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The lovely scene of flags flying above British churches

June 2019

Union flag above a church
Flags flying above British churches is such a traditional sight

A lovely stone church with a flag fluttering gently from the top of the tower is a very familiar sight for anyone living in our land. On some days, such as Easter Sunday or on the Queen’s birthday, it is obvious why flags are being flown from the towers of British churches; but on other days it can be hard to work out what special day or celebration the flag is marking.

This is because there are no set days that churches should fly a flag. There are no legal restrictions either on the flags that can be flown; technically any flag can be flown from a church on any date.

However, generally flag days mark traditional customs and celebrations on dates suggested by the diocese, the wishes of the incumbent of the church and also the opinions of the parochial church council, the PCC.

Dates to fly a flag from a church and what flags to fly are also influenced by other factors. Historically many different flags have been flown on church towers, but for Church of England churches, in the late 1930s a semblance of order was brought in when the Archbishops of Canterbury and York requested that churches should fly the Cross of St George’s flag, the red cross on a white background. The Churches in Scotland, Wales and Ireland have their specific flags too, and all Churches can also choose to fly the Union flag, although here great importance is put on flying this flag the correct way up, with the broader white of the St Andrew’s Cross nearest the top of the flagpole.

Some churches have a choice of flags for different days; others just have one flag they put up to mark all special dates and occasions.

Another interesting aspect is that in the UK there are no legal timings for raising or lowering the flag on top of a church tower. Traditionally it is raised first thing in the morning and lowered at night, but in each parish, with someone having to volunteer to climb all the step and then battle with the ropes and fabric in what can be a very windy setting, often timing of flying a flag comes down to when someone is willing to organise it. If a flag is to be flown for several days, there are no restrictions on flying a flag during night time and in some cases the flag can be illuminated, making a really lovely scene against the sky.

Flags are flown at half mast usually after the death of a major member of the Royal family, but again individual areas may decide on variations. When a funeral is being held in a specific church, a flag can be requested to be flown at half mast and sometimes a local flag, such as the local county flag, is chosen as a more appropriate design than the Union Flag or flag of the country.

Flying a flag at half mast needs a degree of accuracy; a flag flown too low looks odd and if it is too high, it simply looks as if the flag as dropped accidently from the top.

There is a growing tradition across the UK amongst some cathedrals and churches to fly a pennant when a proper flag is not being flown. This is based on an idea that empty flagpoles can look unsightly and forlorn. The concept comes from a Scandinavian tradition of flying pennants on empty flag poles, and the pennants are usually in a long and thin tapering shape, ensuring they flutter gently against the sky without putting too much drag on the pole. This is important as they can be left up for weeks at a time between the dates when proper flags are flown. Generally, pennants depict the flag of the country, i.e. St George’s Cross or the flag of Scotland.

Next time you see a flag being flown from a Church tower and wonder what it is marking, you can check the likely reason at an excellent website put together by the Flag Institute. This is a British charity that is also the world’s leading research and documentation centre for flags and flag information. It also maintains and manages the United Kingdom Flag Registry, details of every flag of all the different counties plus provides a list of dates when flags are likely to be flown across the country. The site is actually full of fascinating information, including the fact that the word for someone who studies flags is a vexillologist.

The Flag Registry also offers a free information service, so if you really can’t find out why a flag is being flown on a certain day, they can probably help.

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