Thinking through our Unitarian and Universalist symbolism - a meditation for Holy Week

Off-Centre Cross
Readings: Hebrews 10:5-10 

From "The Off-Centre Cross" on the website of the New Massachusetts Universalist Convention 

The off-center cross was invented in late April, 1946, in a hotel room in Akron, Ohio, during the Universalist General Assembly, where a number of Universalist ministers pooled their ideas. Among those present were Albert Ziegler, Richard Knost, Fred Harrison, and Gordon McKeeman.

Here is how two of the symbols' originators later described it.

The circle is drawn to represent the all-inclusive faith of universalism which shuts no one out. In that circle is placed the cross, symbolizing the beloved faith out of which our wider insight has grown. We feel that universalism is not the product of any one cultural or religious tradition, but is in fact implicit in all the great faiths ... we consider ourselves to be "Universalists of Christian descent."

          --Albert Ziegler, Christian Leader, December 7, 1946, p. 558

The Circle is a symbol of infinity--a figure without beginning or end. The Cross is the symbol of Christianity. It is placed off-center in the circle of infinity to indicate that Christianity is an interpretation of infinity but neither the only interpretation of the infinite nor necessarily for all people, the best one. It leaves room for other symbols and other interpretations. It is, therefore, a symbol of Universalism.

          --Gordon McKeeman to Ronald and Jesslyn Bartlett, 
          members of First Parish Universalist Church, Stoughton, in 1989


Although today is Palm Sunday, this year I am not going to take Jesus' entry into Jerusalem and his subsequent abandonment by the crowd as my theme today. I direct you below to a couple of my earlier addresses if you want to work through that theme later on.

Instead, here, I want to concentrate on the symbol of the cross where, on Good Friday, the coming week ends.

In what follows I'm going to take you through a very brief illustrated history of Unitarian and Universalist symbolism which, as you will discover, is rooted in the cross. You may ask why I begin with American symbols and not British ones? Well, the reason is simple. We didn't develop here any distinctive, Unitarian visual symbolism - we either didn't use any at all or rested content with the open Bible on the lectern or the plain cross. The symbol British Unitarians use today is one we adopted from America - so when we talk about religious symbolism we have to begin there.

The power of the Easter story, however it is interpreted— whether literally and supernaturally or, as I and the liberal Christian tradition generally does, metaphorically and naturalistically — relies upon a journey through the cross.

Given this journey, it is quite understandable why it became THE symbol of Christianity. Whether it was the best symbol for the kind of religion Jesus practised is another matter but, for many complex reasons (metaphysical and political), the cross eventually won out as the central symbol of the new faith and this simply cannot be ignored.

(In passing it is worth recalling that the earliest Christian depictions involve Jesus in eating and healing scenes. Also worthy of note is our Czech Church's decision in the 1920s to adopt the sunflower as its symbol).

Being strongly influenced by the sixteenth-century radical reformation tradition with its emphasis on what became called inner experience, light or conscience, along with people such as the Society of Friends (the Quakers) we have generally avoided the use of external symbols such as the cross because this struck our forebears, rightly or wrongly, as being but a step on the way to idolatry. But, even for those churches like our own that do not openly display the cross, it self-evidently remains in our cultural imagination as the central symbol of the Christian faith.

However, from the Renaissance onwards, one of the consequences of humanity's increasing knowledge of both the natural universe and the human world was what it slowly began erode any easy understanding of in what consists the true "centrality" of anything.

In terms of the natural universe, following Copernicus's (1473–1543) discovery that the earth revolved around the sun, we began to realise that humankind did not lie at the centre of the universe, in fact, far from it. We began to recognise that we had instead to understand our place in the universe as peripheral and liminal.

In terms of our human world - the worlds of thought, faith, belief and practice - we simultaneously began to discover that there were many, many other religious, philosophical and ethical systems at work in the world - systems which people of evident goodwill and the highest intelligence and learning could, and did, practise instead of Christianity. Once again we began to recognise that we had instead to understand the place of Christianity in the world as being peripheral and liminal in some way - and that, as we sang in our second hymn, "our faith is but a single gem upon a rosary of beads".

The unspoken and very hard question this change of perspective posed was how to show (to others and ourselves) both the continuing importance of the life and death of Jesus for our own community and, at the same time, also clearly to display our recognition that our own faith in the value and efficacy of Jesus' example was not the absolute centre of all things, that he was not the only teacher that people of goodwill could follow with full belief (pathos) and a clean heart.

Now, most attempts to answer this question have been done at a highly abstract, technical philosophical and theological level and in our own tradition of churches, we developed some very complex Unitarian and Universalist theologies - and trust me they were very complex. But, all of them may be summed up as saying, at heart, that the God of Love in whom they believed was able to save all people, whether unbelievers or people who believed in different Gods to the one in which our own community believed. But, for our forbears, it is important to realise that Jesus remained THE central, definitive revelation of this all-loving God and they took passages such as that we heard earlier from Hebrews (10:5-10) to say Christ died once, FOR ALL. And for them "all" really did mean all people.

The cross was for our forebears the symbol of this universalist insight and, as the first Universalist symbol of 1870 - that of the Universalist General Convention - clearly shows, the cross (and, notice too, the Bible) was placed confidently at the centre of all things and, as the text on the symbol makes clear, they firmly believed that, in the end, "Christ will conquer."

