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Religion Library: Methodist

Symbolism

Written by: Ted Vial

Methodism relies on a set of symbols similar to what one finds in many Protestant churches.Perhaps the most striking symbolic aspect of a typical Methodist worship space is its austerity relative to Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholic churches (while at the same time being more elaborate than many Baptist churches or free churches).Sanctuaries tend not to contain many statues, paintings, frescoes, etc.This is in line with an aesthetic move of most Protestant churches at the time of the Reformation to emphasize the preaching of the Bible.

Faith for most Protestants largely means confidence that one's sins have been forgiven.This forgiveness is given by God, and one hears of this forgiveness promised by God in scripture reading and in sermons, and sees it symbolized in the sacraments. Worship spaces are therefore designed to focus concentration on the sermon and the sacraments.Statues and paintings of saints were seen by reformers as distractions from the clear proclamation of the Word or as magical or idolatrous human attempts to reach God, and were largely removed from worship spaces.

The dominant symbol for Methodists is the cross.Sometimes this can be a crucifix (a cross with Christ on it, symbolizing Jesus' sacrifice for us), but far more often it is an empty cross (symbolizing Jesus' resurrection).Other symbols frequently seen in Methodist churches are triangles, trefoils, and fleur-de-lis, all symbolizing the Trinity, an open book symbolizing the word of God, and a fish. The Greek words "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior" form the acronym of the Greek word "fish," and this is one of the earliest and most popular symbols of Christians.

Methodist ministers sometimes wear academic robes, which were common dress for priests and ministers in the Middle Ages and during the Reformation.Because these emphasize distinctions of rank and achievement, they are increasingly unpopular today.More common is for ministers, choirs, and lay leaders to wear an alb, which is a simple white robe that was an everyday garment in Rome in late antiquity.The alb symbolizes not academic distinction but unity with Christians of all classes and all times.Of course, since it is no longer everyday wear outside of church it also serves to set aside worship from everyday life as a special time.Ministers frequently wear a stole, which developed from Roman silk scarves and which marks ordination and the role of worship leader.

Since 1971 the official insignia of the United Methodist Church has been the cross and dual flame.The flame is a common symbol for the Holy Spirit, and so this insignia symbolizes Pentecost (the founding of the church) and the Trinity (the cross-Jesus and flame-Holy Spirit, linking us to God).


Study Questions:
     1.    Why do Protestant churches seem plain when compared to Catholic churches?
     2.    What are albs? How do they differ from the dress of the Middle Ages?
     3.    Why did the United Methodist Church choose a cross with a dual flame as its symbol?

 

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