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Religion Library: Anglican/Episcopalian

Symbolism

Written by: Russell P. Dawn

Candles, on the other hand, are commonly used in Anglican worship, symbolizing Christ as the light of humankind.  Altars may be draped in white linen, symbolizing Christ's purity.  In many churches, the colors of the paraments are changed according to the liturgical season: purple for Advent and Lent (sometimes blue for Advent), white for Christmas and Easter, green for the ordinary periods after Epiphany and Pentecost, red for Holy Week and the day of Pentecost, and black for Good Friday.  Some churches display stylized images of Greek letters such as chi and rho, the first two letters in the word "Christ," or alpha and omega, symbolizing God as the beginning and end, the foundation and culmination of all things.

Another depiction that has become more common in Anglicanism because of Anglo-Catholicism is of the stations of the cross.  These are typically fourteen stages of Christ's suffering and death that have been traditionally recognized as distinct for devotional purposes.  These may be depicted in stained glass, or carvings, or in temporary décor (or just verbally) for Good Friday worship services. 

An additional impact of Anglo-Catholicism has been the popularity of formal clerical vestments in worship, which had long been out of favor in Anglicanism.  Most vestments are simply vestiges of ordinary garments used in ancient times, such as robes.  But symbolic meaning has been attached to them for centuries.  For instance, clergy might wear a white linen robe, signifying purity.  Other items indicate rank, such as a miter (a type of hat) for a bishop.  Bishops also may have a crosier, a bent staff indicating his or her role as shepherd.

The popularity of formal vestments has waned in recent decades, however.  Clergy might wear a simple clerical shirt and collar in order to indicate his or her status (not to say higher status) as a clergy person.  Some might even wear street clothes (commonly along the lines of so-called "business casual"), indicating equality with the parishioners.  This approach has been criticized, however, as indicating equality with the mainstream, but not with the downtrodden.

Another symbol accepted by many Anglicans--and indeed most Christians--is the fish.  The Greek word for fish (ichthus) fits as an acronym for "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior" in Greek.  Jesus also called the fishermen Andrew and Simon (Peter) to follow him so that they could be "fishers of men."  The dove is also an accepted symbol for the Holy Spirit--this is particularly popular among those Anglicans influenced by the Charismatic renewal movement.


Study Questions:
     1.    Why is the cross the most visible symbol of Anglicanism? How is it represented?
     2.    What is role of imagery within the Anglican Church?
     3.    Why do many Anglican Churches use candles within worship?
     4.    What symbolic meaning do clergy vestments hold?
     5.    Why is the fish often used to symbolize Christianity?

 

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