Ask An Anglican: Are Crucifixes and Icons Idolatrous?


Grace and Saint Peter’s Episcopal Church, Baltimore, MD. (Photo by Fr. Jonathan. Please ask permission before reproducing.)

Marshall writes:

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!


Triumph of Faith over Idolatry, by Jean-Baptiste Théodon (French, 1646–1713). Church of the Gesù, Rome, Italy.

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.

Picture This

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.

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14 Responses to Ask An Anglican: Are Crucifixes and Icons Idolatrous?

  1. CarterS says:

    Hello father Jonathan,

    What would you say is the appropriate use of icons, for Anglicans? I tend towards the Catholic side or high church side of things myself, but the Orthodox are the only ones I have heard give a clear definition of how to use such images. Is there an Anglo catholic or some other resource that you could recommend on the proper use of icons in personal devotions and worship?

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Hi Carter. Icons come to us from the east, so it makes sense that Eastern Christians are the ones who have the most to teach us about how to use them. Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams wrote a nice little book about icons that you might find helpful. I don’t think there’s only one set way to use them, more of a development of an understanding of what they are and what they point towards.

  2. I saw the title to the article and had to write the following before even reading the article itself.

    Even as a strongly Reformed and evangelical Anglican, I have to say that idolatry is the heart of the beholder. Icons, pictures, statues, religious art and architecture, and crucifixes do not necessarily lead to idolatry. The empty Cross (reminding me of the empty tomb) is a good thing and I would never recommend abandoning it.

    But what many of these icons do is to tempt immature and unsophisticated believers into idolatry. Mature believers will appreciate their symbolic meaning and their beauty without crossing that line. But many have crossed that line into the worship of things rather than our Lord. So I personally prefer less rather than more of such iconography.

    After reading the article, I can double-down on the above comments.

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      I have never met anyone who mistakenly worshipped an icon, regardless of their spiritual maturity. I have, however, met plenty of people who worship sex, power, money, career, family, sports, politics, or their own intellectual or physical powers.

  3. It seems pretty clear to me that the typical Reformed exegesis of the Second Commandment and related texts has radically missed the mark. Both historic and biblical contexts indicate that the prohibition of images has to do with either the worship of pagan deities or the creation of false images of the true God, or both. Neither is the case with respect to Christian iconography. And even in the Old Testament we have a clear indication from God’s directions regarding images for the Temple that icons per se aren’t prohibited. The excavations at Dura Europos in Syria revealed a synagogue that was constructed in the 3rd century whose walls were covered with icons of symbols and events important to the Jews.

    True, Jewel and many of the early English reformers and divines took the Reformed position, but an untenable exegesis is an untenable exegesis. The Lutherans got this one right, not the Reformed, and Anglicans ended up taking a position similar to that of the Lutherans.

  4. Brian says:

    Previous comments by Bruce A and Christopher L are nice bookends to this discussion.

    I understand Bruce’s perspective, having been raised in a low church tradition that took great pride in the simplicity of its worship space. That was precisely the problem. The “pride” thing speaks for itself and the congregation of my childhood certainly had no monopoly on the notion that we were right and everyone else was wrong. But let’s peel back the “simple” or plain aspect of our worship space. The central symbol I recall was an empty cross at the center of the platform (God forbid we call it an altar).

    But there were other symbols: a fish. A table with “Do This in Remembrance of Me” on it. And the omnipresent reproductions of the Warner Sallman “Head of Christ” portrait or his similarly popular “Christ at Heart’s Door” painting, both classic 20th Century IMAGES that were terrifically popular among Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, and many other Protestant groups.

    Here are some other symbols I have picked up over the years, which have helped my worship, as I moved from congregational Protestantism to Anglicanism: a fish with Greek letters; sacred artwork like nails fashioned in the shape of a cross); a dove (I have thought and worshiped the Holy Spirit far more actively since learning this symbol); pictures and sculptures of our Lord in various stages of his Nativity and Passion that remind me of my salvation; stained glass images of my parish’s patron, St. Peter, with his keys; and so on.

    Why are these things popular? Because they remind us of who Jesus is and what he did!

    If the problem is with images or associations with mere people: what about the many Protestant churches named after people as memorials — Moody Church in Chicago, Ward (formerly Memorial) Presbyterian Church in the Detroit area, many other less known examples? Do the good folks of these churches worship their founders or benefactors? Of course not. Do they honor (venerate?) them? I bet they do as well they should.

    There is a fine line between one person’s symbolism or association, and another’s worship or veneration.

  5. “For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:22-24)

    How better to preach Christ crucified than with a crucifix. If we are frightened to show Christ crucified does this not show a squeamishness regarding his sacrifice? Is it a stumbling block or foolishness to the Calvinists?

  6. The Calvinists can’t be right concerning a blanket forbidding of images.God ordered the construction of a number of images in the Old Testament. Eg. Numbers 21:8-9 God ordered Moses to make a serpent of brass. Also Cherubim and twelve bulls were outwardly displayed in the Temple (1 Kings 6:24–29; 2 Chronicles 4:15).

