I used to go to a Reformed Presbyterian Church. They were adamantly against any sort of iconography and would not sing anything other than Psalms. They used various passages in Scripture to justify this position, including but not limited to Eph. 5:19 and Exodus 20:4. How would a liturgical Anglican respond to someone saying, as my reformed and evangelical friends often do, that Crucifixes, Liturgies, and the like are idols?
Believe it or not, the most avid of the sixteenth century reformers in the Church of England would have agreed with the assessment of Marshall’s Presbyterian friends. For instance, Nicholas Ridley, who served as Bishop of London during the primacy of Thomas Cranmer, wrote A Treatise on the Worship of Images which urged the forbidding of crucifixes, icons, statues, and other such things in the Church. On the other hand, Ridley unknowingly sowed some of the first seeds in Anglicanism that would lead to the recovery of the very things he spoke against. In what has come to be known as the Vestments Controversy, a Puritan named John Hooper, who had spent some time in Zurich under the influence of the churches of Zwingli, was selected to become Bishop of Gloucester by King Edward VI. Hooper refused to accept the office on the grounds that the Ordinal required him to vest in a surplice and cope for his consecration. The king’s Privy Council ruled that vestments were adiaphora, something indifferent to the true heart of the faith, and therefore gave permission for Hooper to be consecrated without them. Bishop Ridley was supposed to be the chief consecrator but he refused. Ridley agreed that vestments were adiaphora, but he argued passionately that even indifferent things could be required of us by the Church if they are not things that controvert the Gospel. Hooper eventually relented.
Lift High the Cross
Despite rampant iconoclasm in the sixteenth century, over the course of the following century, much that had been lost was brought back. At the turn of the seventeenth century, Lancelot Andrewes preached, in a series of Good Friday sermons, about the great blessing that comes from looking upon the crucifix:
Surely, the more steadily and more often we shall fix our eye upon it, the more we shall be inured; and being inured, the more desire to do it. For at every looking some new sight will offer itself, which will offer unto us occasion, either of godly sorrow, true repentance, sound comfort, or some other reflection, issuing from the beams of this heavenly mirror.
For Andrewes, it is clear that the crucifix does the very opposite of what an idol does. An idol spurs one to worship something other than the true God. A crucifix increases our devotion to Jesus Christ.
The Ritualist (R)Evolution
There have been controversies over ritual devotions in Anglican Churches for as long as there have been Anglican Churches. Arguably, though, the height of that controversy was reached in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The early Anglo-Catholics had not been concerned with vestments and images. Their objective had been to remind Anglicans that they participated already in the life of the Catholic Church by virtue of the apostolic succession and therefore they could revel in the riches of the Sacraments. But in the 1850s, a new breed of Anglo-Catholics began to emerge, often referred to derogatorily as “Ritualists.” The Ritualists took to heart the teaching of the Oxford Movement and realized that if it was true then further evolution was necessary. If the Sacraments administered in Anglican Churches are truly channels of grace, then it follows that the manner of celebrating the Sacraments ought to match the seriousness of what is taking place.
This relatively simple idea led to pandemonium. Anglo-Catholic clergy were arrested for placing candles on the altar or preaching in their surplices. People in the pews would hoot and holler in protest during Mass, sometimes even urinating in the aisles, because the choir came out in vestments. Yet the Ritualists stuck to their guns. Under the influence of towering figures like Fr. John Mason Neale, they drank deeply of the idea that the medieval period was the height of good churchmanship and comported themselves accordingly. This led to a fair amount of silliness and eccentricity, but it also eventually opened the doors wide to liturgical renewal from which we continue to benefit today. Even in many Evangelical Anglican parishes today, the Mass is the principle liturgy on a Sunday, vestments are worn, images and sometimes icons are displayed, and you may even encounter the occasional crucifix. Blessed John Mason Neale, who once had to scale a wall during a funeral to escape an angry mob of iconoclasts, would scarcely believe how much things have changed since his day.
