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A grand old idol?


Great discussion over at The Burr in the Burgh on one of my personal pet peeves: flags, national and otherwise, in the chancel- or even in the sanctuary, for that matter- of a church.

The origin of the custom of displaying the American flag in the front of the sanctuary of at least Lutheran churches is an interesting one. During the First World War, American Lutherans- being predominently German in ethnicity, and to a significant degree even German speaking- started displaying the flag there to demonstrate that their loyalty was to the United States, and not to the Kaiser, This was no obvious point, given that everybody was singing and praying, and the guy in the black robe and the funny, tabbed collar was preaching, auf Deutsch!

Ironically, in Germany- as in just about every other country on Earth- the display of a national flag in the sanctuary (and especially in the chancel) of a church was unheard of, and would have been seen as highly inappropriate. The citizenship which has significance in church on Sunday morning is not, after all, citizenship in any mere earthly kingdom! American Lutherans took the unheard-of step displaying the American flag in the front of their churches for precisely the same reasons that the good burghers of Berlin, Ontario threw the statue of the Kaiser in the town square into the lake, and changed the name of their city to Kitchner!

Liturgically, no symbol of any loyalty other than our loyalty to God has any place in especially in the chancel. That's God's turf- and whether we intend it or not, having an American flag in the chancel makes a liturgical statement identifying God with the United States of America, and implicitly involving us in idolatry. Elsewhere, the American flag may be a symbol of a God-pleasing loyalty, as well as of many glorious and exalted principles and ideas; in the chancel, however, it's an idol, at least by the implication of its location.

Even in the front of the church, outside the altar rail, the American flag is at best problematic. Again, there is only one citizenship which matters for the purposes for which people gather in that particular place, and it is a citizenship which is not that of any earthly kingdom. The so-called "Christian Flag, " by the way, is a banal liturgical white elephant of Methodist origin invented for no other purpose than to prevent a speaker's platform on a stage from looking lopsided when an American flag was displayed on one side of the podium. It has no particular liturgical significance as a symbol of the Kingdom of God, and never has had.

The reason why Lutherans, at least, first made the liturgically inappropriate gesture of placing the American flag in the front of their sanctuaries thankfully no longer exists. And a national flag at in the chancel- or even in the front of the sanctuary- is a jarring statement to believers from other countries who happen to visit that they are implicitly being defined out of the family. While I once saw a Canadian flag in the front of a church while worshipping in Toronto, in literally no other nation on Earth is it the custom to display the national flag in the one place where earthly nationality simply does not matter. And in no other country on Earth would it be seen as appropriate.

I defer to no one in my love for that flag, and everything it properly stands for. For that very reason, I want to see it put in the fellowship hall, where it belongs.

But at the very least, there is a liturgical imperative to take it out of the chancel. It's a grand old flag, but it simply has no business being implicitly identified with God- or where it can even give the implication that the Kingdom of God is being confused with any earthly country, however well and however deservedly beloved.

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