I was reading a book this week where the author mentioned a fact I knew, but figured it was a fairly obscure bit of knowledge unless you’re in the Navy.
The book I was reading was Tom Clancy’s “Red Rabbit,” a book about espionage, filled with danger and suspense, which is his forte. In Clancy’s inimitable way, he guides the reader into bits of knowledge and history that add to the flavor of the story.
Within his story, Clancy mentions that the American flag never has another flag fly above it – with one exception. The exception is when a Navy ship is at sea. Then, and only then, is any flag allowed to fly above the American flag.
What flag holds this unique distinction, you ask? Well, it’s the church pennant which is flown when religious services are being conducted by a Navy chaplain. The pennant is a long triangular shape with St George's Cross in blue on a white background at the wider end where the cross appears to lie sideways when the pennant is flying. The ship’s boson will blow his boson’s pipe over the 1MC (the loudspeaker system used on all Navy vessels) immediately followed by an announcement to this effect: “All hands standby for religious services. Maintain silence about the decks!” Should there happen to be a chaplain who is a rabbi on board to hold Jewish services, the same procedure would be conducted. The exception would be that the pennant will have the Ten Commandment tablets embroidered on the pennant. So then, the church pennant and the Jewish worship pennant are the only two flags that ever fly above the national ensign.
The Flag Code expressly allows an exception for the church pennant to fly above the Stars and Stripes during religious services conducted by a Navy chaplain at sea. The Jewish worship pennant was approved by the Secretary of the Navy in December 1979.
The practice of hoisting the church pennant aboard ship stems from the English and Dutch navies. This apparently originated in the 1700s, signaling a time of truce in order to conduct worship services. It’s bad form to be trying to kill each other during religious observances, don’t you know.
The U.S. Army even holds services on board their large seagoing vessels, although this is more out of tradition than based on any law. And, yes, the Army has ships – lots of them. It is said they have more than the Navy. I can’t verify that, but I’ve heard it for many years.
The use of the church pennant at sea has been challenged over the years by those who support “separation of church and state.” Another group has made the challenge that to display the American flag in a subservient position to any other flag is a sign of disrespect and dishonors our flag. Even before the Flag Code, there were (unsuccessful) attempts in Congress to prohibit the Navy by law from flying the church pennant above the national ensign.
Regardless of what your position is on the church pennant being displayed above the Stars and Stripes, there are certain things we can be sure of. First, it is never intended to show disrespect to our own American flag. Second, its historical practice has been to generate a moment of peace between nations who would otherwise be taking aim at their enemy’s flag. And third, it should be comforting to know that there are times when even the most powerful Navy in the world acknowledges that there is a God and he is worthy of our respect.
Will there come a day when those opposed to this tradition take aim at the U.S. law that currently authorizes this practice and successfully defeat it before the Supreme Court? Possibly.
But I’m thankful that there are chaplains of all faiths in the military who call us, like the prophets and preachers of a bygone era, to remember that the affairs of man are in the hands of Almighty God.