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Flag use in churches (Part I)

Last modified: 2013-11-16 by rob raeside
Keywords: church | christian | flag use | laying up | australia | belgium | canada | france | germany | italy | netherlands | northern ireland |
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Part I (this page):

Part II (next page):

See also:

General comments

I think [the use of flags in churches] depends on what the people of the particular country understand the flag to represent. I suggest a kind of typology of flag behavior having to do with what may be expressed by displaying the flag of a country or subnational division. In some cases the same flag display may express more than one of these messages:

  1. I am the property of the entity symbolized by this flag (flag flying over a national park).
  2. I am under the jurisdiction of the entity symbolized by this flag (civil ensign flown on a merchant ship).
  3. I am an official representative of the entity symbolized by this flag (naval ensign on a warship, flag flying over a government office).
  4. I owe allegiance to the entity symbolized by this flag (private citizen flying his own national flag on his house).
  5. I have an emotional attachment to the place symbolized by this flag (Irish-American flying Irish flag in front of his house).
  6. I respect the entity symbolized by this flag (Brazilian flag flying at White House during Lula's visit).

It seems to me that whether displaying a national flag in a church is offensive or not depends in large part on how the people of the country concerned interpret the messages expressed by flag display. If flying the national flag in country X is commonly accepted as an expression of messages 4, 5, and 6 (or maybe 2), then it would not be seen as offensive to have it displayed in a church. If, on the other hand, people commonly understand the flag to convey only messages 1 and 3, then clearly putting it inside a church would be inappropriate, especially but not necessarily exclusively where there is no established church.

This issue would seem tied to that of whether the flag is viewed by the people of the country as the common property of the populace or the particular property of the government. In the United States, I believe flags displayed in churches are generally understood as expressions of messages 4 and 5 and sometimes 6. Those who oppose the practice generally don't argue that the presence of the flag implies government control of the church but rather that it is inappropriate for a church as an institution to be expressing allegiance (message 4) or even affection (message 5) to any earthly power. The counterargument is that the church *is* its members, and those members do owe allegiance and feel affection to both the nation symbolized by the flag as well as to the religious body.

(In a military chapel in any country, as in the Church of St. Louis at the Invalides in Paris, and at churches in England where military colours are laid up, the display of the flag obviously has yet another connotation, which may be found inspiring or offensive depending on one's preferences.) Speaking of which (sorry this is so long), I'm trying to recall whether a Portuguese flag is displayed in the side chapel of the Batalha abbey where the Portuguese unknown soldiers are entombed. Not that doing so would suggest an exception to Jorge's and others' observations on general Portuguese practice, just a point of curiosity.
Joe McMillan, 25 June 2003

This system is flawed around here [in Portugal] because there is a subtle distinction between formal usage and informal usage. In Portugal there are cases of all the 6 types, and the distinction between two of them is often very subtle. In general, flying the national flag from flag poles or in a staff indoors is considered formal flag display, and implies that who is flying the flag is some sort of state-owned or nationally-relevant institution, particularly involved in the political or administrative life of the country. There are exceptions, and in large numbers: commercial institutions, particularly hotels and such, that fly the flag together with many (or not that many) other flags as a way to show that that is a Portuguese company, despite its international ambience, or that "although we speak other languages, we prefer speaking Portuguese here". The other exception happens when private individuals fly the national flag formally. This is usually a display of ultra-right conservatism and/or militarism, and these guys are always nostalgics of the Salazar regime.

Churches, however, are included in none of these situations. This isn't to say that national flags are absent from every single Portuguese church - some, closer to the power or to the military, might display the flag, but in common churches formal display does not happen, because they are not (or shouldn't be) involved in politics or administration. Displaying the flag informally, on the other hand, is an accepted and relatively common means to show support for the nation and its "heroes". This includes wrapping oneself in the flag, waving it with bare hands or attached to a staff, sometimes hanging it from walls or balconies (especially in sports events), etc. When I was in the university, I shared an apartment with some colleagues and one of them had a flag hanging from the wall in his bedroom. And that is considered natural.

So, to wrap things up, the flag is the same, the way it is displayed makes all the difference.
Jorge Candeias, 25 June 2003

Laid up flags

In churches in England military colours are sometimes "laid up" after use.
Joe McMillan
, 25 June 2003

It is indeed common for regimental colours to be "laid up" in the chancel of a church or a cathedral. These flags which bear the historical record of the unit have at some point been blessed by the chaplains. Displaying them usually high up has the practical reason of discouraging theft of an irreplaceable item. However, they are within the chancel which is traditionally the choir and office service space, and not within the sanctuary (that space beyond the altar rail) which should always be free of any secular symbol. The focus in an Anglican church should always be the altar. The presence of national flags anywhere in the church is uncommon as they have no meaning in a religious context and to some always denote a political meaning in addition to representing secular authority. More recently, as conservators are noting the deteriorating condition of the colours, particularly Boer War and First World War flags, churches are encouraged to place the original in climate controlled archival storage and display replicas in their place.
The Venerable John Tyrrell, 5 January 2005

Some five years ago I was asked by Prof (Emeritus) Hugh Smith of Grahamstown, Eastern Cape to make a survey for him of the regimental colours laid up in St Georges Cathedral in Cape Town. He was at that time writing a book on the military colours of South Africa. This I did and found some six of these colours of the various Cape volunteer regiments laid up but hanging so high that it was very difficult to see and describe the designs. They were in various stages of decay as the earliest laying up dated to the 1880s. One was so decayed that practically only the staff with the heading was still visible.

