Saturday, 14 April 2012


Giles Fraser writes in The Independent that The cross is a symbol of cruelty, not a club badge.

Richard Beck writes about Wisdom and Sin.

Pierre Whalon writes for The Huffington Post that Religion and Politics Are Inseparable: Get Over It.

Posted by Peter Owen on Saturday, 14 April 2012 at 11:00am BST | TrackBack
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Categorised as: Opinion

Giles Fraser writes: "For some, the cross is a symbol of human salvation and has nothing to do with politics. This is both theologically mistaken and politically naive."

As it happens, there is no Big Book of Really True Symbolic Meanings - no one gets to decide the meanings of symbols for other people. Different people interpret symbolism differently, and different contexts give rise to different meanings, as well.

Fraser appears to have gotten his history wrong. The use of the Cross in connection with Christianity is attested to much earlier than the conversion of Constantine, and not as a symbol of cruelty or shame. Indeed, given Paul's attitude towards the Cross it could hardly be otherwise.

Posted by: Bill Dilworth on Saturday, 14 April 2012 at 4:48pm BST

I would be curious as to when the crucifix as symbol became an "essential" element on all altars in Latin Rite Churches and some Anglican churches? After Vatican II this "symbol" was moved to another place and the bare "table" without this symbol became common place until John Paul II's "reform of the reform" returned the Church of Rome to Trent. In this discussion, the "symbol" of the cross is easily understand as a symbol of torture like a hangman's rope would be the same kind of symbol. Wearing it should be fine in most cases but perhaps the time and place rule might apply here is well. I respect Giles Fraser's points from a theological perspective and I think his thinking on this matter shows good scholarship. I may be perhaps a bit more flexible on the power of symbols but I do see Giles Fraser's points.

Posted by: Chris Smith on Sunday, 15 April 2012 at 5:27pm BST

From the 1907 Catholic Encyclopedia: "It is probable that the custom of placing a crucifix on the altar did not commence long before the sixth century. Benedict XIV (De Sacrificio Missae, P. I, 19) holds that this custom comes down from the time of the Apostles. However, the earliest documentary evidence of placing a cross on the altar is canon III of the Council of Tours, held in 567: "Ut corpus Domini in Altari, non in armario, sed sub crucis titulo componatur". "

Posted by: Bill Dilworth on Monday, 16 April 2012 at 2:18am BST

As far as Anglican altars are concerned, Elizabeth I famously kept a crucifix in her private chapel in the face of Puritan criticism. I believe that they are allowed under the Ornaments Rubric, but whether they were ever used anywhere between the time of Elizabeth and the 19th century, I don't know.

I have read that most English parish churches didn't have altar crucifixes, but Great Roods, set above the rood screen between the nave and chancel, were very common. When they were destroyed in the 16th and 17th centuries, in some places the parishioners retaliated by painting large crosses on the tympanum.

I don't think that the Reformation interfered with the use of the crucifix in Lutheran churches, by the way.
(Sorry, I should have included this in my last comment.)

Posted by: Bill Dilworth on Monday, 16 April 2012 at 2:40am BST

Thank you Bill Dillworth for your valuable information on the earliest uses of the crucifix on altars. I can always depend on knowledgable people like you at the Thinking Anglicans website to shed light on questions such as this. For some reason in North America, the disappearance of small crucifixes from the altars of Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches happened slowly after the close of Vatican II. The positions of these crucifixes has been moved to the wall behind the sermon lecterns area of the churches, but off the actual altars. Presently, the reappearance of these crucifixes on many altars began in the autumn of 1978 with the election of John Paul II.

Posted by: Chris Smith on Monday, 16 April 2012 at 5:40pm BST

Isn't there a purple passage by Tertullian on the use of the cross in Christian practice (On the Soldiers Crown iii)? WELL before the battle of the Milvian Bridge?

Posted by: david rowett on Monday, 16 April 2012 at 6:30pm BST

Would that not have to do with the change toward celebrating facing the congregation?

Posted by: c.r.seitz on Tuesday, 17 April 2012 at 1:34pm BST

CR Seitz,

The edition of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal issued in 1975 specified that "“there should be a cross, easily seen by the congregation, either on the altar or near it” (no. 270). Churches removed the crosses, it would seem, because of concern over being able to see the priest, but the removal was not ordered. I think that the current thinking higher up is that concern about sight lines is misplaced, and there's encouragement of something called a Benedictine arrangement - altar crucifix and six candlesticks - intended to be used whatever direction the priest faces.

Celebrations of the Mass facing the people, by the way, were not officially required following the Council. Freestanding altars were made obligatory, with room for clergy to walk around it and make celebrations facing the people possible, but no direction was given as to which side of the altar the priest was to stand; versus populum celebrations were allowed, but not of obligation. The position of the altar and the position of the priest during celebration are not necessarily linked: Eastern Orthodox altars are freestanding, but the Eucharist is always celebrated ad orientem.

Posted by: Bill Dilworth on Tuesday, 17 April 2012 at 7:57pm BST

"Churches removed the crosses, it would seem, because of concern over being able to see the priest" -- yes, so my conjecture.

Posted by: c.r.seitz on Wednesday, 18 April 2012 at 4:43am BST

Right, but my point was that it was an ad hoc approach, not one required by the Church or even the logistics of celebrations facing the people.

Posted by: Bill Dilworth on Wednesday, 18 April 2012 at 11:10am BST
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