Over the last year I have worshipped in 34 different congregations primarily in congregations affiliated with Mainline Protestant denominations (with most of these in United Methodist, Presbyterian – PCUSA, Disciples of Christ, United Church of Christ, and Episcopal churches). From my pew or chair in most of the sanctuaries or other sacred spaces where the services were held I could see two flags: an American flag and a Christian flag. Only once, however, did the American flag play an important role in the worship experience.
Between the offering and communion the printed order of service included an item labeled “At the Presentation.” Two hymn numbers were provided and the congregation was asked to sing a single verse of each song. The first song was the Doxology. The second was “Our Father’s God, to Thee,” which was found in a section of the hymnal labeled “National Songs.”
During the singing of “Our Father’s God, to Thee,” the American flag was removed from its stand and paraded to the center of the chancel/altar/stage. It was held in place in this central visual location for the duration of the singing then returned to its stand for the remainder of the service.
Personally, I am a bit uncomfortable in a worship space that displays the flag of just one nation. While the constant presence of the American flag in a sacred spaced does not impeded my worship, the inclusion of that flag in processions and in other prominent ways on national holidays does. In fact, on several occasions I have opted not to attend when I was aware that the American flag would play a significant role in worship.
Neither the ongoing placement of the American flag in sacred spaces nor featuring the American flag on national holidays in Christian services of worship concern me nearly as much as the experience I described above of the weekly presentation of the American flag and singing of a national song alongside the Doxology. In my most generous interpretation the former are displays of patriotism while the latter is or at least suggests nationalism.
Christian worship must be an experience that orients and continually re-orients followers of the Way of Jesus to the primacy of that Way.
- Is the American flag present in your congregation’s campus? If so, in what specific spaces?
- What is your comfort or discomfort level with each of the three practices mentioned above: (1) placing an American flag in a sanctuary or other sacred space, (2) including the American flag in a processional or other element of Christian worship on or around a national holiday, and (3) presenting the American flag on a weekly basis while the congregation sings a national hymn immediately following the Doxology?
- Describe what you understand to be the ideal relationship between church and state.