I was then informed by the Rector that it is the tradition in the Anglican church dating back centuries, that laid up colours are never disturbed after their laying up and are allowed to decay until there is nothing left. This tradition was taken over by the Church of the Province of South Africa from Britain. Perhaps one of the British members can confirm this?
Andries Burgers, 6 January 2005

That certainly is the tradition. Queen's Regulations call for colours to be laid up 'in a church or other public building', and note that no public funds shall be spent on them once the colours have been laid up (so it may be a tradition borne out of expediency!). Attitudes vary from one incumbent to another. One local vicar refuses to spend any church funds on restoring or conserving the colours in his keeping, so if it is to be done, it will be up to the Friends of the church to raise the money. Whereas at one time it was seen as somehow 'noble' for a colour to decay to dust over the years, I think there is now a tendency to try and preserve the flags. Since the phrase 'public building' can include the regimental museum, then some colours are being laid up there as well.
Ian Sumner, 6 January 2005

Below are comments contributed by FOTW list members from around the world about the use of flags in their areas. 


Things in Australia vary greatly depending on denomination. The Catholic Churches generally do not display flags, while the Anglican Church continues the Church of England tradition in displaying 'laid up' military colours and sometimes national flags. Evangelical churches tend to display the national flag more, not less: it often connotes allegiance to Australia, which they say is a 'Christian nation/monarchy'. (Our Constitution says otherwise.) On one Australia Day, I went to a Baptist Church, where it displayed a large Australian National Flag /above/ the pulpit (connoting the 'sacredness' of the flag?). It was at first with the Union Jack at our left, but the guys there thought it was incorrectly displayed, so they turned it over so the Union Jack was at our right during the actual service. (It is correctly displayed when the Union Jack is at our left-hand side.) The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints (the Mormons) flies a national flag in front of its Sydney Temple (reason 4 in a temporal sense). Greek Orthodox Churches also like to fly the Australian National Flag (reason 4), along with the Greek flag (reason 5) and the Church flag (black double-headed eagle on yellow). The Salvation Army occasionally flies the national flag alongside the Army flag, but usually not. Among the non-Christian religions, only the largest Buddhist temples fly the national flag (reason 4 in a temporal sense) alongside the Buddhist flag. Whatever the religion, the Australian National Flag is always flown at our far left (the flag-bearer's far right) among other flags.
Miles Li, 25 June 2003, 4 July 2003


On, you see the church of St James on the Coudenberg, Brussels (last picture).  Serving not only as the royal chapel but also as the principal church for the Belgian Army diocese, head of which is the present archbishop of Mechlin-Brussels. Some fine royal hatchments in this late 18C, classicist building are admittedly not flag related but  there is a Belgian national flag to the altar's own left (so at your right if approach the altar) which is a rare sight in our country I believe... but understandable given this church's primary functions.  There is also a charming little gonfalon, red with various symbols of St James such as shells, cross and even two 'Moorish' flags with crescent! As to the statue in front of the church, it depicts Godfrey of Bouillon leading his troops in the First Crusade... but as far as I know the flag he brandishes is quite plain (see
Jan Mertens, 27 June 2003


I have never seen one flying a church in Quebec. I think you are right in saying that it is mostly a US phenomenon.
Marc Pasquin, 18 January 2002

 I asked on the Canadian ministers' list if any recalled ever seeing a Canadian flag in a Canadian Unitarian sanctuary. Five have so far reported never having seen one. One remarked that they are rare in the sanctuaries of any Canadian denomination, although some Anglican churches have regimental flags (but not in the chancel).
J. McRee (Mac) Elrod, 6 February 2003

My experience in some other denominations are that flags are quite common in Canadian churches - I have been in Presbyterian, United and Baptist churches with flags up front somewhere - either on the chancel, by the side of it, or mounted from the wall near it. Usually it is the national flag and the provincial flag you see, although in Baptist churches it is sometimes the Christian Flag and the national flag. My travels around churches has not been extensive, but my impression is that it is more common to have a flag in a church than not - especially in churches with older congregations. They are purely a symbol expressing loyalty by the congregation  in general to the nation. The flags are never moved or removed - they become part of the general decoration scheme of the church. In fact they are rarely mentioned or alluded to, except perhaps on Remembrance Day (11 November).
Rob Raeside, 6 February 2003


The situation in France is similar to that in Germany, and probably for the very same reason. Traditionally, flags deposed in churches were mostly war trophies. Francois Henri de Montmorency-Boutheville, Duke of Luxembourg (1628-1695) and Marshal of France, was nicknamed "le Tapissier de Notre-Dame". He won the battle of Neerwinden (29 July 1693) over William of Orange, and captured so many flags that he could make a "tapestry" with them inside the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris. Several flag trophies of the colonial period are still displayed in the St. Louis-des-Invalides' church.

