The Threat of Iconoclasm
Bishop Peter Elder Hickman
One of the great distinctives of the Catholic faith tradition is the abundant use of sign and symbol. Our common Catholic experience is filled with icons which appeals to our sight and with music that is heard, incense and perfumed oil that we smell, bread and wine that we taste, and gestures and ritual actions that are not only seen with our eyes but felt with the body. The beauty of these things are intended to point the attention of the minds and hearts of the faithful toward unseen realities; to awaken within the worshipping community a higher consciousness, a prayerful consciousness that enables the human soul to experience the Divine presence, the Shekinah, that permeates all of creation.
Some have said that one of the outstanding features of Catholic worship and devotion is its sensuality. Catholic worship involves the whole of the human person through an appeal to both the mind and the senses. As a result, Catholics see the world through a sacramental lens in which we glimpse the divination of the whole world through the unfolding redemptive work of Jesus Christ. This has been the consistent practice of the Catholic Church, in all of her diverse expressions, throughout the past 2000 years of history, which has its roots in the fertile soil of the religion of the ancient Israelites long before the birth of Christianity.
Despite this long historical consistency the Church has not been without its iconoclasts, those who question and doubt the value of the Church’s use of sign and symbol as a means of realizing the Divine presence in the daily life of this observable material world. The Iconoclastic Controversy of the Seventh Century almost succeeded in completely discarding the use of all religious artistic expression in Catholic worship as Christian Iconoclasts emptied the churches of these many icons and burned them in an orgy of flames ignited by ignorance and the extremism of a new kind of religious zeal and fanaticism. Thankfully, the Catholic Church of both the East and the West rejected the ideology of the Iconoclasts at the great Seventh Ecumenical Council of the Church which was held in the same city of Nicaea where four and a half centuries earlier the Church had composed the first draft of the great ecumenical Profession of Faith we call the Nicene Creed, a creed that binds all Christians together, Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox into the “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.
Again, iconoclasm would emerge nearly 800 years later in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation of the 16th Century in which radical reformers, to the horror of Martin Luther, began to gut the great medieval churches, chapels, and cathedrals of all the signs, symbols, and art: icons, statues, crucifixes, vestments, and other liturgical vessels only to have them destroyed and defaced as so much waste. It seems that whenever the fanaticism of the iconoclasts appears it breeds deeper divisiveness among the people of God and diminishes or destroys the unity of the Church. Whenever the Church enters into a time of great renewal and reform, which is so very necessary in the life of the Church, there emerges for many the great temptation to move beyond the needed renewal and reform to a radicalized iconoclasm; the reformer becomes the iconoclast, the revolutionary becomes the terrorist. For Iconoclasm then becomes an end in itself, an end which by its nature is violent. When we use violence against the signs and symbols, the icons and images of our faith then violence in some form quickly follows against that which is the ultimate image of God, the human person. This remains a great danger.
The movement that gave birth to the Ecumenical Catholic Communion is a manifestation that reveals to us that we are in another moment of renewal and reform within the Church. This current renewal and reformation of the Church may become one of the great turning points in Church history that brings us so much promise for a realized hope of a truly great Church that embodies the compassion and justice that we are all called to by Jesus and His Gospel. However, the success or failure of our efforts at renewal and reform rests upon our ability to resist the destructive temptation to embrace the fanatical call of the Iconoclast.
I write this message because I have observed a growing threat of a new Iconoclasm that is emerging among those of us who have made the Ecumenical Catholic Communion our spiritual home and where we have chosen to live out our vision of a truly renewed Catholicism. We, of our beloved Communion, now stand at a crossroads: Will we remain true to our call for a renewed and reformed Catholicism, or do we succumb to the temptation to become the radicalized and fanatical Iconoclast? How far can we go to promote the renewal of the Church by means of Holy Spirit before we throw out the “baby with the bath water” by exchanging the work of the Holy Spirit for the unclean spirit of human made ideology?
I have observed many instances of an emergent iconoclasm among us in recent years and I fear that if it remains unchecked or ignored that it will sow the seeds of deep division among us and thus destroy the hope and promise that the ECC has become for us and for so many others. Rather than providing a detailed list of all that I have observed in regard to this present threat to the unity and well being of our beloved Communion, I have chosen to give but one example: the bishop’s mitre.
The life of the Church is built upon the foundation of the work of Christ. The work of Christ centers upon the Paschal Mystery of Christ: His incarnation, His life, His passion and death, his resurrection and glorification. The work of Christ has not ended but continues on in the work of the Church as manifested in all of her ministries which are diverse and varied. Each ministry within the Church has its signs and symbols that convey the place and responsibilities of each respective ministry.
