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Religion Library: Anglican/Episcopalian

Symbolism

Written by: Russell P. Dawn

The most visible symbol in Anglicanism, and indeed in Christianity generally, is the cross.  The cross represents the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of human sin, and by correlation represents faith (Christ is the object of our faith), hope (for salvation), and love (God's love, which brought Christ to the cross).  It also represents the burden that the Christian must bear in following Jesus.  All of Christianity is summed up in the cross.

In Anglican symbolism the cross is sometimes shown with the crucified Christ still on it, in which case it is known as a "crucifix."  More often the cross is empty, symbolic of the resurrection.  Crosses may be simple or ornate, worn as jewelry or displayed in the home.  They are also common in Anglican worship spaces, and the rite of baptism is concluded by the priest's marking (with his or her hand) the sign of the cross on the head of the person baptized. 

It was not always so.  The sign of the cross was once a matter of conflict in Anglicanism.  In the late 16th and early-to-mid 17th centuries some Puritans in the Church of England believed the Church had not gone far enough in ridding itself of the vestiges of Roman religion, and they sought to rid the Church of all images, including crosses.  One point of great conflict was the making of the sign of the cross in baptism, which some Protestants viewed as implying some sort of supernatural power inherent in the making of the sign.

This iconoclastic impulse was applied more broadly to images other than the cross early in Anglican history.  Images connected with pilgrimages and the cult of purgatory--both of which implied papal authority--were smashed during the reigns of Henry VIII and his son, Edward VI.  During the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I, Anglican worship spaces were, with notable exceptions such as the Chapel Royal under Elizabeth (and the broader exception of formal clerical vestments), relatively lacking in symbolic ornamentation.  Anglicanism roughly followed the Protestant view that icons and images were futile distractions from the saving message of salvation through God's grace alone.  Other than brief periods of ornamental revival, this remained the case through much of Anglican history until the mid-19th century.  At that time the rise of Anglo-Catholicism exercised a great influence on many church interiors, and symbolic materials became more popular in Anglican worship spaces.

Today, some Anglican cathedrals and parish churches with strong Anglo-Catholic inclinations might be said to resemble a Roman Catholic space.  Others of Evangelical bent may be as austere as that of a Reformed church.  Many, however, fall between these extremes.  Images of saints are rare in Anglican churches, and in many cases where they are found the purpose is merely to honor the saint's memory, much like a picture of Abraham Lincoln on the wall of a school honors his memory. 

 

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