Letters to Rev. Paul Lebens-Englund on the Topic of Incense

This is more or less where I started, trying to explain that the use of incense was not a stylistic issue. After a few notes back and forth, I got to this:

Dear Paul,

What I’m desperate for you to hear is this: it’s not an issue of preference, or “not wanting” it, or even mild allergic discomfort.

Physiologically, people with asthma are drowning in the mucus their lungs are producing while their bronchial tubes are swelling shut.

About 10% of the population suffers from asthma. Half a million end up in the ER each year, and about 4000 people die from it.
I think this is an educational issue, because I feel certain that if folks who love incense understood that it’s not a case of others disliking incense or wanting to ditch tradition unthinkingly, but rather it that makes the service unsafe for their weak-lunged brethren, they would choose to offer both.

–Jen “

And I continued, in my report to the Bishop’s Committee, 17 December, 2007:

About 10% of the population suffers from asthma. Half a million end up in the ER each year, and about 4000 people die from it. Impoverished urban populations, like West Central. have a higher rate of asthma than the general population.
For people with asthma, attacks are not a mere irritation. Physiologically, an asthmatic’s lungs fill with mucus while their bronchial tubes swell shut during an attack. They are effectively drowning.
There are many triggers for asthma; smoke is one of the most common, but it’s not just active burning that can be the problem. For example, the leftover particulate from smoke triggers my (Jen’s) asthma. Additionally, attacks can cause permanent damage, making sufferers more prone to subsequent and increasingly severe attacks.
There is a great beauty and richness in the traditions that stem from our high-church history, and in the use of incense in particular. It is not my intention to hijack that tradition, as I know many of my fellow congregants feel disenfranchised as more and more churches choose to discontinue its use.
The worship committee has conceived of many solutions (less and “hypo-allergenic” incense , outside hanging, door shutting) that will mitigate some of the issues fragrance-sensitive and allergic people have with incense, even if they don’t specifically address the issues associated with asthma.

Inclusion, Accessibility, and First Impressions

The question isn’t “Are we excluding asthmatics and other sensitive groups?”
By our use of incense at all services during a portion of the year, we are.

The question is: How will we let them know?

This is an issue of First Impressions, and one that is likely to again cause hurt feelings, relational breaks, and exclusion if we don’t address it.
We need to be upfront that there are certain times of the year where we only offer services with incense. We should make sure that everyone in the congregation knows that incense is used at both services, and that everyone has a firm understanding that this includes both the high holy days (Christmas, Palm Sunday, Easter, and Pentecost) and all of the Sundays in the seasons of Advent and Lent.
We should determine the number and frequency of the services that use incense (or our best projection), and publish this information, so that asthmatics and other sensitive people who come through our doors for the first time, know upfront what to expect, and know that worshiping at Holy Trinity may require them seek a different church up to a quarter of the year.
If we provide accurate and clear information upfront, those who cannot tolerate incense will self-select themselves out of the congregation, and Holy Trinity won’t be faced with this issue again.

Alternatively, we could choose to offer both incense and incense-free services.

Although all three of Holy Trinity’s currently identified asthmatics attend the evening service, based on the experience of the first and second weeks of Advent, there doesn’t seem to be enough time between the morning service and the evening service to really clear the air.
It makes a good deal more sense to offer the incense-free service in the morning, and have the incense in the evening, which would allow the better part of the week for airing out the nave.

After I presented that, Paul said, “Well, we’ll have to have further discussion with the committee on that.” I kind of stewed through the rest of the meeting, because at that point, it didn’t seem it was really up for discussion. So, when, at the end of the meeting, he asked if there were further questions, I said, “Earlier, you said we’d need to talk to the committee about the use of incense–but I’ve been talking to the committee and you, and it seemed to me–and I’d be happy to be wrong here–but it seemed to me that a final decision had been made to continue using incense. Am I wrong?” And he said, no, that was right. And I resigned from the committee.

We agreed to meet in the new year, but right before the meeting, he wrote a note that specified the agenda for the meeting, to which I wrote:

Dear Paul,

Either we’re in dialogue, or we’re not. If we’re in dialogue, then we should agree to engage in conversation as people who are in relationship–in communion–with each other. I would never wish to circumscribe what you say, even as I think this will be a difficult conversation. I suspect your careful avoidance of me points to both anger and hurt, and frankly, I’ve been relieved, as its given me time to process much of my own grief over this situation. But that’s something that has to be worked out in relationship and conversation.

If we’re not in dialogue, I don’t see any sense in driving into Spokane, as I figure it can be taken care of via email more efficiently and without contributing to our collective carbon footprint.
I’m willing to come for a conversation. I am willing to come on Elaine’s behalf. I am not willing to come under the guise of having a conversation that isn’t.

