Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Icons, shrines, and Anglicanism

Iconoclasm, the destruction of images of Christ, the Virgin, or the Saints, stems from an insufficient appreciation of the full humanity of Christ, and as such it is a heresy. The creation of specific imagery of Christ and other Christian figures did not become prevalent until after the waning of paganism. Iconoclasm was most prevalent during these introductions; by the 8th Century a great deal of superstition had arisen in connection with the images and the debate concerning their use had become contentious (Moss, The Christian Faith, 1957, p 88). Saint John of Damascus clarified the issue of images as it related to Christology, stressing the reality of Christ’s humanity. The Second Council of Nicea in A.D. 787 condemned the iconoclasts and directed pictures be restored to the churches.

Churches north of the Alps not represented at Nicea II rejected the decrees of the council. The Council of Frankfort declared that pictures could be used in churches, but not worshipped (misunderstanding the nuances of Nicea II between "veneration" and "adoration" or worship). The authority of Nicea II was questioned by the theologians of the western Church as late as 1540. The Protestant Reformation ignited a new wave of iconoclasm in the West, especially in the churches of the Puritan, Presbyterian, and Reformed traditions. Iconoclasm did not affect Lutheranism to a great degree—crucifixes, statues, and paintings have been in continuous use in Lutheran worship since the Reformation.

Anglicans had varying views on the subject. The cross and candles upon the Altar were often retained by the high churchmen (for instance, Queen Elizabeth I kept an ornate crucifix in her chapel). Post-Reformation portraiture of Anglican divines such as Cranmer, Andrewes, and Laud demonstrated the development of a type of “Anglican iconography,” as did the continued practice of creating effigies for the monuments of the deceased prelates in English Cathedrals. During the Puritan Commonwealth much ancient Christian art left in place in England at the Anglican Reformation was thoughtlessly defaced (literally—it means to destroy the faces) or otherwise destroyed. Anglo-Catholic churches (from the late 1800s to the present) have brought back the crucifix, icons, and statues of Saints to Anglican places of worship (they were never completely gone in some places), but the iconographic structure and organization of the images as found in the Eastern churches is often lacking. Indeed, in many parishes proportion and focus are lost amid a sea of statuary and images and a repetition of the crucifix.

While God the Father cannot be pictorially represented (He is never depicted in the icons of the Eastern Church, although He often is in the West—as an elderly mirror image of Christ; this is indeed an example of bad theology), both the Holy Ghost and Christ have been depicted in Eastern iconography, the Spirit as a dove or a tongue of fire, both images with biblical foundations. As Christ was Incarnate and fully assumed our human nature, it is not incorrect that His image can be likened as best we can assume He appeared in the flesh. Honor (veneration) paid to such an image is not to the wood or paint, but to the Person of Christ (just the same as when we bow in the Liturgy at the Name of Jesus, we bow not to vibrations in the air, but to the Incarnate Word). The ability to depict Christ as man, as Incarnate God, speaks to the truth of Christianity—we don’t just worship some unseen Deity. Even though we cannot imagine the glory of God the Father nor create any likeness of Him, we have the human attestation of His nature in the Person of Christ.

I have a Methodist relative (I come from that tradition myself and have a bust of John Wesley on my desk) and she has a picture of Jesus (normal European depiction: flowing hair, pale skin, blue eyes) in her bedroom. When I visited her house some time back she mentioned, looking at the picture, that she talks to Him every day. I knew what she meant, as would almost any other Christian. Nobody would think that she spoke to the picture or thought that it had any special power. She had an implicit theory of Christian iconography. She speaks not to the image, but to the One that it represents.As Christ was Incarnate, we can depict Him and revere His image and likeness. As the Saints were humans, we can do likewise. We cannot think that the images have any value or power in and of themselves. They are not magic. I believe most protestants have an understanding of icons close to the understanding of the Second Council of Nicea, even though they might abhor or question their use in Lutheran, Orthodox, Anglican or Roman Catholic worship. Pictures of Christ (or even the Holy Family, if it is Christmas time) might be set upon the mantle and treated with respect in Christian homes of many traditions. If someone were to come into the home and spit upon the image of Christ or smash the crèche the person would probably be horrified, because they would rightly interpret the attack upon the image as an attack on the idea of Christianity or the person of Jesus. If a Democrat has a picture of Kennedy on the wall or the Republican a picture of Reagan and a visitor looks at the image and expresses pleasure or disdain, almost everyone knows that the displeasure or appreciation is directed at the person, not at the image.

