Ashes: A Quite Recent Anglican Innovation

At Ad Fontes, Steven Wedgeworth lays out the fascinating story of how the giving of ashes was abolished by the 16th-century Anglican reformers and revived only rather recently. The first Book of Common Prayer to include it is the 1979 U.S. edition of The Episcopal Church. But already in the late 19th century Anglo-Catholics began the practice, to great controversy. Now it’s universally practiced across all wings of the Anglican communion – high church and low church, evangelical and catholic, and most everything in between.




  1. My first 6 years of being a Lutheran (a layman at that time) involved attending Ash Wednesday with no ashes offered. Existential Crisis averted as the parish we joined that led to my formation in the diaconate and the presbyterate practiced the Imposition of Ashes and in my 30 years of ministry ashes were and are being offered to all who desire.

    Sometimes Protestants can be so inconsistent with the practice and culture of things “Roman” Catholic. I remain a faithful Evangelical Catholic, by God’s grace.

  2. the 1662 Book of Common Prayer has for Ash Wednesday (referred to there only as ‘the first day of Lent’) a rite called ‘A Commination Or Denouncing Of God’s Judgements Against Sinners.’

    The priest’s introduction to the rite mentions the first day of Lent as anciently having a ‘godly discipline’ of the admonishment of sinners. The Commination claims to be a step on the way to resoring that ancient observance.

    It is a fearsome text, containing curses against just about every antisocial behaviour (‘Cursed is he that removeth his neighbour’s land-mark’), followed by a lengthy exhortation and the recitation of Psalm 51. The rite concludes with prayers. There is not a grain of ash in sight.

    It is within my lifetime that Ashes on Ash Wednesday, The evening Eucharist of the Lord’s Supper and the Liturgy of Good Friday and Easter Vigil have been gaken up in English anglican churches.

    Growing up in a ‘Prayer Book Catholic’ parish in North London in the 1950’s, we had the ashes (I think). The last days of Holy Week were marked by an early Sung Eucharist on Maundy Thursday (0615h), Mattins and Litany on Good Friday plus the ‘Three Hours’ Devotion’ in the afternoon, and nothing on Holy Saturday except the ‘Ante-Communion’ at 0800h.

    There was no Easter Vigil. The Paschal Candle, blessed after Evening Prayer on Holy Saturday, only appeared in my last year there before I became a Catholic.

    Within a very short time, all the Liturgy of The Triduum seems to have become accepted, with official liturgical forms, in mainstream as well as ‘high’ anglican parishes in England.


      1. Before the Tractarian movement took hold in the C. of E., the normal Sunday morning service took the form of Morning Prayer followed by the Litany and then the Holy Communion service up to the end of the Prayer for the Church Militant. This part is what we used to refer to as the ‘Ante-Communion.’ The full celebration of Holy Communion in most churches took place only occasionally, maybe three or four times a year. Pre-Tractarian people sometimes spoke of the ‘Ante-Communion’ as ‘altar prayers’ because the priest often took them at the Communion Table.

        Under Tractarian influence, the 19th century saw most C. of E. churches change to an early celebration of Holy Communion without music, usually at about 0800h every Sunday, and then Morning Prayer as a fully chanted service later in the morning, often as late as 1100h, to allow the gentry to get up late and consume their gargantuan Victorian breakfasts before heading off to church.

        Really ‘High’ churches had a ‘High Celebration’ of Holy Communion after Morning Prayer or instead of it. In the 1950’s and early 60’s, I can remember churches in London and elsewhere that had Morning Prayer on two sundaysof the month and a ‘Sung Eucharist’ on the other two, plus one on great festivals. Many cathedrals were doing the same. The Church I was brought up in had both, a sung Eucharist at 0945h and Morning Prayer at 1115h. I always found it strange that we were reciting a collect at Morning Prayer recording ‘the beginning of this day’ when it was nearly lunctime!

        The so-called ‘parish Communion’ movement in the C. of E. in the 1960’s largely replaced non-eucharistic services on Sunday mornings with Eucharist. Modern Evangelical revivial churches and ‘Church plants’ seem to have given up on Holy Communion, reverting to the older anglican practice of having ‘The Lord’s Supper’ on only a few occasions, though exact details of this are harder to come by, since church notice boards no longer give all service times.

  3. When I was the pastor of the downtown parish in Macon, Georgia, next door to us was First Baptist Church. It was at the tallest part of the hill in downtown Macon and built before the Jesuits built my parish church slightly lower on the hill next door to the Baptists. But those wily Jesuits made sure the Catholic Church’s twin steeples were taller than the highest point of the Baptist Church. But I digress. Baptists traditionally did not do Catholic or Anglican liturgical practices and definitely not ashes on Ash Wednesday. But First Baptist in Macon, due to the influence of the local Baptist university, Mercer, became quite progressive liturgically. They began to distribute ashes on Ash Wednesday somewhere in the 80’s I think. But the pastor there told me that those who wanted ashes at their services would place the ashes on themselves since their Church believed in only the priesthood of the baptized, not a sacramental priesthood. In addition to that, in Macon, many evangelical Protestants would go to street corners downtown and distribute ashes to anyone who wanted them. I think the Episcopalians even did that.

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