On the flying of flags

18 September 2018

Martin Davie, theological consultant to the Church of England Evangelical Council, looks into the issue of Church of England churches flying the rainbow flag. This article was originally posted on his blog, Reflections of an Anglican Theologian.

The purpose of this post is to consider the issue of the flying of the LGBTI+ rainbow flag by Church of England churches, an issue which has been raised recently by the flying of this flag by Ely Cathedral in order to mark Ely Pride. I shall argue that current regulations do not permit Church of England churches to fly this flag, and that it would be wrong for the regulations to be changed to permit them to do so.

Current regulations on the flying of flags

It is sometimes thought that the flying of flags is entirely a matter of individual choice and that anyone is entitled to fly whatever flag they want, wherever they want and whenever they want. However, this is not the case.

The flying of flags in the United Kingdom is governed by government regulations which were last revised in 2012 and which are helpfully summarised in the Plain English Guide to flying flags published by the Department for Communities and Local Government.[1]

These regulations lay down a series of ‘standard conditions’ for the flying of flags. They stipulate that all flags must:

  • “be maintained in a condition that does not impair the overall visual appearance of the site;
  • be kept in a safe condition;
  • have the permission of the owner of the site on which they are displayed (this includes the Highway Authority if the sign is to be placed on highway land);
  • not obscure, or hinder the interpretation of official road, rail, waterway or aircraft signs, or otherwise make hazardous the use of these types of transport, and
  • be removed carefully where so required by the planning authority.” [2]

The regulations also state that the following flags may be flown without requiring specific consent:

(a) Any country’s national flag, civil ensign or civil air ensign;

(b) The flag of the Commonwealth, the European Union, the United Nations or any other international organisation of which the United Kingdom is a member;

(c) A flag of any island, county, district, borough, burgh, parish, city, town or village within the United Kingdom;

(d) The flag of the Black Country, East Anglia, Wessex, any Part of Lincolnshire, any Riding of Yorkshire, or any historic county within the United Kingdom;

(e) The flag of Saint David;

(f) The flag of Saint Patrick;

(g) The flag of any administrative area within any country outside the United Kingdom;

(h) Any flag of Her Majesty’s forces;

(i) The Armed Forces Day flag. [3]

In addition, a number of other types of flag may also be flown without consent, “subject to certain restrictions regarding the size of the flag, the size of characters on the flag, and the number and location of the flags.” These include:

  • “House flag – flag is allowed to display the name, emblem, device or trademark of the company (or person) occupying the building, or can refer to a specific event of limited duration that is taking place in the building from which the flag is flown;
  • Any sports club (but cannot include sponsorship logos);
  • The horizontal striped rainbow flag, such as the “Pride” Flag;
  • Specified award schemes – Eco-Schools, Queens Awards for Enterprise and Investors in People.” [4]

On the basis of these general regulations it might appear that a Church of England church would be within its rights to fly the rainbow flag, just like any other individual or organisation in the United Kingdom.

However, the Church of England has its own regulations for the flying of flags which are more restrictive than the general government regulations just noted.

These regulations can be found on the Church of England’s ‘Church Care’ website. Following directions given by the Earl Marshal in 1938, they lay down that the flag which should normally be flown by a church of the Church of England is ‘The Cross of St George and in the first quarter the escutcheon of the Arms of the See in which the church is ecclesiastically situated.”[5] In other words, the flag to be flown is the St George’s flag with the appropriate diocesan arms in the top corner nearest to the flag staff. In addition, “Churches may also, if they so wish, fly the Union Flag on the same days when it is flown from Government and other buildings.”[6]

There are also regulations for the laying up in churches of military colours and Royal British Legion standards.[7] No provision is made for any other flag to be flown.

What all this means is that there is no provision for Church of England churches to fly the rainbow flag. Churches that do so are therefore acting against the Church of England’s regulations on the matter.

Should the Church of England permit the flying of the rainbow flag?

The fact that current Church regulations do not permit Church of England churches to fly the rainbow flag raises the question of whether these regulations should be changed. As we have seen, the government’s general regulations concerning the flying of flags allow the rainbow flag to be flown. Why shouldn’t the Church of England’s regulations follow suit?

In order to answer this question it is first of all necessary to consider what the flying of a flag signifies. One can come up with a vast range of idiosyncratic reasons why an individual or group might decide to fly a flag, for example, to win a wager, to please/annoy their neighbours, out of antiquarian interest, or simply because of an aesthetic liking for the flag’s design and colour scheme. However, in general terms we can say that a flag is a symbol of the identity of a nation or group, and that flying its flag is normally intended to express allegiance, respect, or support for the nation or group concerned.

