Flying the Flag?

The decision by Ely Cathedral to fly the Pride flag last weekend during Pride in Ely (announced on the Catherdral's Facebook page) has, not surprisingly, provoked strong negative reactions.  These can be seen, for example, in the responses of Gavin Ashenden, the minister of Penn Free Methodist Church, Andrew Tettenborn and, better in tone while clear in substance, Church Society.  Ely’s action follows a number of similar partnerships between Pride and some within the Church of England.  Among those that have drawn comment in the last few years are the prayers at the start of Pride at York Cathedral, Southwark Cathedral at London Pride and the Bishop of Liverpool becoming a Patron of Liverpool Pride last year and addressing the event.

I have to confess that I have not found myself reacting as vehemently as many have done and have wondered why this is the case.  I think it is because, to be honest, I find almost all flag-flying I’ve seen by churches objectionable and a serious challenge to, even denial of, central gospel truths and the proper mode of Christian witness.  I therefore do react against what Ely Cathedral has done but cannot muster quite the level of outrage that others clearly strongly feel about this particular flag and I do worry about whether that outrage is missing some more important points.  These relate not primarily to the flag that was flown but rather to the nature of flag-flying and so to the use of this practice, particularly given the context of the church’s ongoing debates about sexuality.

To help me process some of this I’ve started reading Tim Marshall’s fascinating recent book “Worth Dying For: The Power and Politics of Flags”.  His introduction explains some of the reasons why I dislike church flag-flying of any but a Christian symbol (and even that, to be honest, I think needs great care).

National flags, he points out, are about “trying to unite a population behind a homogeneous set of ideals, aims, history and beliefs – an almost impossible task. But when passions are aroused, when the banner of an enemy is flying high, that’s when people flock to their own symbol”.  But these features are not just applicable to national flags but all flags.  They “have much to do with our traditional tribal tendencies and notions of identity – the idea of ‘us versus them’”.  And so we find that “these symbols can still wield a great deal of power, communicating ideas quickly and drawing strongly on emotions”.

Those are some of the reasons why a church even flying the Union Jack or the Cross of St George (or, as I sit in Glasgow, the Saltire) upsets me and should, I think, always raise major questions and concerns.  If the church is truly somewhere where there is “neither Jew nor Greek”, if God’s intent is to have “a house of prayer for all nations” (Matthew 21.13 where Jesus is referring to Isaiah 56.7), if we are to be a foretaste of the gathering “from every nation, tribe, people and language” (Revelation 7.9), why identify ourselves as a church simply with one particular nationality?  Especially if we are doing it at times of conflict, what are we saying by this, especially to those brothers and sisters and Christ who find themselves part of any nation with which we are in conflict?  A single flag, by definition, seeks to create a particular form of unity around itself which is over and against others.

Any decision by any church to fly any flag must therefore be weighed very carefully and, I would argue, the strong presumption should be against flying it.  What, for example, would we think about the wisdom, in a strongly Remain area, of the parish church flying the EU flag?  (or, alternatively, see Archbishop Cranmer’s blog). Questions about flag flying are even more pressing when the church concerned is the mother church of the diocese which contains the seat of the diocesan bishop who claims to be a focus of unity.  These questions reach a wholly new level when the flag is not one that can even claim to represent the community as a whole but is the flag of a particular minority group within society which although engaged in positive actions such as opposition to homophobic violence and providing support networks for vulnerable young people is also, in the minds and experiences of many Christians, strongly identified with sexual immorality and hostile actions to Christians in the workplace, law courts and public square.

