatrous attribution of magical properties to the palms, but the Ash Wednesday service itself was linked to a penitential system that the Reformers viewed as a serious affront to the Gospel.  Central to the proclamation of the Gospel in the 16th century was the insistence that neither our works in this life nor our purgation in the life to come could make proper satisfaction for sins.  Rather:

We be sanctified and made holy by the offering up of the body of Jesus Christ, done once for all…with the one oblation of his blessed body and precious blood he hath made perfect for ever and ever all them that are sanctified.  This then is that purgatory wherein all Christian men must put their whole trust and confidence, nothing doubting. (Jewel, “Homily Concerning Prayer”)

The Reformer’s concerns weren’t merely theological.  They also noticed that the legalism and superstition of the penitential system disproportionately affected the poor, who could not afford to take time for pilgrimage, nor pay for indulgences, and for whom a mandatory meat fast would drastically reduce the protein intake of those for whom meat was a scarcity the rest of the year.  The Reformer’s concern that false doctrine hurt this most vulnerable is an understudied theme, and yet one which anyone who has ever casually read the Reformer’s will become quickly acquainted with.

Returning to Ash Wednesday, we now know that Cranmer banned the practice of the imposition of ashes as early as 1548.  This ban was liturgically enshrined in Cranmer’s 1549 Prayer book, a book he was personally displeased with because of its Roman tendencies and yet nevertheless was published without allowance for the imposition of ashes, as was its successor in 1552.  The trend continues in 1559.  The same can be said for the prayer book of the restoration published in 1662.  I have heard the argument made that though the imposition of ashes was not liturgically enshrined, the practice no doubt continued unabated.  There is evidence of this.  Nevertheless, it remains true that the imposition of ashes was not a matter of indifference but a matter of canonical disobedience.  Furthermore, there is ample evidence that breaking the canons in this regard, as I have already shown, resulted in punishment.  If the practice was culturally widespread, there is little concern to explain the imposition of ashes in books such as Nelson’s A Companion for the Festivals and Fasts of the Church of England, which explains the Liturgical Season of Lent as well as why the first day of Lent is called “Ash Wednesday.”  And yet Nelson doesn’t explain the imposition of ashes, because such a thing simply wasn’t done and therefore didn’t need to be explained.  This truth is confirmed by a report for the House of Lords in the late 19th century, whereby a formal complaint is issued that school children had ashes imposed by the chaplain and were indoctrinated into other “Romish practices.”  If the imposition of ashes was commonplace, such a complaint would have been absurd.  One does not complain that such and such is done if such and such is culturally acceptable, part and parcel of normal ecclesial life.  Why go through all this?  Simply to show that Cranmer’s aversion to the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday endured well into the late 19th century.

As Colin Buchanan notes, “the use of ashes has slowly reappeared in some Anglican provinces over the last 100 years under the influence of the Anglo-Catholic movement” (Buchanan, Historical Dictionary of Anglicanism p. 80).  The imposition of ashes reappears in the formal liturgy of the Episcopal Church in the 1979 Prayerbook.  Provision is made for the imposition of ashes in the Church of England’s Lent, Holy Week, Easter: Services and Prayers from 1984.  There is a form for the blessing of the ashes in The Supplement to the Book of Common Prayer (1960) for the Church of South India.  The same may be said for the Church of the Province of Papua New Guinea.  Nevertheless, for the vast majority of Anglican provinces that have retained either the language of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer or the theology therein, the imposition of ashes is a feature absent for the liturgy for the First Day of Lent.