We can see this if we consider the significance of two flags, the Flag of Zion, the national flag of the state of Israel, and the Red Flag, the flag of the international socialist movement.

The Israeli flag

The blue and white Israeli flag, adopted in October 1948, echoes in its design and colour the pattern of a Jewish prayer shawl, or tallit, and also has on it the ancient Jewish symbol of the six -pointed Star of David. By the use of these two elements the flag symbolises the identity of the state of Israel as a national homeland for the Jewish people in the country of their ancestors.

If an Israeli flies this flag, it symbolizes their allegiance to the state of Israel. If non-Israelis fly it, this act symbolises their support for Israel (as when the flag is flown at a pro-Israel rally), or their respect for the existence of Israel as an independent sovereign state (as when the flag is flown outside the United Nations or at international events such as the Olympic Games).

The Red Flag

The Red Flag has been a symbol of left-wing revolutionary activity since the French Revolution and since 1848 it has been the symbol of the international socialist movement. As such, it was for instance, the symbol of the British Labour Party from its foundation until 1986, signifying the Labour Party’s socialist identity.

Flying the Red Flag, as happened, for instance, at Sheffield Town Hall in the 1980s, has traditionally been a way of showing allegiance to the socialist movement and support for socialist policies. The significance of the Red Flag as a symbol of loyalty to the socialist cause is famously expressed in the well-known words of Jim Connell’s socialist anthem The Red Flag:

‘The People’s Flag is deepest red,
It shrouded oft our martyred dead,
And ere their limbs grew stiff and cold,
Their hearts’ blood dyed its every fold.

Then raise the scarlet standard high.
Beneath its shade we’ll live and die,
Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer,
We’ll keep the red flag flying here.”

The rainbow flag

The LGBTI+ rainbow flag, also known as the ‘pride flag,’ was originally devised by the gay San Francisco artist Gilbert Baker in 1978 at the request of the gay leader Harvey Milk and was first used at the Gay Freedom Day Parade in San Francisco on 25 June that year. Its significance is best understood by analogy with the Red Flag.

Like the Red Flag, the rainbow flag is the symbol of a revolutionary political movement and flying it has become a way of indicating allegiance to that movement and support for its policies. However, the revolution the two movements are seeking to achieve is different. Whereas the socialist movement has sought to liberate the working class from oppression by capitalists and the capitalist economic system, the LGBTI+ movement has sought to liberate sexual minorities from oppression by the majority population and its traditional view of sexual ethics and sexual identity. In specific terms this has meant the LGBTI + movement strives for three things: (a) the acceptance of same-sex sexual relationships (and latterly same-sex marriage), (b) the right of transgender people to define their own sexual identity regardless of their biology and (c) the recognition of intersex people as having a sexual identity distinct from male or female.

Flying the rainbow flag has become a symbol of support for this programme by LGBTI+ people and their straight allies. The fact that the rainbow flag is now frequently flown by the government, and by other institutions and businesses, demonstrates the extent to which the LGBTI+ programme has now become a central part of the prevailing social and political ideology in this country, with support for this programme being seen as an integral part of ‘British values.’ Just as in the Soviet Union loyalty to the country and commitment to socialism were viewed as inseparable, so also in Britain loyalty to what Britain stands for is now increasingly viewed as inseparable from commitment to the beliefs of the LGBTI+ movement.

In this context shouldn’t Church of England churches be permitted to fly the rainbow flag to demonstrate their commitment to Britain and its values in the same way that they currently do by flying the Union Flag? The answer to this question is ‘no’ and the reason that the answer is ‘no’ is because the LGBTI+ programme – just like the socialist ideology of the Soviet Union – is incompatible with the Christian faith for which the Church of England stands.

The LGBTI+ programme and Christian anthropology

The Christian faith involves a specific anthropology which is based on what God has revealed in the two books of nature and Scripture.

What the study of human nature reveals is that humanity is a dimorphic species consisting of two sexes, male and female, distinguished by their biology, and that these two sexes are designed to engage in sexual intercourse with members of the opposite sex and to produce offspring by this means.

A very small number of people (around 0.018% of live births) are genuinely intersex in the sense that they have bodies which combine male and female sexual characteristics. However, they do not constitute a ‘third sex’ alongside male and female since they do not have a separate set of sexual characteristics linked to a separate method of sexual reproduction. Their sexual characteristics are those of males and females, but these have become combined in a single individual due to a disorder in their sexual development. What we find in the bodies of people with intersex conditions is, in the words of Oliver O’Donovan, “an ambiguity which has arisen by a malfunction in a dimorphic human sexual pattern”.