  7. Lorenzo says:

    Fr. Jonathan,

    Grace and peace.

    I re-read your article on Eucharistic Adoration and this article. If I understand correctly, you believe that worshipping Christ in the consecrated elements is acceptable, even commendable, but that this worship should take place within the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, not in a stand-alone service that denies actual Eucharistic ritual (like in Roman Catholic adoration, where individuals worship Christ in the elements but do not receive Him).

    Also, if the worship is done during the Holy Eucharist, one should be worshipping Christ in the elements, not the elements themselves, as if God has become bread or there no longer is any bread at all.

    Is this a fair summary of your views?

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Hi Lorenzo,

      I will have to go back and re-read what I wrote about adoration. It’s been several years. At the time, I had some concerns about dividing too strongly the adoration of the Eucharist from the actual eating of the Eucharist. In that, I was echoing the concerns of some of the Anglican reformers. But I cannot say that this is really a problem for me any longer. I can see why some people find it problematic, but I have honestly been so blessed by my time spent in front of the Blessed Sacrament that it is hard for me to have any contempt for what seems like a natural development.

      As for worshipping Christ in the elements versus worshipping the elements themselves, I think that is only an issue if what we receive in the Holy Eucharist is something other than Christ Himself. Without getting into the specific mechanics of how He becomes really and truly present, I can nevertheless affirm that He is there in His entirety, not just an image or a shadow. He is there in His divinity as well as His humanity. So I am not worried about people worshipping the elements and not worshipping Him in them any more than I would worry that people would worship Jesus’ humanity and not His divinity. These things are inseparable from each other.

      • Ian says:

        I was actually going to ask something like what Lorenzo has above in relation to adoration of the elements vs. adoration of Christ present in the Sacrament and about what the differences, if any, between the two might be in practical terms. I take it from your response, however, that you wouldn’t say there are any differences in a practical sense. I was recently looking through this ( article entitled “Anglo-Catholicism: What It Is Not and What It Is” and in the last paragraph of the section on the Eucharist he seems to make a distinction between adoration of the elements and adoration of Christ present in the Sacrament but unfortunately he doesn’t say anything more about it. I suppose what I’d really like to know is if the view you’re expressing here can be reconciled with the Black Rubric which, while not denying a real and essential presence, nonetheless claims that adoration of the sacramental bread and wine is idolatry, whereas if no distinction is made between adoration of the elements and adoration of Christ present in the Sacrament then is it the case that from your point of view it’s necessary to ignore the Black Rubric to avoid committing what you referred to in the last part of your article as a terrible sin and a great tragedy? Lastly, if you have the time I wouldn’t mind hearing your thoughts on this quote about whether or not Anglicans adore the Sacrament from Lancelot Andrewes’ response to Cardinal Bellarmine:

        “About ‘the adoration of the sacrament’ he stumbles badly at the very threshold. He says, ‘of the Sacrament, that is, of Christ the Lord present by a wonderful but real way in the Sacrament’. Away with this. Who will allow him this? ‘Of the Sacrament, that is, of Christ in the Sacrament’. Surely, Christ Himself, the reality (res) of the Sacrament, in and with the Sacrament, outside and without the Sacrament, wherever He is, is to be adored. Now the king [i.e. King James I] laid down that Christ is really present in the Eucharist, and is really to be adored, that is, the reality (rem) of the Sacrament, but not the Sacrament, that is, the ‘earthly part’, as Irenaeus says, the ‘visible’, as Augustine says. We also, like Ambrose, ‘adore the flesh of Christ in the mysteries’, and yet not it but Him who is worshipped on the altar. For the Cardinal puts his question badly, ‘What is there worshipped’, since he ought to ask, ‘Who’, as Nazianzen says, ‘Him’, not ‘it’. And, like Augustine, we ‘do not eat the flesh without first adoring’. And we none of us adore the Sacrament.”

        P.S. Do you know of anywhere online where the whole of Andrewes’ response to Cardinal Bellarmine can be found in English, rather than Latin?

  8. Rdr James Morgan says:

    Please check out St. John of Damascus: On the Divine Images! Available in a nice paperback from SVS Press. should explain about icons and their veneration. If Christ is truly man, as well as truly God, we can picture him. Otherwise how to explain the numerous stained glass windows that show Him knocking at the door (many of these in protestant churches that hate graven images?)
    Rdr. James Morgan
    Olympia, WA

  9. Ed says:

    It’s worth remembering that Article XXII does include ‘The Romish doctrine concerning…Worshipping and Adoration, as well of images as of reliques’ on their list of fond things vainly invented which are ‘repugnant to the Word of God’.

    I’m not saying that means the articles take the Reformed position in banning all depiction of Jesus. Neither the text of the article, nor the history of the Church support that understanding. But it’s clear that there is a use of icons and such which is neither Anglican nor Biblical, and that the articles seem to teach that this is to be found not only in superstitious abuse of icons, but even in then current church teaching.

    Again, not saying I disagree with everything here, but I found it curious in a discussion of the Anglican view of images that this word from the articles isn’t mentioned.

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