Guyer’s Weblog

May 8, 2009

Tract 3: Against Iconoclasm

Filed under: Communio Anglicana,Meta-Category,Theologoumena — guyer @ 4:29 am

“Nobody, after all, uses words except for the sake of signifying something.”
– St. Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana (I.2,2)


The Shield of the Episcopal Church (USA), which features both the Cross of St. George and the Cross of St. Andrew (displayed below).

Reconciliation in Communion: A Word to the 76th General Convention of the Episcopal Church begins with a series of prescriptive theological points about matters of faith and order in the Episcopal Church, each of which is made by way of affirmation.  The bulk of the document, which comes after these, consists of points that are concerned with the actions of the forthcoming General Convention.  Between these two thematic sections, however, is a single historically-oriented point that, although both affirmative and prescriptive, also considers the future.

[We] Affirm that the self-understanding and mission of the Episcopal Church have become inextricably anchored to its relationship of full communion with the See of Canterbury, its active participation in the Instruments of Communion, and its formal and informal partnerships throughout the Anglican Communion.  This is reflected in our liturgical patterns, and the continued allocation of funds for the Anglican Communion.

The operative words in this statement are that “the self-understanding and mission of the Episcopal Church have become inextricably anchored to … the See of Canterbury.”  This statement is not for us, the authors, merely a question of ecclesiological theory.  It is also a question of the concrete, material realities within the Episcopal Church that are given symbolic expression.  In other words, we are especially concerned about how the Episcopal Church communicates itself to those who are within and outside of its walls.  Thus, this tract will begin with a brief discussion of the nature of symbols, and then move on to consider some of the symbols of the Episcopal Church that witness to its historically rich identity.  I will conclude with a proposal that focuses on what a separation between our church and the wider Anglican Communion could look like – specifically, as a tragic and horrific expression of iconoclasm.

I. On Symbols

In his classic De Doctrina Christiana, St. Augustine discusses natural and conventional signs.  The former, which Augustine isn’t interested in spending much time writing about, are found in nature; one such example is smoke, which signifies the presence of fire.  The latter sort of sign, which is the focus of his treatise, is defined as “those which living creatures give to one another in order to show , as far as they can, their moods and feelings, or to indicate whatever it may be they have sensed or understood.  Nor have we any purpose in signifying, that is in giving a sign, other than to bring out and transfer to someone else’s mind what we, the givers of the sign, have in mind ourselves” (II.2,3).  Clearly reflecting the fact that the ancient world was primarily an oral culture, Augustine writes that most signs – words – are directed to the ears.  But some, he notes, are communicated to the eyes.  “Military flags and banners signal the will of commanders to the eyes of their men; and all these things are rather like visible words” (II.3,4).  The material reality of the sign – its color, its shape, etc. – is, of course, arbitrary.  However, the shared meaning that it conveys is not, and it is this shared meaning that makes the sign more than just a mere thing.  Most simply put, signs are “those things which are used to signify something else” (I.2,2).  What Augustine here denotes as a sign will, due to the concern in this paper with visual apprehension, be referred to as a symbol.

One need only take a moment to recognize that we live in a world permeated with symbols. Some are conventional: company logos, brand name logos, political and ideological symbols, broad religious symbols and more particular denominational symbols are all widespread.  Others are natural: the light of sunrise, which signifies the beginning of day; the turning of the colors of leaves, which signifies the transition from summer to autumn; the unseasonable dying of plants, which signifies the presence of disease.  Such visible signs are essential to successful human existence in and as a part of Nature.  We can indeed push this point about visual sense impressions further, for sight is not the only sense through which we can be communicated with.  Our senses of smell and taste touch also aid with communication; one need only think of how these are involved in our ability to sense when food is ripe or rotten.  Similarly, through our sense of touch we can determine something as basic as temperature, and whether or not material, for instance, is soft or rough.  And, of course, our sense of hearing aids with receiving oral communication; we respond by using our own voices (although, not always – sign language points to the necessity of sight for interpersonal communication as well).  A world without natural symbols would be a world in which we could not discern crucial changes in the natural order; a world without natural or conventional symbols would be dismal to behold.  Part of the beauty of being human is the ability to participate in a world that is alive – indeed, ecstatic – with symbolic communication.

