Guest commentary by Katherine Achtemeier
Over the years our congregation’s worship committee has raised questions about the appropriateness of displaying the American flag in the sanctuary. In what way does the flag function to contribute to the worship of the Triune God? What is the message we believe the presence of the flag sends? What is the message received?
An example of the situations prompting discussion was the experience of an active and faithful member who is a citizen of another country. This person shared what it was like to be so often reminded of her status as an alien in this country. Every day she had to carry documentation. The Christian faith was vital because it reminded her that she is a child of God and she belongs. Yet what greeted her in the chancel at worship was an American flag – suggesting that in fact she was a stranger and alien even in God’s house.
For as long as anyone could remember, the American flag had been displayed in the front of the sanctuary to the congregation’s left — to their right, the Christian flag. During my 21 years with the church, the flags were removed only for the decorations at Advent and to make room for vacation Bible school plays in the summer. Following VBS in July 2014, however, I did not return the flags to the sanctuary, an approach to the issue that, in hindsight, was not one of my better moments as a pastor.
At its next meeting, the worship committee discussed the matter. We reflected on the Reformed and Presbyterian Church tradition and the single-minded goal of the reformers to keep worshippers focused on the source of their ultimate hope: Christ Jesus. We talked about the fact that the only adornments the Reformers allowed were the ones that directed people to Christ and his Word – the baptismal font, the communion table and the pulpit. The worship committee unanimously recommended that the flags not be returned to the sanctuary; at its meeting a month later, session upheld this decision.
It took considerable time for people to notice, but 14 months after this decision I became aware of simmering concerns in the congregation. These were brought to the fore by a congregant’s letter sent to me and a number of individuals in the church. The letter argued against session’s decision and questioned its authority to act without congregational involvement.
In response to this letter, the session voted to revisit the matter. All announcements of this reconsideration emphasized that session had made a decision and, under our Presbyterian form of government, had final say in such matters. However, hearing uncertainty as to whether all points of view had been heard, the session would hold two “listening sessions,” one on a Sunday after worship and one on a mid-week afternoon. The church family was invited to share their thoughts, views and opinions with the session either as part of a listening session or through written statements. The church family was also encouraged to pray for the session as it sought God’s will.
From our 100+ member congregation, session heard from 16 people. Seven gave voice to their views during the listening sessions (each 10 minute segment began and ended with prayer). A designated session member reflected back to each speaker a synopsis of his or her remarks to ensure an accurate understanding. Nine people wrote letters or emails, all of which were read at one of the listening sessions. As we closed our last listening session, we charged the session to seek God’s wisdom and will through prayer and study, keeping gratefully in mind the viewpoints expressed by all who communicated with us.
At its next meeting the session set aside a significant amount of time for this discussion, finally voting to display the flags in our fellowship room adjacent to the sanctuary. This room is visible from the sanctuary, but only after its doors are opened following worship. This motion also asked two individuals, representing opposite points of view, to work together in making the final decision about the actual placement of the flags in the fellowship area. A letter explaining the decision was approved by the session and mailed to each person who took the time to communicate with the session. The full congregation received the letter through the following month’s newsletter.
What was most striking throughout this process was the spirit — the Spirit — that marked our conversation. Passions run very high around this issue. First Presbyterian Church in Dubuque, Iowa, stands solidly in the line of Reformed Christians who have labored across the centuries to keep their worship focused firmly on God’s promises in Christ. At the same time it is also true that whenever our congregation gathers for worship or other activities, we do so under the laws and protection of the United States of America. We would be guilty of gross ingratitude if we did not acknowledge and give thanks for this earthly blessing.
With that in mind, one of the most powerful moments for me was the veteran who spoke with great passion for displaying the American flag in the sanctuary, but closed his remarks with these words: “When this first came up I was angry enough to consider whether I should leave the church. But then I thought about it and prayed about it. We are family, and family doesn’t always agree. If you decide against my point of view I am going to be disappointed, but I’m not going anywhere. You’re stuck with me because you are my family and I love you.”
As I think and write about this episode I do not do so in terms of one side prevailing over another. This whole process has been the source of significant prayer, personal angst, in-depth study, and has prompted some painfully passionate conversations among people who are deeply committed to their views. But overall I think it has served as a strengthening reminder of what it means to be the Body of Christ, especially in times when we don’t all agree with one another.
KATHERINE ACHTEMEIER is pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Dubuque Iowa.