So, turning to Ely Cathedral, what rationale did the Dean set out for his and the Chapter’s decision?  This is even more important given that the Cambs Times reported that “Ely Cathedral normally only flies church and national flags but has made a special exception”.  The decision was, he said, “a sign of the kind of inclusion that I wish to promote at the Cathedral”.  That this was not only a matter of the Dean imposing his personal agenda was made clear by the fact this was picked up by Canon Stephen Bourne who was quoted as saying that the flag flying was “to show support for “inclusivity in the community””.  There is here no acknowledgment that the essence of flags is to do with “tribal tendencies and notions of identity”.  Nor that no single group in a diverse, pluralist society where there are strongly contested deeply-held divergent beliefs can claim that it and its flag represent “inclusivity”.  Rather than, in the Dean’s words, being about celebrating “the breadth and diversity of the community in which we all live”, the LGBT flag and Pride clearly belong to a particular grouping within the community.  The flag is also identified with certain convictions in relation to society, politics and the nature of the good life.  The Cathedral flying the Pride flag and appealing to “inclusivity” to justify this therefore involves doing, and being seen by others as doing, what all flag-flying does: “trying to unite a population behind a homogeneous set of ideals, aims, history and beliefs” (Marshall).

And these characteristics of flags are, undoubtedly, part of what the Cathedral is very definitely and consciously aware of - and seeking to benefit from - despite all the language of inclusivity and celebration of diversity.  The other reason the Dean gave for flying the flag is that “Christians have not always been perceived as being as supportive and inclusive as some of us would wish”.  There is, here, a clear recognition that, behind all the talk of inclusion, breadth and diversity there fundamentally remains what Marshall describes as “the idea of ‘us versus them’”.  Here the “them” are other Christians and probably the formal teaching and discipline of the Church of England.  The intention is therefore that the Cathedral flying the flag will “wield a great deal of power, communicating ideas quickly and drawing strongly on emotions” (Marshall).

And, unsurprisingly, it has worked.  The flying of the flag has tapped into strong emotions.  It was clearly very powerful and significant for many at Ely Pride.   The Cambs Times report opened

This afternoon the rainbow flag was raised from the West Tower in a strong show of support for the city’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, ahead of the Pride festival tomorrow.  Ben Whale said it felt “amazing” to witness the flag flying above the cathedral. “I never imagined as a kid or teenager growing up here that we would be at this point. “The world feels a bit warmer now.” Ariane Richardt, of Ely, added: “I think we have achieved something that I never thought we would achieve”.

Richard and Roger emailed the Pride in Ely and Cambridge Facebook page to say

My biggest thanks (and astonishment) is saved for the Dean of Ely for the flying of the Pride rainbow flag from the Cathedral's tower. I never thought that that would happen in my lifetime and I got really emotional seeing it flying there.

These reactions could be cited as proof of the rightness of the decision and the good fruit it is bearing but they could also simply illustrate Marshall’s point that “people flock to their own symbol”.  And of course there have been the opposing reactions, also “drawing strongly on emotions”, against the flag being flown by many Christians.  These were surely foreseeable by the Dean and Chapter.  Indeed, given his comments, part of his aim appears to have been to distance himself from such Christians and their views.

The recourse to flag flying therefore sadly signals that, rather than “some of us” engaging with “them” in a careful, time-consuming, reasoned discussion, the preferred process of engagement is instead one which does what flags do: “wield a great deal of power, communicating ideas quickly and drawing strongly on emotions”.  The Cathedral has sought to rally people to what Marshall calls “powerful symbols” by use of an “emotion-charged emblem” that “has the power to evoke and embody sentiments so strong that sometimes people will even follow their coloured cloth into gunfire and die for what it symbolizes”.  The problem is, as Bruce Springsteen said in an interview with Rolling Stone about the Stars and Stripes appearing on the cover of his “Born in the USA” album: “The flag is a powerful image , and when you set that stuff loose, you don’t know what’s gonna be done with it”.

Rather than using the power of flying a flag to symbolise a particular viewpoint it would be much better if the Cathedral in relation to flying this flag and all churches in relation to flying any flag heeded the words of Lee Gatiss in his response on behalf of Church Society:

There are better ways of rejoicing in the diversity of humanity — by proclaiming the joyful news of eternal life for every one of us who repents, turns away from our sin and turns to Jesus instead. Bring back the cross, the symbol of his kingdom. That is the banner under which Christians gather.


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