The reality of communication is at the heart of the Gospel; in the beginning was the uncreated Word that became human (John 1:1 – 18), and participation in the sacraments is itself a way of communicating and being communicated with by Christ.  In classical Augustinian theology – and, therefore, in the Anglican theology that developed out of it – a sacrament is itself a visible and effectual sign – a symbol – that signifies something else.  It is precisely this something else that makes the sign meaningful.  To borrow from a rather poetic and sensuous passage by Archbishop Cranmer, Christ has

[O]rdained one visible sacrament of spiritual regeneration in water, and another visible sacrament of spiritual nourishment in bread and wine, to the intent that, as much as is possible for man, we may see Christ with our eyes, smell him at our nose, taste him with our mouths, grope him with our hands, and perceive him with our senses.  For as the word of God preached putteth Christ into our ears; so likewise these elements of water, bread, and wine, joined to God’s word, do after a sacramental manner put Christ into our eyes, mouths, hands, and all our senses (Defence, I.12).

Symbols such as sacraments are not empty, but filled – indeed, overflowing – with meaning.  The bread and wine signify Christ’s body and blood, but it is Christ’s own body and blood that give to them their sacramental meaning.  Thus, there can be multiple reproductions – or, in the liturgical context of the Divine Service, multiple consecrations – of the same symbol.  The symbols of bread and wine do not exhaust the body and blood of Christ that they signify.  Furthermore, each piece of consecrated bread is not a new symbol; because they each signify the same body of Christ, each piece of bread is the same symbol.  The symbol is powerful because it participates in something larger than itself.

II. Our Symbols

Within the material context of the parish, however, the sacramental signs of the Eucharist or baptismal water are not the only signs present.  Within the Anglican tradition, as with all with other forms of catholic Christianity, there are other signs – other symbols – that are also visible.  Given the historical orientation of our present discussion, it may be helpful to consider an earlier and more extensive version of our central point.

[We] Affirm that the self-understanding and mission of the Episcopal Church have become inextricably anchored both to its relationship of full communion with the See of Canterbury and its active participation in the life and witness of the Anglican Communion.  This is reflected in our liturgical reforms, and the continued allocation of funds for the Anglican Communion.  It is also reflected in the architecture of many of our parishes, particularly in those places where distinctively Anglican symbols are present and visible to all, whether in stained glass, in woodwork, in the altar, or in the flooring.  Terminating our relationship with the See of Canterbury would fundamentally alter the coherence of the Episcopal Church, not only in terms of its self-understanding, its mission, and its symbolically laden aesthetics, but, we fear, in ways that are as yet unforeseen.

Clearly, there are some significant similarities between this and the final, published version.  At the heart of this longer version, however, some basic facts about many parishes in the Episcopal Church are stated.  These facts are, at their most concrete, architectural; they point to the shared symbols that express Anglican identity.  These include such things as the Canterbury Cross, the Anglican Compass Rose, and the Episcopal Shield, each of which is worth considering.

The Canterbury Cross

The Compass Rose of the Anglican Communion. The cross in the center is the Cross of St. George, and the Greek around it reads, "The truth shall set you free," a citation of John 8:32.

The Canterbury Cross dates to the mid-ninth century.  It is an unusual looking cross in that it is round, and features both Celtic and Byzantine iconography.  When a very old Canterbury Cross was unearthed in the mid-19th century, it quickly became a symbol for Anglicans around the world.  Far from being just another way of stylizing a cross, the Canterbury Cross is a distinctly Anglican symbol.  Like the Canterbury Cross, the Anglican Compass Rose quickly became another symbol for the Anglican Communion.  Although it dates to the mid-20th century – nearly a century after the Communion’s birth – it remains the official seal for the Anglican Communion.  Part of what is noteworthy about our Compass Rose is that it features a bishop’s mitre at the top.  This is entirely unlike the Church of England which, at the time of the Reformation, saw the monarch rather than any bishop as the spiritual head of the national church.  The Anglican Communion’s Compass Rose indicates episcopal conciliarity in a way that Henry VIII, for example, would have likely never imagined.

