Thurifer

The thurifer is responsible for preparing and bearing the thurible for the administration of incense throughout the service. This is a role that requires considerable care and caution as it involves the use of lit coals which burn at a very high temperature.

Care and Use of the Thurible

About the Thurible

The thurible consists of a bowl that is suspended on three chains approximately 3 feet long. The chains are fastened at the other end to a disc containing a ring by which the thurible is held. The bowl of the thurible has a lid which slides up and down on the chains. Attached to the lid is a fourth chain which passes through the disc and terminates in another ring that is used to lift the lid. When in use, the bowl of the thurible is filled with lit charcoal.

During the service, the incense itself is carried in a small vessel known as a “boat,” which also includes a small spoon that is used to place incense onto the hot coals during the service.

Safety Notes

The thurible should always be handled with care, whether or not it contains live coals. Treating the thurible with care on a consistent basis will form solid habits that will prevent injury.

When using the thurible, the following practices should be observed:

  • A fire extinguisher and water must be at hand when lighting coals

  • Lit coals and matches must always be extinguished in a bucket of water

  • Tongs must always be used to handle hot coals

  • When the thurible has contained hot coals, never touch the cover with your hands

Lighting the Coals

Charcoal used for the thurible is disc-shaped with an indentation in the top. The coals are self-lighting - infused with an ignition fuel so that only a modest application of flame is needed to start the coal.

Remove the fire pot (the removable dish set into the thurible) from the thurible and set it on a fire-proof surface. Hold the coal with tongs and apply the flame of a torch lighter to the top of the coal. It will spark as the infused fuel ignites. Continue to pass the flame over the coal until it no longer sparks and the edges of the coal begin to turn grey. Once the coal is lit, set it into the fire pot and proceed to light the next coal. The firepot will accommodate 2 - 3 coals. When all coals have been lighted, grasp the fire pot with the tongs and place it into the base of the thurible, making sure that it is firmly seated and level so that it does not become dislodged when swinging the thurible.

Cleaning the Thurible

At the end of every service, the thurible should be thoroughly cleaned and left in good condition for the next service. To clean the thurible, pull the fire pot from the base with a pair of tongs and empty the spent coals and any remaining incense into a bucket of water. With a wire brush, scrub out any remaining bits of charcoal or incense. If there is incense stuck to the inside of the fire pot, hold the fire pot upright over a flame to heat it, causing the incense to melt, and then pour the melted incense into the water bucket.

Carrying the Thurible

When being carried, the thurible is held in the right hand under the disc with the left hand carrying the boat (when a boat-boy or boat-girl is not present), with both hands held at the same height. Before the incense is blessed, the thurible should be held in the left hand, with the boat in the right hand to more easily hand it to the minister of ceremonies or deacon for the blessing.

When in use - that is, when persons or objects are being incensed - the thurible is held under the disc in the left hand while the right hand grasps the chains just above the bowl. In processions, the thurible is swung at the full length of the chains. During the gospel, the thurible is swung at full length, but only slightly, to keep the coals lit.

When handing the thurible to another person, such as to the celebrant for censing of the altar, hold the disc in the left hand and grasp the chains above the bowl in the right hand. Place the disc in the left hand of the receiver, and then place the chains (again, just above the bowl) in the receiver’s right hand.

Incensing of Persons and Objects

When incensing persons, the thurifer uses a “double swing” - a motion that swings the thurible forward twice with moderate motion, with the second swing being somewhat less pronounced than the first. Grasp the chains of the thurible above the bowl in the right hand and the disc in the left hand, bow to the person to be incensed, raise the thurible to shoulder level, double swing the prescribed number of times for the individual being incensed, lower the thurible, and bow again.

Groups of persons, particularly lay persons, standing together can be incensed as a group with three single swings from the center, then left, then right.

Objects that have been blessed, such as candles, palms, and the like, are similarly triply incensed, though with double swings. The gospel book is also incensed in this manner.

Order of Incensing and Number of Swings

OrderPerson to be Incensed Incensor Number of Swings
1Celebrant or Officiant at Evensong Deacon 3 double swings
2Subdeacon Deacon 2 double swings
3Deacon Thurifer 2 double swings
4Minister of Ceremonies Thurifer 1 double swing
5aAcolytes and other servers (when in a group of 2 or fewer) Thurifer 1 double swing, individually
5bAcolytes and other servers (when in a group of 3 more) Thurifer Triple swing, as a group (see above)
6Choir - gospel side first, then epistle side Thurifer Triple swing
7Congregation Thurifer Triple swing

Responsibilities and Conduct

Arrival

The thurifer should arrive at least 45 minutes prior to the start of the scheduled service to ready the thurible. Coals will require at least 5 minutes to light and then 15 minutes to heat through fully. Repeated tardiness will result in probationary status and possible dismissal from the Guild.