In 1905, the radical politician Emile Combes (1835-1921) expelled the religious congregations from France and proposed the law on separation of church and state, which was passed in 1905 and is still in force. Note that the church and state are not separated in Alsace-Moselle, which were under German rule, so that in Alsace "religious bodies are supported by state funds".

Parochial banners are of course often displayed in churches, but indeed less and less frequently due to theft.
Ivan Sache
, 25 June 2003

Just a side note, the most overwhelming display of nationalism I've ever seen in a church can be found in the Eglise St. Louis, the French Army's church, at the Invalides in Paris. There are more tricolores than I could count flanking the altar and festooned on and around the reredos.
Joe McMillan, 18 January 2002

Church Saint-Louis-des-Invalides is the heart of French military nationalism, so such a display of flags is not surprising. Napoleon and most Marshalls of France are buried in huge tombs in the crypt of the church. You probably also noticed all the non-Tricolore flags hanging from the top of the church. It was a tradition in France (and probably elsewhere) to place the flags captured from the enemy in a church. Francois-Henri de Montmorency-Boutheville, Duke of Luxembourg and Marshall of France (1628-1695) was nicknamed "le Tapissier de Notre-Dame" (Notre Dame's interior decorator) after the battle of Neerwinden (1693), because he captured a lot of flags and brought them in Notre-Dame-de-Paris.
Ivan Sache, 18 January 2002


In Germany, we do not have our flag in church. Maybe because of the split of church and state ("Säkularisation").
Patrick Fischer, 24 June 2003


In Venice (and many other Italian cities) they don't. A vexillologist might dislike that, for there are *really* *lots* of churches in Venice... it would be a sight. They don't fly the national flag either. The only places flying flags here that I can remember of right now, are the municipal buildings, a few schools, and most consulates.
Manuel Giorgini, 18 January 2002


In Vlaggen: Symbool . traditie . protocol Sierksma (1963) apparently tries to present international flag custom, with special note for Dutch custom. At one point he writes: "For the placement of flags in churches (common especially in America and the United Kingdom) or in auditoria to decorate the rostrum or podium, flagstaffs of an expensive kind of wood, with a lance-shaped crowning should be used." In a chapter on flag study he writes: "Really surprised one can be sometimes in Germany and France, but especially in England and Scotland, when one, when entering a church or cathedral, sees countless old, often completely deteriorated flags hanging on lances from the ceiling." Both examples are clear indications that flags in churches are not common in The Netherlands. However, some national churches do fly a flag from a flag pole, in the same way other organisations do.
Peter Hans van den Muijzenberg, 26 June 2003

Let me point to this richly illustrated website basilica of St John the Good Shepherd at Laren, NL where we find many examples of flags, and coats of arms too. What interests us here is, of course, the use of procession banners. They can be seen and admired at It is explained, for instance, how fitting the gonfalon form is for use in a procession. Children assist the bearer in holding ribbons tied to the upper part of the banner, thus helping to stabilize it in a gust of wind. At the head of the procession, a cross is borne. On this website, various photos can be found showing the banners 'in action'. Let me now summarize what can be seen on the particular "procession banner" page:

  • St John the Baptist baptizing Christ in the river Jordan
  • Third (lay) Order of St Francis
  • RC Union of Bakers (and related professions) showing St Clemens Maria Hofbauer
  • St Theresa of the Little Child Jesus
  • Gooiland banner for use in procession to Kevelaar, Germany
  • St Vitus, a locally popular saint
  • Pelican in its piety, symbolizing Christ
  • Holy Mary fraternity (or sorority?).

Jan Mertens, 29 July 2003

Northern Ireland

Flag use in Northern Irish churches has been highly controversial.  For example (as reported in the Belfast Telegraph), Orangeman attending the annual Sunday service prior to the Twelfth of July in a mid-Ulster church will be allowed to bring their flags into the premises this year. The decision to allow flags back into Saltersland Presbyterian Church follows an incident last year in which the minister officiating at the traditional service refused to allow the Union flag into the church. Orangemen attending the service were told they could participate in it but that their flags had to remain outside. A church committee has met regularly since last summer with the parties concerned in a bid to quell any further ill-feeling and misunderstanding between them. Finally, after almost a year of discourse, it has been agreed that during future services the Union Flag will be permitted into the church during the religious ceremony.
Phil Nelson, 25 June 2003

For continuation see Part II

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