The Cross of St. George

The Cross of St. Andrew

For Episcopalians, the shield of our church (see image above) is our most recognizable symbol.  It is, in many ways, a combination of symbols; on the one hand, it is like the American flag, with a field of blue in the upper left hand corner.  Furthermore, there are nine white crosses on this same field, which represent the original nine dioceses of the Episcopal Church.  This design is intentional; the nine crosses are displayed in imitation of the Cross of St. Andrew (on right), thus witnessing to the Episcopal Church’s twofold indebtedness to the Scottish Episcopal Church, whose bishops ordained Samuel Seabury as our first bishop, and who also bequeathed to us the liturgical epiclesis.  The red and white that comprise the remainder of our provincial shield come from the Cross of St. George (on left), thus testifying to our heritage in the Church of England.  The red cross on a white background, which is central to the Episcopal Shield, is as visible a reminder as any that the Episcopal Church’s roots are, at bottom, in the Church of England and its rich heritage.  The Episcopal Shield is indeed a defense against the idea that our roots come from anywhere other than England’s own ecclesiastical history.

III. Symbolic Anarchy: Or, Life without Communio

James Davison Hunter, in his celebrated and controversial 1991 volume Culture Wars, began researching and theorizing into the best ways to understand cultural conflict.  In a 2006 volume debating the validity of his thesis, he offered a helpful summary of his reflections.  A culture war, he writes, involves “significant tension and conflict” over a community’s “public symbols, its myths, its discourse, and through the institutional structures that generate and sustain [its] public culture.”  Such a definition certainly describes our own national church at the moment, as well as the larger Anglican Communion.  If symbols, as Augustine writes, foster communication between people; and if, as Cranmer writes, symbols are sensuous realities involving our whole selves, our souls and our bodies, as well as the larger realities that they signify; and if, as I have written, our most widely recognized national symbol is bound up with other symbols such as St. George’s Cross, which represents the Church of England; then, what would it mean for our church’s primary symbol to no longer participate in the larger network of symbolic associations that it has always participated in and which, therefore, define it?  In other words, and most simply put, what is the Episcopal Shield without the crosses of St. Andrew and St. George?

The English words community, communication, and communion all come from the same Latin root, communis, which means “that which is shared or held in common.”  Communis also grounds the Latin word communio, which translates as communion.  Symbols, like languages, are shared and held in common; they are born by and nurtured in particular communities that share the same language – the same recognized sets of relations between shared symbols.  Yet, communities do not just sustain symbols; symbols also sustain communities.  Thus, to reinvent a symbol is to reinvent its meaning, and perhaps even to come up with an entirely new meaning.  Sometimes, new meanings fit into old patterns of communication with little difficulty but, at other times, new meanings are incompatible with those that are more traditional.  If the incompatibility proves to be too much, those with the new symbol or symbols may be forced, in the language of the Windsor Report, to “walk apart.”  Thus, they would have to go and create a new community, with a new network of interlocking symbols and their various points of reference.  This isn’t easy to do, however; it should be recalled that the Anglican Communion is less than 150 years old, and our own Communion-wide symbols have developed only over the course of many, many decades.  What is more, the amount of hostility between dividing groups can be vehement, and make the search for new symbols difficult and contentious.  I propose that this is some of what we are seeing today.  However, I also propose that our current contentions are indeed milder than what they could be.