It was a very powerful, progressive and reforming faith and it played a hugely important role in the liberalisation of Christianity both in the USA and also in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Later, another symbol was designed for the Universalist Church of Albany N.Y. that has become known as “the Old Universalist Cross”. As you can see it shows an equal-sided cross upon which is centrally placed a circle - i.e the circle is now clearly part of the symbol and not merely an accidental border. The circle starts to become increasingly important in our iconography. It is, of course, a very ancient symbol representing all kinds of things such as the earth, the seasons, eternity and also the whole universe. By an obvious extension, it easily became the symbol of universalism itself. It is clear, however, that the overall design of the symbol means it still explicitly expresses the idea that the cross itself is central.

Until 1961 the Unitarians still formed a separate denomination and they had yet to develop their own religious symbol. In 1941 the Unitarians were very active in working with refugees in Europe through the Unitarian Service Committee. Its director, the Revd Charles Joy, felt that an official letterhead with a distinctive religious symbol on it would help the organization do it's work better. As he said: "When a document may keep a man out of jail, give him standing with governments and police, it is important that it look important." To this end Joy commissioned an artist, Hans Deutsch, to come up with a design. Deutsche chose a chalice with a flame. Joy said of this design:

". . . a chalice with a flame, the kind of chalice which the Greeks and Romans put on their altars. The holy oil burning in it is a symbol of helpfulness and sacrifice.... This was in the mind of the artist. The fact, however, that it remotely suggests a cross was not in his mind, but to me this also has its merit. We do not limit our work to Christians. Indeed, at the present moment, our work is nine-tenths for the Jews, yet we do stem from the Christian tradition, and the cross does symbolize Christianity and its central theme of sacrificial love."

The design was made into a seal for papers and a badge for its volunteers moving refugees to freedom and, over the next decade, it quickly became the symbol of Unitarian communities all around the world, including our own British churches who adopted what was quickly nicknamed "the chunky chalice". Notice that in both the examples before you the chalice - with its (accidentally) cross-like shape - is still placed firmly in the centre.

At this point, in 1946, we come to the design that captured and expressed what is, I think, an extraordinarily powerful insight - the one upon which I would like us to meditate today and during Holy Week. As I mentioned earlier, the Unitarians and Universalists did not merge until 1961 so the Universalists had not adopted the chalice as their corporate symbol. Instead, they continued independently to develop their own and the off-centre cross came into being. In our readings, you heard the words of two of its originators.

It was a design of great genius because it finally gave a positive, simple and appropriate symbolic expression of the change in perspective which followed Copernicus' momentous discovery. The symbol of the cross moved to one side simultaneously affirmed the continuing importance of the Christian story for the Universalist community but, at the same time it also clearly expressed their realisation that their own faith did not hold all the answers, that it did not occupy all the religious and ethical space in the world and, most importantly, that Jesus' example could not be considered THE absolute, one and only, true centre of the whole world and universe.

It is vitally important to understand that the moving of the cross to one side was not an expression of a collapse in their confidence in the meaning and value of Jesus' life and death. It was, instead, a confident, conscious, positive expression of the open, inclusive and inviting religious space they felt Jesus constantly promoted in his teaching about the kingdom of God which was centred upon love of neighbour (whether friend or enemy) and God.

The focus of this symbol is no longer the cross but rather the open space - the space which represented the whole world and universe. They did not feel the cross could be lost because it was through the Jesus and cross that they had come to recognise the value of a shared, open, universal space. As Ziegler said:

"We feel that universalism is not the product of any one cultural or religious tradition, but is in fact implicit in all the great faiths ... we consider ourselves to be "Universalists of Christian descent."

The merger of the Unitarians and Universalists in 1961 required the development of a new, shared symbol and so was born the off-centre chalice which was used between c. 1985-2005. A symbol which, as you can see, kept alive the distinctive symbols of both the Unitarians and the Universalists.

But it seems to me to be a matter of regret that, since then, the Unitarian Universalist Association, at least symbolically speaking in its last two "rebrandings" (in 2005 and 2014), has taken a backwards step in placing the chalice back at the centre of the symbol.

You can begin to read something of the current American debate about the newest change of symbols at this link.

In an age in which all kinds of fundamentalisms (religious and political) are again trying to muscle into the centre and occupy all the space I would like to ask whether it is really sensible for us to retire from use the simple but powerful, visual liberal religious message conveyed by either the off-centre cross or the off-centre, cross-like shape of the chalice?

Making (or, in the British case, keeping) our own liberal religious symbols centred and symmetrical worries me, for I feel it can easily and quietly encourage in us the development of an unconscious desire to do our own muscling into the centre and this can also quietly fuel the always dangerous idea that our own faith, religion or philosophy is central, that it has all the right answers and should occupy all the space.

The current UUA symbol

The symbol of the off-centre cross and chalice pushed beautifully and gently against such a thinking - as, of course, did Jesus - and so I mourn their demise.

As we, this week, begin to walk towards Good Friday and the first cross surely it is worth considering whether Jesus' message of non-sectarian love to the whole world is better expressed by a cross or a light placed to one side than it is by a cross or light placed in the middle?

Another question - with which I will leave you today - What symbol, if any, best expresses the kind of liberal religious community we are today?

The Current British Unitarian symbol


Unknown said…
Great article! I agree with you, but you've said it better than I could.