The Affirmation of Saint Louis embraces the Seven Ecumenical Councils without qualification. The Constitution and Canons of the Reformed Episcopal Church states: “Nicea II (787). . .is disputed in respect of its ecumenicity and application, though in principle its condemnation of Iconoclasm is conceded to be orthodox.” Therefore, the bulk of classical Anglicanism embraces the theology of Nicea II. The main questions that remain for many classical Anglicans pertain not to the general theological conclusions of Nicea II, but rather to the wording of many of the directives within the pronouncements of the Council. The canons resulting from this council do not just allow for images in places of worship, but direct that images be placed in all churches and that honor be paid to these images through gestures (bowing, kissing, etc), and that those who reject “all ecclesiastical tradition, whether written or non-written” be condemned (something that would have to be reconciled to the Articles and their affirmation that nothing is required than that which can be proven by Holy Scripture). An Anglican service of the Holy Eucharist can be validly celebrated without a cross upon the Holy Table or a single icon in the parish church; several Anglo-Catholic churches I know have no images and no stained glass except for the cross or crucifix on the altar. An Orthodox liturgy (to the best of my knowledge) demands the use of an icon--even a mission parish requires a portable set of standing icons. It is in these regards that many Anglicans still question the “ecumenicity and application” of the council, while readily admitting that its Christology in defense of Christian art and its use is orthodox. If any Anglican you speak with says otherwise, ask him if he has a Nativity set or has sent a Christmas card with the Virgin and Child upon it.

Relics and Pilgrimages

Every year or so I go to a large shrine that houses the mortal remains, the relics, of a man beloved by millions--the shrine is huge and impressive, filled with icons of the man entombed there. There are paintings, busts, and in a museum nearby numerous wax figures. It is the shrine of the 16th president of the United States. Usually I will take a token of my pilgrimage back with me; last time it was a bust of President Lincoln. With this example we see that most people will embark on some manner of pilgrimage in their lives to visit the tomb of a famous person now deceased, even if it is a secular one. All of us visit the graves of those we have loved and lost. Even the most ardent Protestant must admit the similarity between the two practices.

Wheaton College in Illinois has a collection of the "relics" of C.S. Lewis (personal belongings, etc) and many Christians have made pilgrimages to see them. However, there are no indulgences granted for such trips, and no years will be taken off of time to be spent in purgatory. What such pilgrimages will do is help to connect the living with the faithful who have "departed this life in Thy faith and fear" that "we might follow in their good examples."There should be no objection to pilgramages to such shrines, either to C.S. Lewis or to Lancelot Andrewes, or to the site of Cranmer or Laud's martyrdom. What most find abhorent (as the Reformers did in the late Middle Ages) is the creation and selling of relics--body parts taken from the grave, dismembered portions from a desecrated corpse removed from his resting place in Christian burial and sold for profit. There is a great and important difference between visiting the tomb of a faithful Christian and taking parts from that faithful Christian in order to create "a tomb away from the grave." We must ask ourselves if we would approve of the dismemberment of a saintly elder of our family so that a church might have "a piece of her" for the parish. . .I would hope not.


Anonymous said...

Excellent post as usual!

For those who want drive deeper into the question of images and Anglicanism, I recommend C. B. Moss's book on the Seventh Council and Anglicanism.

Also, as a general principle, Anglican acceptance of a General Council means acceptance of the central judgment of the theological principles in issue in the council -- but not necessarily all the specific canon law attached thereto. I believe Rome also goes this way and even the East itself, which takes the canons propounded at the Seven General (Ecumenical) Councils very seriously is somewhat selective in their adherence to them.

So, Anglican acceptance of the Seventh Council does require us to kiss images or prostrate before them -- but general principle of reverence and piety do compel us to honor the cross and gospel and other images of Christ in his Saints by respectful placement within the nave and decent lighting etc. Also, we are free (but not required) to bow, pray or light candles before them.

Rev. Dr. Hassert said...

Thanks Matthew.

I agree with your assessment; I think Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholic both often read too much into the Ecumenical Councils. We've seen how turns of phrase can be pulled out of context to support pet theories or doctrines. I believe the major Christological pronouncements is what ought to be focussed on.

welshmann said...


I've read this and your other posts on the general subject of images, relative honor, veneration, adoration, etc., and for what it's worth, I agree that in principle, orthodox Christians of any denominational stripe at heart would agree with the major premise of the Seventh Council. Ultimately, though, what cinched it for me was Scripture. The Psalms contain admonitions to "worship toward His holy hill". There is also OT model of the Ark of the Covenant being carried in holy procession and worshippers making prostrations toward it with implied divine approval. There are also oddities like the human faces that decorate the walls of Ezekiel's temple. So for me at least, when I read the 2nd commandment in light of the rest of Scripture, iconoclasm is not a real option.


Canon Tallis said...

I think Mr Nelson's comment left out a "not" in the requirement to kiss icons and prostrate ourselves before them. But we would do well to remember that the Orthodox of Justinian's time and later would be doing precisely this to the sovereign just as the cardinals used to kiss the foot and hand of a new pope before exchanging kisses on both cheeks with him. Other times and places; other customs. Neither the English before us or Americans now treat political figures so. Celebrities? Well, that might be another matter.