Imagine the following scenario.  I worship and teach at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Tallahassee, Florida.  Immediately in front of the altar, but within the altar rail, is the Anglican Compass Rose.  Throughout the church, particularly on the rafters, one can find the Canterbury Cross.  If the Episcopal Church were to cease being a part of the Anglican Communion, what would these symbols within my parish church come to mean?  I imagine that our compass rose would simply be torn up.  But, consider the psychological and sociological impacts if the Anglican Compass Rose is there one week, but gone the next.  Would the children notice?  If so, what would the parents say?  Would there be other people in the church upset, outraged, or broken-hearted by this iconoclasm?  And, what is more, what would be put into the floor in its place?  Perhaps for several weeks there would be nothing to replace it, effectively leaving the floor as a sort of wound that had not yet been stitched up.  Something similar could be said about the Canterbury Crosses; would they be defaced, etched out, or sanded down if the Episcopal Church left the Anglican Communion?  Or, would they remain only to be explained away as a merely aesthetic expression of some sort of broader – and blander – Christian identity?  Anyone who asked about this particular cross would be informed that it was the Canterbury Cross, and a quick Google search online would reveal the Canterbury Cross to signify something far more thick than a rather barbaric mode of executing political criminals once used by the Romans.  I wager that this sort of knowledge about the divorce between the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion – ironically symbolized by a new-found irrelevance for the thick meaning of the Canterbury Cross that remained in the parish architecture – would not make converts, although it might make for interesting but sad moments on church tours.

Such a scenario is not unlikely.  Anglicans have seen such iconoclasm before; we saw it in the period of the Reformation, which produced the backlash of the Laudian Counter-Reformation, and which has long since determined the shape of Anglican approaches to art; we saw it, too, in the period of the Revolutionary War, when almost half of the clergy fled to England or elsewhere amidst the vehement anti-English and anti-Anglican sentiment that seized nearly all colonists.  Such iconoclasm may happen again.  Perhaps this is some of what we are seeing with the Global Anglican Futures Conference (GAFCON) and its various movements; they have their own symbols and websites, and they provide alternative modes of communication, and alternative news information networks.  It may be that periods of iconoclasm are necessary for the creation of new identities, but that is precisely the point: the possible iconoclasm that is sketched here and above would indeed be the creation of a new identity for the Episcopal Church.  Thus, one would still speak of the Episcopal Church, but it would not be the same as what had been spoken of previously; it would not be the same in terms of its historical self-understanding, and it would not be the same in its symbolic, material expressions, from the national symbol of the church, right down to parish architecture.

I am willing to wager that there are many parishes like St. John’s, who are so rich with shared Anglican symbols that removing and/or marginalizing these would amount to nothing other than a considerable makeover for the parishes in question.  Some will, in their zeal, call this “prophetic”; history reveals many times, however, that those filled with – or, perhaps better, seized by – a will to destruction were not prophets but zealots who had no vision beyond a present that was defined by a destruction of the past. Thus, the movements that they created had little real staying power, and even less theological depth; indeed, many of these radical movements quickly died out.  This, too, reflects something of the present, sadly enough.  One cannot assume that a fundamental change in identity for the Episcopal Church will cause it to retain the members it already has, just as one cannot assume that it will bring in a significant number of new members.  And, as noted in my earlier Tract 2, the rate at which the Episcopal Church is shrinking is something to be quite concerned about, because the aging population of the church is not likely to cease any time soon.  One may, of course, disagree with all of this.  If so, I suggest beginning one’s disagreement by trying to envision the Episcopal Shield without the crosses of St. Andrew and St. George.


Augustine, St.  De Doctrina Christiana.  Translated by E. Hill (1995).  New City Press.

Cranmer, Thomas (1553).  A Defence of the True and Catholic Doctrine of the Body and Blood of Our Savior Christ.  Reprinted 2004 by Wipf & Stock.

Culler, Jonathan (2000).  Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction.  Oxford University Press.

Jeanes, Gordon (2008).  Signs of God’s Promise: Thomas Cranmer’s Sacramental Theology and the Book of Common Prayer.  T & T Clark.

Hunter, James Davison (2006). The Enduring Culture War. In E. J. Dionne, Jr. and M. Cromartie (eds.), Is There a Culture War? A Dialogue on Values and American Public Life.  Pew Research Center/Brookings Institution Press.

Markus, R. A. (1957).  St. Augustine on Signs.  Phronesis 2 (1): 60 – 83.


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