The Vexillology of Christ Church Greenwich

The sanctuary of Christ Church Greenwich (CCG) is full of items of interest. Virtually nothing is there by accident. Understanding these objects gives us deeper insight into our sanctuary and our Episcopal traditions. We have previously discussed our glorious stained-glass windows and the enigmatic emblems of the reredos. Now we will turn to a new topic: the banners and flags of CCG. These adorn our sanctuary and are proudly carried aloft during congregational processions on Memorial Day and Palm Sunday.

Any line of study requires proper terminology, and of course much more erudite and abstruse if done in Latin! The study of banners and flags is called “vexillology.’ The name is a diminutive from the Latin velum, meaning the sail of a ship. Thus, flags and banners are “little sails” (singular vexillum, plural vexilla), not for the purpose of transportation but for communication.

There are four vexilla in CCG. Two are more properly called banners or standards: The crests of our church and our own representation for the Diocese of Kilimanjaro. They are suspended from a cross bar, the midpoint of which is fastened to a vertical staff. The banners are rectangular and designed to hang with the long dimension perpendicular to the ground. Banners do not depend on a breeze or movement to be fully displayed.

The earliest banners were used by Roman legions. Each was emblazoned with the regiment of the troops gathered beneath so that commanders could see their locations on the field of battle. In times of peace, vexilla were used in parades and celebrations. Some carried the symbols of Roman authority, including the iconic SPQR acronym (Senatus Populisque Romanus, The Senate and the People of Rome).

The other two vexilla are what we generally call flags. The sanctuary contains two: those of The Episcopal Church and of The United States, our omnipresent American flag. In contrast to banners, flags are fastened directly to a vertical staff. While also rectangular, the long dimension is parallel to the ground. Flags drape when the staff is upright and stationary, so that only part of the design is visible. For full display, the flag must be in movement— hoisted on the mast of ships, streamed by galloping cavalry or foot soldiers marching into battle. For stationary exhibition, flags may be suspended from ceilings or buildings horizontally or, as with the banners, vertically.

Banners and flags come in infinite designs, patterns, and colors. Some have a figure, animal, or other device as well. But whatever the composition, each component has a specific meaning and significance. Vexilla are both puzzles and history. Let’s see what each can teach us.

Banner of Christ Church Greenwich

Let’s start with the Christ Church Greenwich banner. It stands in the East Transept, hanging vertically from its crossbar. As illustrated on Lynn Garelick’s fabulous panels summarizing the history of our church, this crest is of quite recent design: The Vestry votes to adopt a Christ Church shield, design by Canon West, for the official shield of Christ Church [in 1939]. The new Christ church banner with the Blazon of Arms of the Parish is introduced at the Easter Sunday services.

The heraldic description of the Arms is as follows: “The banner speaks to us of our Lord as would be expected in a church that bears His Name. The Iota [I], for example, is the initial letter of the Name, Jesus, in Greek, as the Chi [X] is the first letter of the title, Christ. The six-pointed stars represent creation, the old creation Christ came to redeem and the “new creation” in Him. The vine is the symbol Christ used for Himself and His Church, as we read in John 15. The cross upon which the letter Chi is superimposed is the cross of St. Andrew, reminding us of our link with the church of ages through the Church of Scotland. St. Andrew is often regarded as the first Christian missionary, and therefore we follow the banner of our Lord out into the world to bring all nations to His feet in love and complete devotion.”

This summary deserves more discussion. The design is in the shape of a heraldic shield. In the center are IX [Iota Chi], the Greek initials of Our Savior, Iesus the Christ (no “J” in Greek). IX is a departure from the more traditional acronym XP [Chi Rho], the first two letters of the Greek “Christ.” One might interpret the use of the I to highlight that there was a man named Jesus who was at the same time the God-sent anointed one. God in the flesh requires two letters to define.

