A long time ago on a continent far, far away, Christians had several councils to discern whether religious icons and sacred images could be used to aid worship and prayer. Iconoclasts wanted no images or icons, and Iconophiles (those who affirmed icon worship) wanted to retain them.
After a lot of debate and prayer over centuries, it was finally determined that if a person is looking to God through an icon, then that was a sacred and holy use of the icon. If the worshipper began to worship the thing itself, then that was an unholy and dangerous usage.
Icon Worship – Are Icons OK to Use in Prayer and Worship?
Of course, the church being made up of human beings, abuses happened. In many places statues were seen as having special powers, and golden images were bowed down to, while in some places uneducated people were being sold images to fill the pockets of greedy clergy or monastics.
Babies Being Thrown Out
So it is understandable that the Protestants then came along and threw the baby Jesus icon out with the bathwater. Literally.
Yes, they overreacted as you probably suspected, and they started a new Iconoclasm.
That’s why you still see whitewashed, bare churches here in the United States in many places. Oddly, those same churches usually dust off statues of the virgin Mary, Joseph and the Baby Jesus every year for Christmas (actually they bring it out during Advent, but call it Christmas!). Despite that seeming contradiction, many of these groups still believe that a Christian should only see images as aids to learning, but not as aids to worship.
For them, worship is only spiritual and has no external means of grace or aids. Any image can quickly become an idol, so why not be safe and dispense with them?
Anglicans and Icon Worship
Anglicans, for the most part, have ended up retaining images and icons to some degree. Sometimes this is for personal use and sometimes in congregational worship.
In worship icons and visual depictions are mostly stationary and are not usually bowed to or kissed, etc. If a person does bow before a depiction, they are to be bowing in prayer to God, not to the depiction itself. However, objects such as the cross are carried (in procession) or venerated (on Good Friday or Holy Cross Day). This practice is based on Paul’s statement to the Galatians Christians that “it was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified.”
This is good because human beings need symbols, images and icons. We live in a world of texture, color, visual stimulation and dimensional reality. We love beauty and we are calmed and emotionally salved by it. As James K.A. Smith has pointed out, if we remove Christian symbolism and iconography, it will merely be replaced with secular or alternative religious iconography.
And this need isn’t just made up by sociologists today. It is in the Bible. We were made with eyes in a world of color, image and light. That’s why God had Moses craft a bronze serpent as an icon of healing (reverse healing psychology?) and why he carefully prescribed the way the tabernacle and temple should look. Of course, he warned them of abuses. But he never told them to abandon symbol as aid to worship.