Scent-free parishes in vogue

Published October 1, 2001

Chris Ambidge, shown standing, assisting Canon Art Lawson at General Synod, has occasionally fled services where incense is used.

FOR people whose throats virtually close up at the first whiff of incense or heavy perfume, going to church can not only be a health risk but lethal.

Many churches are becoming aware of medical problems some people have with scents and chemicals and are asking parishioners and visitors to be sensitive about their use of scented products when coming to church. In some parishes, use of incense and even overhead fans has been discontinued out of courtesy to parishioners and visitors whose lungs cannot handle the smoke or dust.

For Michelle Murdoch, a Sunday school teacher at St. Mark’s Church in St. John’s, Nfld., reaction to scent was nearly fatal. Once a nurse without health problems, she suddenly developed sensitivity to chemicals when she was in her 30s. A reaction at work to a wax stripper put her in hospital with a tube down her throat. Subsequent treatment for allergies and asthma sapped her energy and kept her in a wheelchair and away from work and church. Her condition was so chronic that she even began planning for her own funeral.

On one of his regular pastoral visits to her during her illness, Ms. Murdoch’s priest, Archdeacon Thomas Moulton, asked her to speak to the parish about her sensitivity to scent before she began attending church again.

Half expecting a hostile reaction, Ms. Murdoch was relieved to find her congregation supportive of becoming a scent-free parish.

“Because I was in a wheelchair, and because I went from being very small to being quite large because of steroids, I had a real impact,” said Ms. Murdoch. “People could see I had changed.”

Archdeacon Moulton said there was no resistance at the vestry level or in the congregation to St. Mark’s going scent free. There are signs at the church entrance and the church’s website and weekly bulletin both note that “St. Mark’s strives to be a scent-free church so that services and events may be enjoyed comfortably by everyone.”

The church also turns off its ceiling fans during services out of consideration for a parishioner who quickly loses his voice due to dust and carpet fibres that are stirred up by the breeze.

According to the Lung Association, one in five Canadians suffers from a lung problem. Many manage their problem with asthma inhalers or suffer in silence, sitting in non-smoking sections of restaurants, avoiding smoky bars, quietly changing seats in a movie theatre when someone smelling of smoke or perfume sits next to them.

But church poses a different situation.

Rev. Ruth Smith, a retired priest in the diocese of Ontario, is reluctant to move away from someone whose scent causes her chronic bronchial asthma to flare up.

“In church, if someone sits beside me with strong perfume, it’s not appropriate to get up and move,” she said. “That, in a sense, is a rejection of that person. It’s un-Christian.”

As a former parish priest, Ms. Smith had to risk the disappointment of her parish when she refused to use incense during worship. She will only use unscented candles; otherwise, “I wouldn’t be able to conclude (the service),” explained Ms. Smith, honourary assistant at St. Thomas Church, Kingston, Ont.

Chris Ambidge, a parishioner of Toronto’s Church of the Redeemer, has been known to flee churches when incense is used. While his church seldom uses incense (and it gives notice in the bulletin when it will use it), visits to other church services are a gamble.

“I often get chased out of big church services,” said Mr. Ambidge, who visits other churches frequently as one of the heads of Toronto’s chapter of Integrity, a group for gay and lesbian Anglicans.

Incense, pets, pollen and physical stress trigger his asthma, which occasionally sends him to the hospital emergency room.

“Liturgy is supposed to be life-giving, not life-threatening,” observed Mr. Ambidge. “I have problems with people deliberately choosing to make worship space unfriendly and life-threatening to people with lung problems.”

Church of the Redeemer uses incense only about twice a year, including Easter vigil when the notation “Solemn Eucharist” in the bulletin alerts Mr. Ambidge that incense will be used.

“I go to another parish for Easter vigil.”

Still, he won’t leave the parish despite its occasional use of incense. He would, however, be happy if it followed the example of other churches and became scent free. Many of the provincial chapters of the Canadian Lung Association offer signs to churches wishing to become scent free.

“I’m all for lowering barriers for the whole people of God to worship,” he said. Providing access for people in wheelchairs or the hearing impaired is becoming common in many churches, said Mr. Ambidge. However, those decisions have a capital cost.

“There’s no capital cost to (going scent free),” he said.


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