I resigned from the Bishop’s Committee on the 19th of December, 2007. It was not an action I took rashly or lightly, or that I feel should be reversed. I do not see a future for myself in the leadership of Holy Trinity.
As I said in my letter of resignation, I do not feel I can be a leader in a church I can only attend part time. But I would have resigned this month even if the use of incense did not directly impact me, as I take being entrusted with the task of church leadership too seriously to remain on a committee that is leadership in name only. I am very sorry if I gave you the impression that I would ever sit by and simply rubberstamp decisions.

I understand that you think a change in incense type and the manner in which it is distributed is a best effort compromise. For many people with allergies, it might be a good compromise.

But this has never been about preference, comfort, palatability, or minor allergies. This is an issue of health and safety, and–for many people–a matter of life or death.

I would dissent if, in the name of tradition, you said we ought not install ramps or accessible toilets in our buildings that have not traditionally had access. I would dissent if, like the RC folks, you insisted celiacs take whole wheat bread for communion and refused to consecrate a rice cake. I would dissent if you offered organic creamy peanut butter as your “best effort” compromise to folks with peanut allergies.

I see two issues: The first is medical. We’re your first three asthmatics. We’re not likely to be the last. I encourage you to take bold steps to make sure that folks coming in the door of Holy Trinity know what to expect, and that they know your “best effort” may not include them (or their children or their loved ones or their neighbors or their friends) being able to attend. If we (that is, the Garrison Stubers) had understood this coming in the door, we would not have become anything more than occasional attendees. We would have still brought the issue to your attention, as it’s an important one, and one you will face again.

If your “best effort” had included offering a service that did not have incense, and if the airing weren’t enough time to actually clear the air for more sensitive folks, I would agree it was at least in the category of “best effort.” The “best effort” compromise at present indicates that you either do not believe it to be a serious health issue, or you believe, but you don’t care.

Which gets us to the second issue, which is philosophical. Your “best effort” is exclusionary and unjust. It does not reflect the kingdom. It shatters relationships. It holds tradition over the health and well-being of people. It is wrong.
It is wrong to take a sacred place that should be life-giving to all and make it life-threatening.

I kept Elaine at the table well beyond the point she would have walked away, and I stayed myself at the same table because, as I’ve said before: I feel certain that if folks who love incense understood that it’s not a case of others disliking incense or wanting to ditch tradition unthinkingly, but rather it that makes the service unsafe for their weak-lunged brethren, they would choose to offer both. I still choose to believe this, and largely I believe it because the alternative is too horrible to contemplate.

So what do I need for a peaceful resolution? I need some answers to some hard questions that we’ll both be faced with in the future (and that I’ve already fielded, and have only unsatisfactory answers to give).

Question 1:
As I wrote in my email the 21st of December, I don’t know why we use incense. Obviously, it’s important enough to lose both leadership and parishioners over, but I don’t even know why the church in general–and Holy Trinity specifically–uses it to begin with. (For that matter, I’ve never been real clear on the crossing of oneself, which you may have noticed I don’t do–like the use of incense, it’s just something I’m ignorant about). So Question 1 is “Why do we use incense?”

Question 2:
What is so important about incense that we’re willing to drive people away from the church rather than make basic ADA accommodations for them?

Integrity in language and communication is very important to me, which is the motivating factor in the next questions. People are going to ask both of us about our departure.
Spokane is a small community, and neither of us has the luxury of anonymity or buffer a large metropolitan community would afford. Moreover, I live and move in circles of people who’ve been hurt by churches, by organized religion, by their interactions with Christians–it’s a fragile group of people with whom I have long term relationships who I know are taking a very careful look at my world, and have even peeked in from time to time. Organic gardening, social justice, and neighborhood unity are all things that we have in common with these folks–folks who live in West Central. They knew of my excitement and exuberance in joining Holy Trinity, and they will ask why I’ve left.

When the people in my counsel have asked me why we left, I have told them that “the worship committee decided to use incense at both services–to the best of my understanding–for about a quarter of the year. As Farmergirl and I have asthma, we are unable to fully participate in the life of the church, and we are, as a family, unwilling to be part timers.”

To the second question of if or not you understand that asthma is a chronic, injurious, and sometimes lethal disease, I have said that I very strongly worded my description of the disease from my experience as “drowning in the mucus their lungs are producing while their bronchial tubes are swelling shut” and that I do not feel, as a writer, I have anything further that would better illuminate the issue.

Invariably, this leads to a third question, which is best paraphrased, “Why would they refuse to make the service accessible to everyone? Why would a church choose incense over people?”

Question 3:
How do you want me to answer that question? I don’t have an answer. I have thus far maintained that I think it’s an educational issue, and that you don’t understand the seriousness of asthma, and that I will find just the right way to express it, and you’ll have an epiphany or a change of heart–but even I don’t believe myself anymore.