The problem with the Seventh Council was that the translation that most Europeans were familiar with was simply inacurate. Hence it was rejected by folks who ought to have known better, but we also have to remember that both the empire of Charlemagne and the rise of the Hildebrand papacy intervened before we had sufficient folks who either read Greek or had access to authentic copies of what the Council actually said.
As for visits to the tombs and shrines of the saints, I have myself knelt and prayed at the tomb of Elizabeth I in Westminster Abbey just as I have made a pilgrimage to the church where George Herbert was rector. In both places I wish there had been a place to burn candles as there was at the tomb of St Cuthbert.

Canon Tallis said...

I was also pleased with your mention of the crucifix on the altar of Elizabeth's chapel. When she returned from her first progress she found that it had been broken and the rest of the chapel generally trashed. Her reaction was a royal temper tantrum that frightened both those who did it and some of her newly minted bishops who were uncomfortable in celebrating the sacrament so close to the image of our Lord crucified while wearing, in the words of one of them to a friend back in Zurich, "the golden vestments of the papacy."

The crucifix was replaced and never touched again while Elizabeth went on to have one placed in her hands when buried. She, who had called herself, as good a Catholic prince as any in Europe knew what that meant and the rubrics of her prayer book indicate that she intended that the ancient customs of the church should be continued and honoured in the Church of England.

Anonymous said...

Canon Tallis, thanks for the correction! You caught my intended meaning perfectly.

Anonymous said...


Excellent post!

You wrote:
"An Orthodox liturgy (to the best of my knowledge) demands the use of an icon--even a mission parish requires a portable set of standing icons."

Well I am an Orthodox clergyman and able to answer this more definitely. Icons are NOT absolute requirements for an Orthodox Liturgy to take place. Vessels, Bread and Wine, water, an Altar, prayerbook, etc. are necessary. An Icon is part of the Liturgy insofar as the hymns and prayers are part of it. One could celebrate Liturgy without singing hymns, but it would disfigure Liturgy. Likewise with Icons, they are liturgical art - and as such are required for any normal Liturgy.

Perhaps this makes it easier to understand for Anglicans who would look with some degree of suspicion to the Orthodox and their use of Icons.

Fr. Dcn. Gregory Wassen

Rev. Dr. Hassert said...

Deacon Wassen,

Thank you very much for the clarification.

As you said, from an Orthodox standpoint the lack of icons would be a "disfigured" celebration of the Divine Liturgy, whereas in the Anglican tradition the lack of hymns or even a cross wouldn't cause the priest nor the laity much concern.


Anonymous said...

This Anglican laymen would be VERY distressed by said service with no cross or images! In fact, I not recall ever having been to an Anglican Communion service without a cross and at least one religious image in the Nave or Sanctuary (counting statuary, stain glass, and icons), though "said services" without sung hymns are quite common on weekdays or as an early Sunday service.

Rev. Dr. Hassert said...

In this regard I was thinking more of a mission service in a temporary location (conference room, cafeteria in a rest home, etc), not a permanent setting. If all I had in such a setting was the holy table with the white linen cloth, the service book, my vestments and the chalice and paten I would be "ready to go."


William Tighe said...

A new book, which I have just read, *Altars Restored: the Changing Face of English Worship 1547-1700* by Kenneth Fincham and Nicholas Tyacke (Oxford University Press, 2008), establishes that the crucifix had permanently disappeared from Elizabeth I's Chapel Royal by 1571. The authors also suggest that Elizabeth's general religious outlook can be characterized as "Lutheran," and that some of the events that took place in late 1559 (the universal removal of altars and the destruction of most religious imagery) were done against her liking and will, although in the end, after a failed attempt in 1561 to permit the rebuilding of rood beams and their associated imagery, she had to acquiesce in them, just as in 1565 she had to acquiesce in reducing the enforcement of vestments to that of a surplice only, and just as in 1571 she had to accept Article 29 (which she had rejected in 1563) being added to the 38 that she had approved earlier.

Canon Tallis said...

I would suggest from evidence elsewhere (the Vatican archives) that the writers of Dr Tighe's book are simply wrong. They are part and parcel of the Roman Catholic propaganda machine which can never, never be trusted. I just was going through my own old notebooks and pulled out a photo of a chasuble made for one of Elizabeth's chapel's in the late 1590's which is currently in a French museum. There were additions made to it indicating that it was still in use after James I became the King of England as well as Scotland.

Given the present state of disrepair of establishment Anglicanism, the Roman Propagandists believe they can get away with anything. After all, they speak with "authority" and the book was published by the Oxford University Press.

Since Elizabeth described herself to the Emperor Frederick as being as good a Catholic prince as any monarch in Europe and saw that requims were celebrated for the French king, I doubt that she could truly be described as "Lutheran."