Now the two stars: Each is six pointed, formed from two equilateral triangles. Six pointed stars have a long history in iconography. These hexagrams were used as decorative motifs as early as the third century CE and have been found in synagogues, chapels, and mosques. Canon West gives his explanation above; indeed, this hexagram in Christian literature been called “The Star of Creation.” Muslims call it “The Seal of Solomon.” The “Star of David” was not officially adopted as a symbol of either Judaism or Israel until the end of the 19th century. Whatever its history and origin, these stars glorify God’s creation and recall our heritage with Judaism: God’s  covenants with Abraham and Moses continue with our New Covenant in Christ.

Banner of The Diocese of MT Kilimanjaro

This banner honors the relationship established in 1988 between Christ Church Greenwich and the Anglican Diocese of Kilimanjaro, Tanzania. In 2008, CCG helped establish The Endupoto Primary School in a remote area of the Maasai Steppe in that diocese. It began with 98 students in one grade. Today the enrollment has grown to over 700 students in kindergarten through 7th grade and now provides a full curriculum. Over the years, countless parishioners have visited the Diocese of Mount Kilimanjaro and Endupoto School, sharing their talents, time, and treasure.

The banner is constructed of panels of Tanzanian fabric. It was designed by long-time parishioner Harry Twitchell, using material he purchased while there on a church trip. The banner was fabricated by Cheryl Kyle with the assistance of Conzesa Muina, a local seamstress, in Tanzania. The colors reflect the Tanzanian flag, including blue for the Indian Ocean, black for its people, and gold for the country’s natural resources. No significance is known for the patterns except for the rightmost: This cloth is called “shuka,” known as the “African blanket” and is worn by the Maasai people of East Africa. The Maasai by tradition were semi-nomadic pastoralists, but their lifestyle was greatly affected by colonial annexation. The shuka patterns may have been influenced by Scottish missionaries, who no doubt arrived with tartan plaids. Today, the shuka is an international fashion item, even appearing in Louis Vuitton collections!

Flag of The United States of America

The American flag is usually displayed just to the left of the pulpit. According to U.S. flag etiquette, the national flag is always in the position of honor wherever it is displayed. The honor positon is on the right of the speaker in any auditorium or clergy in any church (the left when viewed from audience or congregation). Any other standard, such as our Episcopal flag described below, is thus placed to the officiant’s left side.

Our flag’s history is more complicated than we were taught as children. The first American flag, the Continental or Grand Union flag, was hoisted on January 1, 1776. You would recognize this thirteen alternating red and white stripes, retained today to commemorate the original thirteen colonies. But you might be surprised to see that it had no stars. Instead, on the blue canton on the upper left was, of all things, the original “Union Jack”! The explanation is that the colonists’ dispute was with the English Parliament and its repressive tax laws. But they were still, though not for long, loyal to the British crown.

Once hostilities broke out, the Union Jack had to go. Historians now believe the first Stars and Stripes was designed by Francis Hopkinson, a lawyer from New Jersey and a signatory to the Declaration of Independence. How he came up with the design is a mystery, and many theories have been put forth. The most credible is that the red and white colors came from the Union Jack, and the stars from the iconography of the Freemasons, of which many of the Founding Fathers were members. On June 14, 1777, the Continental Congress, apparently based on Hopkinson’s design, resolved “That the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white: that the union [canton] be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.” No further specifications were given. As a result, these early handcrafted flags showed many variations, particularly with the stars —with their number of points and their arrangement whether in rows, circle, or crescent.

But what about Betsy Ross? Unfortunately, all we were taught is a myth. Yes, Betsy was an historical figure, a seamstress in Philadelphia. But she never met General Washington and neither designed nor sewed our flag. The story was made of whole cloth (pun intended) by her descendants. The evidence is all hearsay. As to who did sew the first flag, that person is lost to history, but not Betsy.