In the thick of the Ritualist controversy in the American Episcopal Church, a canon was offered at the 1874 General Convention to ban “ceremonies or practices during the celebration of the Holy Communion, not ordained or authorized in the Book of Common Prayer, and setting forth or symbolizing erroneous or doubtful doctrines” including “The placing, or carrying, or retaining a Crucifix in any part of the place of public worship.” In a long and politically savvy speech against the canon, Fr. James De Koven said this:
…I must say that I do not think the iconoclasm goes quite far enough; for when, in St. Thomas’ Church only yesterday morning, I witnessed the great statues of the Apostles standing all around, I am free to say that, had I not been as much of a Protestant as I am, as I bent and bowed, I might have been led into the Roman error of worshipping images or something of that kind. [Laughter.] I do not think that thing goes quite far enough. Cut out the crucifix from the stained windows, put it out of your prayer-books, forbid pictures as well as images, if it be necessary; but do not let us believe, in this day, that the mere looking at the image of the human nature of our Divine Redeemer, and exciting our emotions by his thorn-crowned brow and his bleeding head and pierced hands, can possibly be said to symbolize false doctrine!
Our Hearts Against Us
Idolatry is a sin of the heart, not of the hands. The error of iconoclasts, both today and in ages past, has always been their failure to understand this. Paul says, “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5). None of those are things that come from outside of us. They are things that bubble up from our sinful hearts. Can a crucifix or an icon become an idol? Certainly. For that matter, so can the Bible, but that does not make them bad things. Perhaps the most tempting idol of all is to make the idea of God we have in our heads into something we worship rather than the true God who is constantly showing us that we have neither heads nor hearts big enough to contain Him.
The Church rightly teaches us from the Scriptures that we should avoid idolatry of every kind. But the Church also teaches us from those same Scriptures that we should “worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness” (Psalm 29:2 and 96:9). Crucifixes, icons, incense, bowing, and all the rest contribute to this beauty by pointing us towards the reality of the holiness of God.
When I set up my office at the church where I serve, one of the first things I did was to put up pictures of my family. I have three employees with offices who have all done the same thing, adorning their desks with pictures of spouses and children. Do we do this because we are confused and believe that these pictures are our loved ones? Do we pour our affection out upon these images instead of saving it for the people they represent? Hardly. The pictures remind us of the people we love and keep the thought of them ever present for us. They help us to be more loving towards our families even when they are not standing right in front of us. Images of Christ and the saints in worship serve the same purpose, giving us a focus for our devotions so that we may remain centered on the worship of God and not lost in our own thoughts. They are the very opposite of idols because instead of drawing us away from the worship of the true God, they bring us closer to Him.
The One Thing That Matters
In the end, there is only one place where the Puritanical/Reformed objection of idolatry can be taken seriously and that is in the worship of Christ present in the Eucharist itself. No Catholic Christian worships the crucifix or the icon, but all worship Christ present in the Mystery of His Body and Blood. If that is called idolatry, then so be it. If the Puritan is right and the consecrated elements are still merely bread and wine, then I am an awful idolater of the worst kind and I ought to heed every biblical injunction against false worship. On the other hand, if it is true that in the Holy Eucharist Jesus Christ is really, truly, substantially present, then not to worship Him there would be a terrible sin and a great tragedy. Thus, I will give Fr. De Koven the last words:
You may take away from us, if you will, every external ceremony; you may take away altars, and super-altars, and lights, and incense, and vestments; you may take away, if you will, the eastward position; you may takeaway every possible ceremony; and you may command us to celebrate at the altar without any external symbolism whatsoever; you may give us the most barren of all observances, and we will submit to you. If this Church commands us to have no ceremonies, we will obey. But, gentlemen, the very moment any one says we shall not adore our Lord present in the Eucharist, then from a thousand hearts will come the answer, as of those bidden to go into exile, “Let me die in my own country and be buried by the grave of my father and my mother!” To adore Christ’s person in His Sacrament is the inalienable privilege of every Christian and Catholic heart. How we do it, the way we do it, the ceremonies which we do it, are utterly, utterly indifferent; the thing itself is what we plead for, and I know I should not plead to unkind or unfeeling hearts.