That’s Question 3 : “Why would a church–why has this church–chosen incense over people?”
All that stuff you preach on kingdom living and all the parts of that you’ve written on the website–I believe in all of that. And I can’t reconcile what you say about kingdom living and your actions with regard to our congregation. I can’t begin to tell you how saddened I am watching you hurt Elaine over some tradition that you haven’t even explained the reason for clinging to.

The way I see it, we’re at a crossroads and we have a chance to try some of that kingdom living and working through the messiness that is life and relationships, or we can sit at this impasse. I think this town is too small for us to just sit at this impasse. I am willing to invest the time, energy, and fuel that working through it will require.

He wrote back that he didn’t mean to circumscribe the meeting, but to make use of the time to talk through the emotional side of things.

I responded:

Dear Paul,

This has never been about beliefs and practices. It is a medical issue. The “choice” of being a full participant in our community or breathing is not a question of relinquishing beliefs and practices.

At the point (and it seems we’re long since there) we’re unwilling to address a medical issue (clean air, wheat-free bread, handicap access, peanut-free safe coffee hour) it becomes a philosophical issue of exclusion.
I don’t use the terms “inclusive” and “exclusive” lightly or to be hurtful. I use them because we’re not faced with “some potential medical risk”–we’re faced with actual individuals who are negatively impacted.
At this juncture, the choices for those at Holy Trinity with respiratory issues are:
1) Fulltime attendance and the pain and damage of asthma attacks.
2) Parttime attendance and exclusion from the high holy seasons and days.
3) Leaving

None of these really allow for “show[ing] up and [being] healthy, life-giving members of the community” because healthy excludes showing up. If we were discussing musical choices or the tactile rituals that are part of Holy Trinity’s worship–if we were discussing matters of beliefs and practices–I would be fully at fault for walking away from the table, and I would own that. But this isn’t a question of choice on the part of anyone with asthma.

In my original email, I asked three questions:
Question 1: “Why do we use incense?”
Question 2: What is so important about incense that we’re willing to drive people away from the church rather than make basic ADA accommodations, such as offering both a service with and a service without incense?”
Question 3 : “Why would a church choose–why has this church chosen–incense over people?”

I can articulate and defend positions with which I do not agree if I understand the integrity and thought that has gone into the choice that’s been made. I used to have to explain to a class full of Fall semester Monday evening students why we had to make up an entire, unscheduled, class period (because the computer’s program didn’t allow it to understand and take into account the Labour Day holiday, but that we needed to meet 48 hours per state law, even though the computer only scheduled us for 45).

My best answers to these questions sound hollow to my own ears. I don’t know the historical, theological, or traditional reasons for using incense, and I haven’t any explanation to offer for its present day use, let alone a convincing reasoning for a best efforts compromise that does everything but address the health issue presented. I’m linguistically stuck being unable to articulate your position with any integrity beyond, “I don’t know. I have asked, and I am waiting for the answer.”

At this point, I feel certain it is asking more of you to to offer services both with and without incense than it is to ask myself to withdraw for the good of the order.

You have to leave at 11 on Monday, and I have to be in CdA by noon. I suggest we reschedule when we have some time to take and work through some of the relational end of this equation, and continue to work through the intellectual end via email. Truthfully, I’m not really going to be ready to work the emotional part through until I’m done with the intellectual part, anyway.

We did eventually meet, and it was really quite amicable. It was also shallow. He didn’t ask a question he’d put to me in one of his letters (did I trust my vicar?), and I didn’t bring it up either. I was hoping to come out of the meeting feeling we might be in the same room with something a little better than active avoidance or cold civility, but I think we only managed something nominally better. And it was really sad, too, because I think we understood him to be someone who would place people over pomp, and this was all just so terribly incongruous to our understanding of him, of the Gospel, of . . . well, it was the beginning of the 52 Churches project.

In case you’re wondering–what was my answer to that question, do I trust him? No.
I don’t trust him to say “no” when he means “no”; he means “no” but he says “maybe.”
I don’t trust him with the health and welfare of Farmergirl, Elaine, or any other respiratory-challenge individual. And I don’t trust him to bring people from different sides of an equation together to work toward a consensus.

2 Responses to Letters to Rev. Paul Lebens-Englund on the Topic of Incense

  1. Jen says:

    Of the three families who left the church because of this, only one has returned to regular church attendance. (Mine is not one of them, though I have noticed, talking to other people who have done a 52 Churches project, that those who complete it don’t return to the church at the end of the year).

  2. Pat Kashtock says:

    That is completely depressing. I do not understand choosing religiosity over those the Lord created in His own image. Seems not only fully lacking in compassion, but completely contradictory. We say we “honor” God with traditions that harm His children. Makes no sense.

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