As the United States grew, so did the flag, at least for a time. In 1795, with the addition of two states, the flag gained stars and stripes, now fifteen of each. This was the flag immortalized as the Star Spangled Banner by Frances Scott Key during the War of 1812. But as the number of states increased, additions became unworkable. In 1818 Congress came to a compromise: stars would be added for future states, but stripes would return to the original thirteen (Can you name them? *).

All very interesting, but what is the American flag doing in our sanctuary in the first place? What about separation of Church and State? The First Amendment prevents the State from dictating our faith, but it does not restrict the church from civic engagement. Nor should it be. We are a patriotic congregation. While our politics may differ, we support the principles on which the United States was founded. We pray for our national and local governmental officers. We honor our war dead with monuments, plaques, and stained glass. And most importantly, we pray for our parishioners serving today in places of peril.

Flag of The Episcopal Church

The flag of the Episcopal Church (and also the shield) of the Episcopal Church was adopted at the General Convention in 1940. On a white field is emblazoned a red cross. The white symbolizes the purity of Jesus and the red the blood of Christian martyrs. The cross is also known as The Cross of St. George. St. George was a member of the Praetorian Guard for Emperor Diocletian. He was martyred in 303 CE for refusal to deny his Christian faith. His cross was displayed on the tunics of the Crusaders in the 11th and 12th centuries, when European armies unsuccessfully battled for control of the Holy Land. In 1348, England’s Edward III chose St. George as the patron saint of the Order of the Garter, and his cross became the Royal Standard and symbol of England ever since. It is on the Episcopal flag to remind us of our Anglican heritage.

In the canton (upper left quadrant) is a blue field with nine small white crosses. The blue field symbolizes the Virgin Mary. Imitating the stars of our national flag, the crosses represent the original nine dioceses** which adopted the Episcopal Constitution in Philadelphia in 1789. These star-crosses have equal arms, the Greek style, as opposed to the more common Roman (Latin) cross, where the horizontal is shorter than vertical and crosses the latter on its top third. In heraldry, these are “cross buttony,’ with three buttons (a trefoil) on each arm’s end.

Most important is the array of theses crosses. They form a larger cross but one with diagonal arms, not the Roman cross of St. George on the flag’s field. The diagonal cross is called a saltire and is the cross on which the apostle St. Andrew was martyred (A similar cross appears on our reredos behind the altar). Andrew refused the Roman cross for his execution because he believed himself unworthy to die in the same manner as Jesus. St. Andrew is the patron saint of Scotland, and his cross appears on the Scottish flag (white saltire on blue field). The incorporation of this design on our flag recalls our debt to the Scottish Episcopal Church. It was the Scots who in 1784 consecrated our country’s first Bishop, Samuel Seabury of Connecticut (The Church of England declined to do so, still smarting over the loss of its colonies).

Unfortunately, since the flag stands vertically in our sanctuary, the design is obscured by the fabric’s folds. Here it is held out for you to see. Or, look for the flag on “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You” sign outside, just to the left of the sanctuary’ red doors. It’s all the church history you need to know.

Combining the standards of both St. George and St. Andrew also has a secular significance for all Americans. When England and Scotland were united in 1603 to form Great Britain, a new flag was required. On a single field, England’s St. George red cross/white field was superimposed Scotland’s St. Andrew white saltire/blue field. The result: The flag of Great Britain, aka the original “Union Jack.” And that’s how the Union Jack became part of our nation’s first flag.

by Dickerman Hollister, Jr.

The Vexillology of Christ Church Greenwich footnotes and references:

March 2020


* Original colonies: Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Delaware, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia

** Original dioceses: Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, South Carolina, Virginia, and Delaware


The American Legion, website, flag etiquette
The Episcopal Handbook, Morehouse Publishing, 2008
Flag, An American Biography, Marc Leepson, St. Martin’s Press, 2005 Huang, Nellie, blog posted 9/6/16
Wikipedia, various sites

The author wishes to thank The Rev. Marek Zabriskie for reviewing this manuscript, Karen Royce for details of Kilimanjaro, and Joanne Bouknight for photography and layout.