Vesting

Upon arriving, the thurifer should vest in cassock (and rope cincture, where appropriate). Given the messiness of handling and preparing the thurible, the thurifer should not don the surplice until right before the start of the service. If available, the thurifer should wear an organists surplice with split sleeves to allow the arms to move freely when swinging the thurible.

Checking the Thurible

Prior to the service, the thurifer should inspect the thurible to ensure that it is clean (see notes above on Cleaning the Thurible), and that the bowl, lid, and all chains are in working order and securely attached. If the thurifer finds the thurible to be in disrepair or dirty from previous use, he or she should notify the Acolyte Warden to take appropriate action.

Entering Procession

The thurifer follows the verger and precedes the cross and tapers, carrying the thurible in the left hand and the boat in the right hand. The thurifer should match the pace of the verger, being mindful to keep a distance of at least two pews. When there is no verger, the thurifer leads the procession.

Upon reaching the ambit of the altar, the processional party arranges themselves in a single line across the foot of the altar steps, with the thurifer to the left of the subdeacon on the gospel side of the altar steps as shown below.

Acolyte Thurifer Subdeacon Celebrant Deacon Minister of Ceremonies Acolyte

At the conclusion of the hymn, the sacred ministers ascend the altar steps to the footpace, and the acolytes, thurifer, and minister of ceremonies proceed single file to the credence. The thurifer stands at the foot of the altar steps and waits until the celebrant is ready to receive the thurible. Upon acknowledgement by the celebrant, the thurifer ascends the steps to the footpace, hands off the thurible as discussed above, and descends the steps to stand near the sedilia.

After the celebrant censes the altar, the celebrant hands off the thurible to the deacon, who, after censing the celebrant and subdeacon, hands off to the thurifer. From center, the thurifer reverences (or genuflects) and departs.

Liturgy of the Word

The thurifer has no active role during the Liturgy of the Word, but should be prepared with freshly lit coals (as necessary) for the gospel procession.

Gospel Procession

During the Gradual, the thurifer returns to the foot of the altar, carrying the thurible in the left hand and the boat in the right, to have incense laid on by the celebrant. While the celebrant is laying on incense, the crucifer and acolytes will be moving into position outside of the gate for the gospel procession. After reverencing, the thurifer follows the cross and tapers, leading the subdeacon (who is carrying the gospel book) and the deacon. Upon reaching the place where the gospel will be read, the thurifer stands to the left of the deacon, slightly behind, swinging the thurible just slightly so the coals continue to stay lit. At the conclusion of the gospel reading, the procession returns to the altar in the same order, with the thurifer exiting to the sacristy, where he/she remains until the Offertory.

Offertory

During the Peace, the thurifer joins the crucifer and torchbearers in moving to the rear of the nave for the Offertory procession. As with the opening procession, the thurifer leads the processional party, departing upon the conclusion of the Offertory anthem (provided that ushers have concluded the collection) and moving up the nave at a stately pace. Upon reaching and passing through the gate, the thurifer moves to the bottom of the altar steps on the epistle side.

After the gifts are blessed, the celebrant will acknowledge the thurifer, who will ascend the steps to the footpace and hands off the thurible to the celebrant. After the celebrant has censed the altar, and has in turn been censed by the deacon, the thurifer accepts the thurible from the deacon. The thurifer then censes the deacon, subdeacon, minister of ceremonies, acolytes, choir, and congregation in order following the forms described above. After censing the congregation, the thurifer returns to the ambit of the altar taking up a place at the foot of the steps.

Canon of the Mass

After the Sanctus and Benedictus, and at the cue from the minister of ceremonies, the thurifer kneels with the rest of the altar party. When the celebrant elevates the Host and the chalice, the thurifer censes them, swinging the thurible three times at each elevation. During the Agnus Dei, the thurifer rises and departs with the thurible. After depositing the thurible in the sacristy, the thurifer has no further duties during the service. When possible, the thurifer should return to the ambit of the altar to participate in Holy Communion with the rest of the altar party.

Communion

When possible, the thurifer should return to the ambit of the altar to participate in Holy Communion with the rest of the altar party. If the gate has already been closed when the thurifer returns from depositing the thurible in the sacristy he/she should receive communion at the rail and take a seat the the rear row stalls on the gospel side of the quire.

Post-Communion Prayer and Retiring Procession

The thurifer processes with the rest of the altar party, taking a place in procession with the other lay ministers.