Sunday sermon – 8 December 2019

Signs and Symbols, signifying What?

It is now some years since I saw a chemist shop with the three great vials of coloured liquid in the window. Were they green, red and blue? Possibly they are still to be found, but if they are around I haven’t noticed them. There was a time in my youth when this familiar sign was displayed in every pharmacy window, and when every barber’s shop displayed the red and white striped pole outside. Come to think of it, where are the barbers’ shops? Now replaced by the uni-sex hair stylist. But that is another story.

Long before my time, keepers of taverns hung a bush outside their inns, denoting to the passer-by that alcoholic drink could be found within. Hence the old saying, good wine needs no bush, for the tavern which sold such produce advertised itself through satisfied customers. Yes, shop-keepers and traders, for the major part, no longer use the old traditional signs to advertise their wares. Even the once universal sign of the pawn-broker with the three brass balls is now rarely hung in the high street or the back alley.

The signs date, of course, to the days when few could read, so an easily identified symbol was used to inform the customer of the nature of the business to be found within.

Not that the use of signs has ceased. Indeed they have proliferated in the form of logograms, usually shortened to the word logo. Much time, thought and money is expended upon designing and choosing an appropriate sign, logo or trade-mark by which a company may be recognised. No letterhead, visiting card or advertising poster is complete without the firm’s logo impressed upon it.

New ones are being constantly designed. A year or two ago the crossed fingers of the National Lottery was devised and began to to appear outside shops and super-markets.

A decade ago, British Telecom decided to drop their then current logo, which had a capital “T” made of dashes and dots, in favour of a figure of the pagan god Pan. Millions of pounds were spent on the exercise. Some-one must have considered it worth the cost. But British Telecom are only one of hundreds of commercial, manufacturing, charitable and voluntary institutions adopting new, or adapting old, logos.

The eye-catching sign, be it a Black Horse or Captain Birds-Eye, the umbrella of the Legal and General, the initials or short word – BA, ICI, Oxfam, C of E or RC, is deemed of great importance in the public relations world, or as it prefers to be known, the PR industry.

Logos, or names, are considered as to whether or not they, to use the advertising executives’ jargon, “create the right image”. Do they sound caring, or soft, or honest, or business-like. This one will be rejected as being old-fashioned, another is ambiguous, this one, it is alleged, gives the wrong message. An organisation with which I was connected for many years changed from a hand holding a torch to a stylised hand held out in greeting because, it was said, this was a more caring representation of what we stood for.

We may doubt whether all this effort and expense is worth-while, but so much time, effort, and most of all, money, is expended, perhaps, there must be something in it.

Image is the great “in” word of today. Maybe people do decide, for instance, which political party to vote for according to the logo in current use. Perhaps folk are more likely to vote Labour because it symbolised by a red rose, or support the Conservative candidate whose election literature is headed with flaming torch. No doubt folk did put their savings in that well advertised building society because they like the bee that buzzed about the television screen advertisement.

But common sense, and practical experience tells us that no matter how carefully chosen the logo, no matter how well presented the image, no commercial firm will succeed, no charity will continue to attract support, no bank will fill its branches with customers, unless it effectively fulfils that which it promises. The sign, the logo, shows what the institution is. What the institution does, and how it behaves in doing it, has to be measured and tested by other means.

For instance, are its customers welcomed, and do they leave satisfied? Does the organisation achieve that which it has set itself to do? Is the institution more concerned with its own internal organisation than it is with satisfying the needs of the clientele it serves? Do customers think once bitten, twice shy, or do they come back again and again?

Any organisation which fails to answer satisfactorily these questions, no matter how well-chosen its logo, and whatever the slogans it uses, is doomed to eventual bankruptcy and closure.

One of the oldest logos, one of the simplest to design, and one universally recognised, hasn’t been re-vamped or replaced in nigh on two thousand years. Nor should it be. It consists of but two straight lines, one a little longer than the other and which intersect. We call it a cross. Copies of it abound, some hundreds of years old, some very recent.

It is a marketing man or woman’s dream, for it is recognised all over the world, regardless of language, culture or geographical location. Words are unnecessary, for outside a building it proclaims a place of Christian worship; on a piece of ground it marks a Christian grave; on a book cover it reveals that the contents contain a Christian message; hung round the neck it is a statement of belief.

It stands for a set of values universally recognised, even if not universally accepted. But just as with a commercial company, a charitable organisation, a corporation or a shop, the sign or logo by itself is an empty thing.

If a church shall call itself a Christian place of worship it will surely be judged by those who ask the questions I referred to a moment ago. Let me repeat them.

Are its customers welcomed, and do they leave satisfied? Does the organisation achieve that which it has set itself to do? Is the institution more concerned with its own internal organisation than it is with satisfying the needs of the clientele it serves? Do customers think once bitten, twice shy, or do they come back again and again?

If a man or woman shall proclaim himself or herself a Christian, marked actually or figuratively with a cross, the true test of membership is not the sign but the life the person lives. “..if I am without love” says Paul, “I am a sounding gong or a clanging cymbal”. Or James “… what is the use for a man to say he has faith when he does nothing to show it?”

The temple Solomon built, following the preparations by his father David, was an outward sign of the inner religious convictions of the people of Israel. It was not an end in itself. It was a place where the experiences of the past might be handed on to the generations which followed. Its glory was not solely in the splendour of its construction, but in the devotion of its worshippers.

In spite of my rather sceptical words, signs and logos are important and do have a value. They are a visible demonstration in a sort of shorthand of something for which we stand. They show, as we display them, that we have joined and been accepted into a corporate body larger than ourselves. If I go around displaying a swastika, that says something about me. Wear a football scarf and my allegiance is known to all.

Equally if my emblem is a simple cross, that ought to say something about me. If I am a Unitarian and my logo is the flaming chalice, again that should be not merely a piece of ornamentation, but a proclamation.

And just as say, the British Telecom engineer whose work is shoddy, or the operator whose manner is offensive, will damage the organisation whatever its logo be. So the proclaimed Christian, will be judged by individual action rather than by professed belief, be he or she Unitarian or from some other denomination.

Unitarians have not universally adorned themselves, or their places of worship with a cross. For some, that symbol may be associated with more orthodox creeds, a greater rigidity in belief than is acceptable to an individual Unitarian. So they have adopted a torch, a chalice, as a symbol of light, of seeking after truth.

But we have been diffident about what is known in the commercial world as marketing. Our symbol is too little known, what is offered is too little displayed. We should set ourselves the task of proclaiming what we stand for; we should prepare ourselves by demonstrating by the lives we lead that our symbol, whether it is a cross, a torch, a chalice, or whatever it be, stands for something precious and desirable; that it affects the lives we lead, and the service we give to others.

There is an old saying about shining like a good deed in a naughty world. Our individual logo may be an illuminated sign, a neon display that all may see if we choose. It is James’ “faith with works”, Paul’s charity, Jesus’ love of neighbour which both design our logos, formulate our slogans.

Let us wear our signs, be they actual or implied, proudly and prominently. Let them be signs of quality, trade-marks on which others may rely, knowing that the service which is offered and the care bestowed is steadfast and sure. And as good wine needs no bush, so the true Christian need display no cross.

Christian, rise and act thy creed,
Let thy prayer be in thy deed;
Seek the right, perform the true,
Raise thy work and life anew.

So we sing the words of our well-known hymn. Let it be our signature tune to complement our logos. And may they be symbols of excellence, and recognised as such.

C.J. Rosling 14 April 1991

Fulwood 14 April 1991; 23 June 1995
Mexborough 9 June 1991; 9 July 1995
Hucklow 8 December 1996; 24 June 2001

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