The Flaming Chalice
The flaming chalice is a symbol of Unitarianism around the world, but what does it mean?
A chalice is a cup or goblet with a stem, often used in religious rituals and ceremonies, including Christian communion. Many Unitarians begin their worship services by lighting a candle in a chalice.
The flame is a symbol with powerful resonance in many religions and cultures, it can represent many things, including love, truth, purity, hope and memory of those who came before us.
Our current flaming chalice logo was adopted in 2021, the latest incarnation of a symbol first introduced in the 1960s but with roots going back centuries. Unitarian congregations are free to use our logo in their congregational work, but they are not required to do so. As a result, you are likely to see many different, beautiful chalice designs, logos and symbols across our congregations.
The flaming chalice symbol used by many Unitarians today originates from a design by Austrian-Jewish refugee Hans Deutsch during the Second World War for the Unitarian Service Committee (USC) established in May 1940 by American Unitarians to help refugees fleeing Nazi persecution. Head of the USC, Charles Joy wrote in 1941:
“It represents, as you see, a chalice with a flame, the kind of chalice which the Greeks and Romans put on their altars. The holy oil burning in it is a symbol of helpfulness and sacrifice. In ancient and medieval art this chalice is frequently found, and the design itself, modernized and stylized, though it is, reminds one of the signs seen on the old monastic manuscripts. This was in the mind of the artist. The fact, however, that it remotely suggests a cross was not in his mind, but to me this also has its merit. We do not limit our work to Christians. Indeed, at the present moment, our work is nine-tenths for the Jews, yet we do stem from the Christian tradition, and the cross does symbolize Christianity and its central theme of sacrificial love.”
The flaming chalice symbol came to be adopted by American Unitarians and then elsewhere, including Britain, in the late 1950s and 60s. In addition, from the 1980s many congregations began to light a candle in a chalice (which came in all shapes, forms and materials) to mark the beginning of their services – a practice which is now widespread. One year, Rev. Tom Dalton introduced a large metal chalice, with a flame powered by a Calor gas cylinder, to the Unitarian Annual Meetings! Later still, specific chalice lighting words began to be created in a further evolution from 2-D symbol to 3-D interactive ritual.
Of course, both the chalice and flame were used as religious symbols long before the Second World War. The chalice had been used as a symbol of religious faith and freedom by the followers of Jan Hus, who controversially offered communion – including wine from a chalice – to not only clergy by lay people, and was burnt at the stake in 1415 as a heretic.
Similarly, the flame was a powerful symbol for many Unitarians before the twentieth century. For example, when the Unitarian congregation of Llwynrhydowen in Cardiganshire were evicted from their chapel in 1868 in an attempt to repress their religious and political convictions, Rev. Gwilym Marles proclaimed to a crowds of thousands: “They can take our chapel from us and they can even take our candlesticks – but the flame and the light are God’s, and that will live!”
Like all symbols, the flaming chalice logo regularly changes and evolves, with new designs being created by individuals, groups and congregations all the time. In Britain, our logo has evolved from the 1960s to the present day, as you can see above. You can access our Design Programme (2021) here, which includes downloadable chalice logos for print, web, social media and more.
find out more
“The Flaming Chalice” by Susan J. Ritchie (UUA Pamphlet)
“Wartime origins of the flaming chalice” by Dan Hotchkiss (UU World Magazine)
“Flaming Chalice: Symbol of Unitarian Universalism” (UUA Website)
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