Screen Shot 2017-02-23 at 8.24.49 AMWhat then of Ash Wednesday?  In light of the above, skepticism is owed to the claim that the imposition of ashes is an “Anglican tradition.”  If it is an Anglican tradition, then it is a recent one, though one I admit is enjoying a remarkable resurgence.  Second, skepticism is owed to the claim that it is a “catholic tradition.”  Though the imposition of ashes to public penitents has an ancient, even patristic pedigree, the rite as it is practiced now, with the corporate imposition of ashes upon the entire community came about no earlier than the late middle ages.  In other words, it is barely older than the Reformation.  Its catholicity is further challenged by the fact that it is only celebrated by 2 of the 3 catholic “branches” of the church.  Not that I accept the “branch theory” as a legitimate understanding of Anglican ecclesiology, nevertheless its worth noting that the Orthodox church writ large do not observe Ash Wednesday, but only those who follow the late nineteenth century provision of the Western Rite.

Participation in the Rite

 Should we observe Ash Wednesday with the imposition of Ashes?  I will not do so.  Nor have I since my ordination.  And this is for at least two reasons.

  1. The Ash Wednesday readings:  I was ordained in the Episcopal Church in 2006.  As such, my experience of Ash Wednesday was not the “Commination or Denouncing of God’s Judgment Against Sinners” of the 1662 BCP but rather the Ash Wednesday service of the 1979 Episcopal Prayerbook.  In this service, the Gospel reading comes from Matthew’s Gospel ch. 6:1-6,16-21.  It is a strange thing to read “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them” and then promptly watch your congregation parade into public with black crosses upon their foreheads.  This is only made worse by what comes later in the Gospel reading:  “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting.”  As many commentators have noted, the ashing of the face to accompany a fast was customary amongst the ancient Jews (Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew, p. 295).  It’s hard not to read Jesus’ admonition in light of this cultural fact.  To put it bluntly, the irony of Ash Wednesday (at least to me) has always been that the congregation enthusiastically carries out an act of penitence that the words of Jesus seem to prohibit.  At the very least, the Ash Wednesday readings themselves should give us pause.
  2. Our Anglican Heritage:  I don’t think that Anglicanism should be so defined by the Reformation that we should be locked in a perpetual battle against Medieval Roman Catholicism.  One of the reasons I think that is because I don’t believe Medieval Roman Catholicism to be the great devil many pretend it was.  Students of the Reformation and post-Reformation period know that the Reformation church and post-Reformation church owed a great deal to the theological and spiritual heritage of the patristic and medieval periods.  There is a remarkable continuity between these periods in language and theology that is often obscured by polemics.  In terms of this specific discussion, the Reformers looked to the patristic and medieval church to help them combat superstition and legalism (Pelagianism).  What this means is that superstition and legalism were not concerns only of 16th century theologians, but such concerns can be seen in the works of Bradwardine’s De Causa Dei, Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, Ratramnus of Corbie’s De Corpore et sanguine, the works of Augustine and of course many, many others.  And it should come as no surprise that such concerns were not wiped clean by the Reformation.  Indeed, many of the Reformation churches invented new superstitions and legalisms of their own.  Superstition and legalism are therefore perpetual concerns of the church.  And out of deference to the wisdom and pastoral instincts of my Anglican fathers, I’m not comfortable altering their legacy so drastically without serious reflection precisely because their concerns endure today.  Furthermore, I’d be lying if I said I haven’t seen an enormous amount of superstition and legalism surrounding the many of the new ritualistic innovations of Anglicanism, including if not especially the observance of Ash Wednesday.  For the sake of time I omit examples but there are many, not all of them trivial, some of which are truly heartbreaking.

Let me be clear on what I am and am not saying.  I am not saying that like-minded Anglicans should rally round a modern day ban on the imposition of ashes.  Such a thing would not only be a complete waste of time, but it would also deny others the very theological breathing room I’m asking to be provided for me.  Neither am I saying that people who observe Ash Wednesday with the imposition of ashes are superstitious or legalistic.

