August 27, 2014

Flags in Church

I read a piece by Mark Sandlin this morning, the title of which was “10 MORE Things Churches Can’t Do While Following Jesus.” Number 2 on the list was the following:
2) Place a U.S. Flag in the sanctuary.

For me, this one is unbelievably straightforward.

Sanctuary space is meant for signs, symbols and experiences which point us toward God.

A flag points us toward a government.

A government is not a god – at least, it’s not supposed to be.

Worse yet, a flag displayed in a space of worship seems to indicate a sense of “chosenness,” “specialness” – basically good old fashioned American exceptionalism.

But, God loves us all equally.

A flag in the sanctuary suggests that God loves some nations more than others.

And, that actually points us away from God.

Get the flag out of the sanctuary.

Put it on your truck, wear it on a shirt or hang it in your yard – but, unless you are going to display the flag of every nation on Earth in your sanctuary, you are creating a worship space that points away from God.

Make it go bye-bye.
U.S. flagThe idea of banning U.S. flags from our worship spaces is not a new idea. Some prominent Episcopalians have advocated this. Anyone who is a student of American history and who pays attention to current events recognizes that there are dangers in conflating Christianity and nationalism. That said, I think the case against having an American flag in church—in an Episcopal church certainly—is weaker than Sandlin suggests.

To begin with, I dispute the assertion that the flag “points us toward a government,” at least as “government” is understand in most of the world. Whatever the deficiencies of our Pledge of Allegiance—see my essay “The Pledge of Allegiance Revisited”—it is on the mark in stressing allegiance “to the Republic for which it [the flag] stands.” Oaths taken by public servants (e.g., the President and members of the military) are clearer on this point, stressing faithfulness to the Constitution, which is more of an abstraction that would be a pledge to, say, the Obama administration. Although our Constitution is decidedly not a “Christian” document, it is not difficult to see it embodying an aspiration for “justice and peace among all people and respect [for] the dignity of every human being.” Moreover, the First Amendment guarantees the freedom of religious bodies from government interference, a principle worth celebrating. These are ideals symbolized by the flag.

The stronger case for the flag in church, however, hinges on the nature of Anglicanism. At its best, Anglicanism does not identify church with state, but it acknowledges that church polity, ethics, and practice are not universals, but are best tailored to the society in which the church ministers. One hopes that the fundamental Good News preached in The Episcopal Church is the same as that preached in the Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion). The cause of Christ would not be served by translating The Episcopal Church to Nigeria or the Church of Nigeria to the United States, however. The protestations of our presiding bishop notwithstanding, The Episcopal Church is very much an American church.

The American flag in an Episcopal church, then, is not equating God and country. Instead, it is acknowledging the mission field outside the doors of the church.

Note. Minor edits were made to this post 9/18/2014.

1 comment:

  1. At the beginning of the last century there was an ornaments canon that specified the use of the national flag, and the famous story of pacifist Bishop Paul Jones of Utah, who was forced to resign his jurisdiction in 1918 because he wouldn't comply in the midst of World War I. I've always understood the flag as a meaningful remnant of our colonial "establishment" heritage and of thus a special vocation to pray for the nation. As we would sing at Evensong, "O Lord, save the state!"

    Bruce Robison

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