Monday, March 23, 2009

Icons: an Evangelical Anglican perspective

The word ‘icon’ has been popularised through it use in modern computers. We understand the phrase, ‘click on the icon’. Apple Macintosh developed this way of highlighting the meaning of a computer application by focusing on an ‘icon’, which is a recognisable pictorial symbol of it, and provides access to it. Currently, we see adverts for the iPhone which feature the screen of the phone ablaze with icons. An interesting secular echo, perhaps, in word and image, of the screen across the sanctuary of an Eastern Orthodox church, the iconostasis, on which the icons are positioned??

Church icons are, of course, different from computer icons – they are personal rather than impersonal – but they are still vitally symbolic and, for many, provide some sort of intriguing access. Traditionally, evangelical Anglicans have been wary of icons, though many now appreciate them for prayer. The second of the ten commandments, warning against idols and the consequent concern about veneration turning into something akin to worship, are all taken seriously.

‘You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them’ states the second commandment (Exodus 20:4).

Jews, Muslims and some Protestant Christians today take a stand against icons based on this verse. It was also a key concept during the ‘Iconoclast’ controversies of 8th to 10th centuries. For almost 200 years the Emperors and Church authorities vacillated between iconoclasts (image breakers) and iconodules (image worshippers). The Syrian monk John of Damascus (655-750 AD) pressed the case for icons based on the doctrine of the incarnation and the theological importance of matter. In the end his argument, which I think is very convincing, won through.

It seems to me that an icon does not draw attention to itself but to the holiness portrayed through it. Someone may grow to love a particular icon and venerate it, or treat it as holy. This may be appropriate and I believe God may be glorified, so long as it does not move into worship of the icon rather than of God.

Praying to the saints, was, in various forms, a controversy of the Reformation. God had too often been portrayed as very distant. A glorified human, who was very close to God on earth and now in paradise, was thought easier to address in prayer. Sometimes it was thought that the saint could ‘forward’ the prayer to God.

I prefer to pray directly to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit but was struck by the importance of the Communion of Saints during seven years teaching theology in Kenya.

The great evangelical Anglican theologian John V Taylor, General Secretary of the Church Mission Society and later Bishop of Winchester, wrote an early appreciation of African Traditional Religion called The Primal Vision: Christian Presence Amid African Religion (London: SCM Press, 1963).

In this, he considered prayers for those who have died, the ancestors, but also I think it may help us concerning prayers to the Saints. He wrote:The content of all such prayer, therefore, should be a form of thanksgiving and the exchange of love and the joy of partnership in God’s work and God’s praise. None of the classical forms seem to me to be satisfactory. The requiescant in pace, in the African as in the mediaeval European setting, hints too strongly at a fear of their restlessness; while prayers of Protestant origin walk so delicately amid their if’s and maybe’s that they lack the ingenuousness of all sincere prayer.

He then suggested that ‘This adaptation of one of them, perhaps, strikes a truer note’:O God of the living, in whose embrace all creatures live, in whatever world or condition they may be; we beseech thee for him whose name and dwelling place and every need thou knowest, giving thee thanks for our every remembrance of him.’

So instead, perhaps, of praying to Saints, and asking them to forward our prayers to God, we should rather pray to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and ask him to forward our thanks to the Saints. This reversal of movement – to God and then to the Saints – was very resonant for me.

One of the reasons evangelical Anglicans have grown to appreciate icons is the advent of data projectors. This electronic medium cries out for images as well as words and the subtle adjustment of the context of lighting can enhance illumination. We have a screen on wheels at St Mary Islington: when used, it is moved after the sermon and prayers and opens up a full view of the chancel. This reminds me, somewhat, of the opening of the central doors of the iconostasis during an Eastern Orthodox service.

The Rev Canon Dr Graham Kings is Vicar of St Mary’s Church, Islington, theological secretary of Fulcrum and author of Signs and Seasons: a guide for your Christian journey