What I am saying is that clergy with conscionable objections to conducting this rite should not be made to feel un-Anglican neither should they be compelled to participate.  Their position comes with strong historic, theological, and biblical bona fides.  Their peers and their bishops should honor those convictions and not quickly dismiss them as closet Presbyterians or Willow Creek evangelicals (I’ve heard it all, sigh).  Second, Christians should consider carefully their liturgical and ritual participation, not merely in regards to the imposition of ashes but in regards to any liturgical or ritual participation.  One should not unreflectively participate in church worship, but test it against scripture, interpreted through tradition, and applied through reason.  Just as clergy need not impose ashes, the laity need not receive them even if everyone else is doing it.  As someone who has never reverenced the cross, nor crossed myself in the liturgy, nor bowed before an altar, nor elevated the host, nor kissed the ring of a bishop, I know what it feels like to be the odd man out in public worship, especially at clergy gatherings.  To borrow an expression from my native Alabama, It ain’t that bad.  Third, whether you impose ashes or no, clergy should think clearly what they hope to accomplish through their worship services, especially on such significant days as Ash Wednesday.  Neither knee jerk anti-ritualism nor unreflective pining for the ceremonial serve our congregations well.  Whatever you do, do it prayerfully and thoughtfully and by all means don’t (as they say) miss the reason for the season.  A dedicated, focused time of spiritual reflection and repentance is useful for the church.  Perhaps one may even keep the fast Isaiah proclaims, by taking a renewed interest and action in the plight of the poor and suffering.

A Test Case?

Finally, the imposition of ashes is a useful test case to think through the narrowness and the broadness of modern Anglicanism in North America.  Thinking strictly in terms of my own province, the Anglican Church in North America, one of the many challenges as I see it will be to define Anglican orthodoxy narrow enough to maintain a recognizably Christian church and broad enough to allow for a variety of liturgical practices and reasonable theological convictions.  This type of charitable approach will permit Anglo-Catholic, Reformed, Broad Church Evangelical, etc. to flourish in a happy yet diverse church family.  The great enemy to this project is of course when theological camps “play for keeps.”  What I mean by this is a liturgics committee making the imposition of ashes a rubric, or contrariwise the same committee seeking to ban the practice across the province (not that either, to my knowledge, is being done).  The simple solution is to make such a ritual optional.  And that is an example of what could be done, not simply with the imposition of ashes but with a variety of theological and liturgical challenges facing the ACNA. Two things are necessary for such ecclesial habits.  These are charity and theological education.  Let me speak to each briefly.

When I say charity is required, I mean that those who are crafting ecumenical statements, writing liturgies, or working on catechisms must hold first and foremost in their mind not their own theological convictions, but the convictions of their theological counterparts.  They must seek to craft a statement that may not adequately express either person’s belief, but nevertheless it is a statement that both can live with, even uncomfortably.  Provincial representation demands that one leave behind the convictions of theological camps and seek, to the best of one’s ability, to represent the whole province.  That demands charity.

When I say theological education, I mean that those who are crafting ecumenical statements, writing liturgies, or working on catechisms must actually be informed theologically about the beliefs of their counterparts.  They must know the flex points, the adamantine convictions, and the land mines of the various parties that compose the ACNA and they must consider these when crafting such documents.  Furthermore they must seek to actively include theologically robust spokespersons to represent the different positions.  Failure to do this has manifested itself repeatedly, often with embarrassing and uncomfortable results.  And yet I’m not persuaded the appropriate lessons have been drawn from such failures.

Do I believe such charity and theological acumen currently exists within North American Anglicanism?  No.  But I believe she is capable of such.  Therefore I shall mourn my part in wherever I have fallen short in charity and understanding and pray for an increase in both, not only for myself, but also for the church at large.  I shall also pray to be a contributor to both the charitable climate as well as the theological conversation in North American Anglicanism.  I shall do so a little under a week from now and I imagine I shall do so next to many people with black ash on their foreheads.  I will have in mind much else on that day, myriad personal shortcomings and deep indwelling sin that have little to do with the institutional concerns outlined above, but are more entrenched in my day to day experience with family and neighbor.  For these sins I will happily extend and receive the invitation to observe a Holy Lent.  I will pray fervently, and with the help of the Spirit and God’s grace repent sincerely, but I will do so without ashes.

This post was written by Rob Sturdy

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