The most visible of the ministries among the average member of the Church is probably that of the local parish priest. It’s visibility is seen in the special clothing that is worn by the priest, the clerical collar; the alb and stole; the chasuble. The ministry of deacon is also liturgically signified by the distinctive stole of the diaconate and the dalmatic. Distinctive clothing is not just for the “ordained” ministers but also for many of the lay ministers who often don the alb for liturgical service and the music minister who often wear a choir robe. Just as these ministries have their distinctive symbols and signs for their ministerial roles within the Church so does that of the ministry of the bishop among us.
The ministerial role of the bishop is really twofold: to bear witness to the faithful of our past by upholding the Apostolic Tradition of the Church. As such the ministry of the bishop is one of acting as the conservator of the Church’s tradition. The bishop is our visible link to the Church of our ancestors, it is our visible connection to our past. So by its very nature the ministry of bishop is “conservative”. The bishop, in his or her very person, becomes the voice of the past, the witness to where we have been in our collective journey as the people of God. We cannot successfully move into our future while losing sight to where we have been in our past. The second is the bishop’s role to preserve the unity of the Church. The bishop himself or herself, in his or her very person is a sign of unity and solidarity within the Church. Today the Church is scandalized by all the many sects and divisions among us. But can you imagine how much worse this would be if we did not have the ministry of the bishop? The unifying ministry of the bishop is indispensable for the hope of a united Church.
This vital and indispensable ministry of the bishop among us is not without its distinctives signs and symbols. Traditionally, the three most prominent signs of the episcopal office are the pectoral cross, the crosier (shepherd’s staff), and the mitre. These three signs of the ministry of bishop are to be found in all apostolic churches and therefore are universal within those churches who participate in the Catholic Tradition. So whether you are Roman Catholic, Old Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Orthodox, Coptic, Syrian, or Armenian these signs of the episcopal ministry are common to all of these communions of churches. The same is true for the Ecumenical Catholic Communion as a sign of our self professed Catholic identity and our continued participation in the one Catholic Faith Tradition equal to that of the other apostolic churches.
However, I have noticed in recent years that some among us have advocated the discarding of these outward signs of the historic ministry of the bishop. On more than one occasion I have heard it said among us that we must get rid of the mitre because the mitre is a symbol of “patriarchy.” This is quite an assertion and one that I believe is also misleading.
Historically, the mitre has always been a sign of the ministry of bishop, abbots, and even abbesses (women abbots who preside over a monastic community). The mitre only became a symbol of patriarchy for some insofar as it was mostly men who wore it as women were denied any opportunity to serve as a bishop. But once a duly ordained woman to the episcopacy dons the mitre it ceases to be a symbol of “patriarchy” and becomes what the church has always intended, a sign of the ministry of bishop among us. The mitre is no longer a symbol of patriarchy than that of the priestly stole once it has been worn by a newly ordained woman priest. Just as we have not discarded the priestly stole as simply a symbol of “patriarchy” but rather have made it the symbol of the priestly vocation of both men and women, so in the same way we use the mitre as a symbol of the episcopal ministry of both men and women. So the mitre can no longer be used as a symbol of gender but for what the Church has always intended it to be: a sign of the ministry of the bishop.
This practice of transforming symbols that were for way too long used to emphasize the inequality of the genders to be signs of a truly gender inclusive ministry is what the Ecumenical Catholic Communion ought to be about. In fact, the women who have become bishops in other Apostolic churches such as the Episcopal Church or the Church of Sweden have made such use of the mitre. Not only that, but other faith traditions are doing the same. I recently attended a sabot service at a local synagogue and noticed that the rabbi, who was a woman, wore the traditional tallit (prayer shawl) and yarmulke which for centuries could only be worn by men. Not only that, but I saw that many other women in the congregation were wearing the same. So now, these symbols of Jewish “patriarchy” have become gender inclusive symbols of Torah observance. Just as the roles that were at one time exclusive to males is now becoming gender inclusive so the symbols themselves become gender inclusive.
So let us reject the iconoclasm that would threaten to diminish our Catholic identity and practice! Let us rejoice that within the Ecumenical Catholic Communion we are able to celebrate the ordination of women at all levels of ministry and we are also able, at the same time, to preserve our beloved Catholic tradition of using the ancient signs and symbols of ministry for both men and women who have been called to a co-equal ordained ministry among us! May God preserve our unity and peace as a people of God!