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Thursday, February 14, 2013

Why I Disagree with “Ashes to Go”

On Ash Wednesday, a number of Episcopal Churches across the country embraced the innovative practice of distributing ashes in public settings – in parks, plazas and on the streets of cities with most using the catchy title "Ashes to Go". 

In Pittsburgh the Episcopal Bishop Dorsey McConnell and the clergy of Trinity Cathedral took their ashes to Market Square.  The Diocese promoted this practice with a trendy video on the front page of their website.  Click here. 

This morning local Episcopal blogger Dr. Jim Simons gathered and posted links of news coverage from around the country of Episcopal Churches that offered ashes in this way. Click here  

Yesterday the Pittsburgh Post Gazette offered this. Click here  

The blog Episcopal Café covered the practice too,  going as far as calling it a means of “Episcopal evangelism.”  Click here

One of my parishioners asked me about 10 days ago if I were going to do “drive-by ashes” this year on the main street corner in Canonsburg.  I politely declined her appeal to do so. Click here.

I find the practice of applying ashes to someone’s forehead willy-nilly on the street to be repugnant, demeaning, and impersonal. It is taking totally out of context the solemn liturgy that calls for repentance of sin and amendment of life.  To me it can be likened to the difference of receiving cash from an ATM machine and receiving cash from a human bank teller. And cheapens the seriousness of it all. It reminds of that other uniquely Episcopal innovation, The Clown Eucharist. 

One of my colleagues told me that the main Roman Catholic Church in downtown Pittsburgh has a somewhat similar practice.  You enter the church on the front street entrance receive your ashes right inside the door, walk down the side aisle and exit out the entrance on the side street – as if you were going through the drive-thru window at the local fast food emporium -- "you're in, you're out, that's what McDonalds is all about!"  This isn’t a whole lot different than Ashes to Go on the street.  And I would hardly call either the method used by the Romans or the Episcopalians evangelistic.   


  1. I absolutely agree. But since TEC has no gospel I suppose there is no need for repentance of sin. I find the practice even more meaningless than the McDonalds analogy because at McDonalds there is at least truth in packaging - you're there for a burger and that's what you get.

    TEC is all about being trendy. What's next, drive through communion and gay blessing?

  2. The problem is that we've lost the sense in this country that life happens in community. Ashes to go is a little less repugnant than Communion to go (which is downright abuse of the sacrament... Ashes, at least, aren't a sacrament) but life happens in community, sin happens in community, death happens in community... why the heck don't ashes happen in community. In addition, this is Western PA, the only place in the world where we have C, E, and AW (Christmas, Easter and Ash Wednesday) or failing that some folks who don't even do C and E but come for Ashes. Its a unique moment to touch base, care for, and possibly re-engage the flagging Christian. Can't do that "to-go."

  3. I agree with you in general about ashes-to-go, though perhaps with less fervor. (In fact I have something of mixed feeling about the use of ashes at all, whether in church or on the street corner, but perhaps that's a different thread of conversation.) Nonetheless, for folks on Market Square to have a brief encounter with a Christian who will say to them, "remember that thou art dust," and "turn away from your sin and be faithful to the Gospel" seems to me not a bad thing either. So, a mixed bag. The reality is that just about every story in the newspaper about the churches lately (excluding the recent buzz over the Pope's decision to retire) has been about division or scandal, so it's kind of nice to see somebody on the front page saying just a good word about Jesus. The reality is that in this increasingly secularized culture, our mission must be also increasingly extramural. The vast majority of people in Northern Washington County are never going to hear your fabulous sermons, to be convicted of their need of Christ, because the vast majority will never pass through the front doors. In the 18th century revivals the preachers and choirs took to the streets, the fields, the public square, and I think we're going to need to figure out how to do that too. "Ashes to go" is not, again, probably the best way to get out there. Perhaps blessing pets in the churchyard isn't either. But I'd rather have folks trying some different things than just sitting inside the building grumbling about how nobody comes to church anymore . . . .

    Bruce Robison

  4. Bruce,

    I agree that taking the message of Christ's redeeming grace into the streets is part of the Great Commission but using the imposition of ashes as a "prop" seems over the line. The liturgy of Ash Wednesday is a lovely and moving service, deep with meaning. How does a five second "X ing" substitute? At another level it provides a false sense of attainment for those receiving drive by ashes. Without contrition, confession and repentance, it is a meaningless symbol.

  5. "Tradition"--

    Yes, I pretty much agree, though I think--or, rather, hope and pray--that there may be just enough here for God in his infinite patience to work with through us. I know the clergy who went to Market Square--Bishop McConnell, Canon Brall--to be faithful Christian people. The mark by itself is indeed mostly a prop (whether you find it on the square or in the church building for that matter) though perhaps meaningful and symbolically resonant if someone out there on the square is long estranged from the church but now, suddenly, with memories from time past, feels a sense of reconnection. Hears the sentences. Remember that thou art dust. Turn from your sin and be faithful to the Gospel. Who knows what new plant may emerge from this seed, however artlessly sown?

    We can, again, pray for the best, anyway.

    Perhaps next year they can go out into the square with a quartet from the Cathedral Choir, to sing some deep old Lenten and Holy Week hymns. Perhaps the Bishop or one of the attendant clergy can compose a 3 minute homily, suitable for subfreezing winter out-of-doors. Preach to the birds. The homeless. Those standing in line for a lunchtime sandwich.

    Perhaps a few folks from the prayer team could come along and offer to hang around and pray with any who would so desire. Perhaps we could offer each person who receives the imposition of ashes also a thoughtful pamphlet, or perhaps a pocket-sized copy of the New Testament.

    Again, I would agree, "without contrition, confession and repentance, it is a meaningless symbol." But that is the case wherever your Ash Wednesday ashes are distributed, and whatever liturgical ceremony you build around the event. Certainly contrition, confession, and repentance are as possible en plein air as in the precincts of the Cathedral, after all . . . .

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  7. Yeah, I have real concerns with the 'hip' Ashes-to-Go gig. Bad fad, I'd say. And, like Bruce, I have real questions with the use of ashes anyway.

    I have to say, though, that Bp. Dorsey's Ash Wednesday video-message (which can be found on the TEC-Pitt website) was really quite good. Glad for a cruciform emphasis these days!