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Angela Tilby: You are dust, but does that require ash?

09 February 2024

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FOR many of us, the brief eyeball-to-eyeball, finger-to-skin encounter of Ash Wednesday, when the cross is traced in ash on our foreheads, is one of the most powerful moments of the Christian year, reminding us of our common mortality and of the grace of baptism.

Common Worship describes ashes as an ancient sign of penitence, and says that the imposition of ashes began in the Middle Ages. In 1547, Thomas Cranmer forbade the prac­tice, and his first English Prayer Book of 1549 began Lent with a service that became known as the “com­­mination service”, announcing God’s curses against impenitent sin­ners.

Cranmer was content to note, however, that the first day of Lent was “commonly called Ash Wednes­day”, even though ashes were no longer involved. They remained in general disuse in the Church of England until the 20th century. In the 1907 edition of The Parson’s Handbook, Percy Dearmer suggested that a ceremony with ashes on Ash Wednesday might be revived.

But experiments to restore ashes could get priests into trouble. In 1985, I met a descendent of the famous Fr Burn, of All Saints’, Middles­brough, who remembered how the church was put under a ban by Archbishop Maclagan for, among other forbidden practices, having ashes on Ash Wednesday. Steven Wedge­worth, in a fascinating article for the journal Ad Fontes, has traced the return of ashes to the main­stream, showing how, in 1976, ashes appear as an option in the American Book of Common Prayer. This was nothing to do with 19th- and early-20th-century hankerings for a revival of tradition, but more the result of a new ecumenical consensus after the Second Vatican Council. Ashes are not mentioned in the Alternative Service Book of 1980, but they appear in 1984 in Lent, Holy Week and Easter, and from there are carried into Common Worship.

Our supposedly ancient tradition, then, is not quite what it seems; nor is it clear that the medieval practice involved anything like the ash-on-the-forehead encounter with which we have become familiar.

More genuinely traditional for Anglicans is Cranmer’s commina­tion service. This has no Common Worship equivalent, which is un­­surprising. While the in­­timacy of ashing moves us, contemporary sen­sib­ilities cannot cope with God’s wrath.

Yet the commination curses are important, not least because they demonstrate that the sneaky sins of the heart are often social sins, which boil down to the habit of quietly seeking our own advantage in a way which harms others and threatens social bonds: removing a landmark (moving a garden fence?) accepting a bribe, ignoring those who need us; all examples of quietly putting ourselves first and others last.

It does no harm to recognise that there are quite ordinary things we do to defend, protect and promote our­­selves, which God “hates” simply because they hurt others.

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