What Scripture reveals in passages such as Genesis 1:26-28, 2:18-25, Mark 10:6-9, Ephesians 5:21-33, and Revelation 21:1-4, is that the existence of humanity as a sexually dimorphic species is not an accident but is the result of the creative activity of God. Human beings have been created by God in his image and likeness as those who are biologically male and female, and he has established marriage between one man and one woman as the context for sexual intercourse, which establishes a one flesh union between the man and woman involved and makes possible the procreation of children in accordance with God’s command to ‘be fruitful and multiply.’ The marital union between men and women is a symbol of the union between God and his people which will be consummated in the eternal communion with God which his people will enjoy in the life of the world to come.

The LGBTI+ programme goes against what is revealed in nature and Scripture because it refuses to accept that sexual activity should only take place between a man and a woman in marriage; disassociates sexual intercourse from procreation; holds that a person’s sex can be different from their biology; and holds that there is a third sex alongside male and female. Because this is the case, it would be wrong for Christians in the Church of England to accept the LGBTI+ programme and therefore also wrong for the Church of England to permit the flying of the rainbow flag which is the symbol of this programme.

Can Christians use the rainbow flag to convey their own message?

It might be argued, however that it could be right for Christians to fly the rainbow flag, not in order to signify acceptance of the LGBTI+ programme, but in order to bear witness to the Christian conviction that lesbian, gay, transgender and intersex people have been created by God in his image and likeness and are unconditionally loved by him, that they are therefore welcome to be part of the Church, and that they should not be subject to unwarranted exclusion, unjust discrimination, violence or persecution.

It is fundamentally important that Christians should bear witness to this conviction in a context in which Christianity is often portrayed as hostile to those who are lesbian, gay, transgender or intersex. However, flying the rainbow flag is not an effective way to bear witness to this conviction.

The reason this is the case is because what is conveyed by the flying of a flag in a particular context is not necessarily what is intended by the person flying it. For example, there are those in the United States who wish to fly the Confederate flag in order to mark the continuing importance of Southern history and culture, or to honour those who gave their lives for the Confederate cause. However, in the current American context, and particularly among black people, this is not what flying the Confederate flag conveys. What it conveys is support for white supremacy.

Anyone thinking about flying the Confederate flag needs to take this reality into account and in a similar way anyone in the Church of England considering flying the rainbow flag needs to take into account the reality of what flying it will convey. It will not convey the nuanced message of Christian conviction noted above. What it will convey is a message that those flying it are on board with the entire LGBTI+ programme. This is a not a message that Christians should give out and consequently they should not fly the rainbow flag.


What we have seen in this post is that current Church of England regulations do not permit the flying of the LGBTI+ rainbow flag and that because of what the flying of this flag signifies this should remain the case. Church of England churches should not fly the rainbow flag and it would be helpful if the bishops would write to the clergy reminding them of this fact and the reasons for it.

Addendum: Should the rainbow flag be placed on the Lord’s table?

Since this post was first published, the further issue has been raised of whether it is right to place the rainbow flag on the Lord’s table in Church of England churches during ‘inclusive’ services, such as the service held at Reading Minster on 30 August to mark Reading Pride, or the ‘Rainbow Church Eucharist’ which is due to take place at Wells Cathedral on 22 September.

This specific issue is not covered by the regulations concerning the flying of flags from church buildings for the simple reason that a flag is not being flown. Furthermore, there do not appear to be any Church of England regulations concerning which flags (if any) may be placed on the Lord’s table.

The matter therefore has to be decided by asking what message is being sent out by placing any given flag on the Lord’s table. If the message is contrary to the Christian faith as the Church has received it, then that flag should not be placed there. For the reasons given above this is true of the rainbow flag and consequently it should not be placed on the Lord’s table in any Church of England church.

Furthermore, as Lee Gatiss notes in a helpful article on the Church Society website, the very concept of holding a ‘Rainbow Eucharist’ is problematic regardless of whether or not the rainbow flag is placed on the Lord’s table. In his words, such services: “are not just blasphemy; they politicise the sacrament in an entirely unhelpful and indeed sacrilegious way.”[9] They celebrate sin and they divide the unity of God’s people by holding a Eucharist which is only for the supporters of a particular political cause.

M. B. Davie 25.8.18

[1] Plain English guide to flying flags, London: Department for Communities and Local Government, 2012.

[2] Ibid, p.1

[3] Ibid, p. 2.

[4] Ibid, p.2.

[5] Church Care, Flags, http://www.churchcare.co.uk/churches/guidance-advice/looking-after-your-church/flags.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Oliver O’Donovan, Transsexualism: Issues and Argument, Cambridge: Grove Books, 2007, p.8.

[9] Lee Gatiss, Eucharistic Signalling at http://churchsociety.org/blog/entry/eucharistic_signalling/

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