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What Do Baptists Mean When They Dedicate "Things"?

By Paul Beasley-Murray.

“500 words - by the end of the week - on what we, as Baptists mean, when we dedicate things!” What a daunting request, especially for a pastor whose books have been in store for the last eighteen months because his church has been engaged in a major re-building exercise. But what a relevant request too. Because in a matter of weeks we shall be asking God’s blessing on our new premises, with all its new furnishings. What will we in fact be doing on the day of our Grand Opening?

As Patterns and Prayers for Christian Worship (the Baptist Union liturgical resource) recognises, the difficulty we face is that “Baptists have not generally placed much emphasis upon sacred objects, places and ceremonies. Their free tradition pays more attention to the inward, spiritual consciousness of the worshippers”. So, for instance, our earliest Baptist places of worship were the plainest of “meeting houses”, devoid of any sacred symbols. Strange as it now may seem, less than fifty years ago the presence of even a wooden cross in many a Baptist church could be a matter of controversy, while only in the last twenty years or so has the presence of Advent candles on the communion table become acceptable.

And yet, in Orders and Prayers for Church Worship compiled by Ernest Payne and Stephen Winward and published first in 1960, seven pages were given over to ‘The dedication of church furnishings and memorials’. Similarly Patterns and Prayers for Christian Worship devotes three pages to such dedications and contains suggestions for the dedication of a communion table, lectern, a pulpit and a baptistery - but, unlike Orders & Prayers for Christian Worship, there are not suggestions for the dedication of an organ, window or a memorial!

As to the purpose of the dedication of furnishings, Patterns and Prayers offers three suggestions:

(1) It may be seen as the setting aside of objects for special use. The thing dedicated will be a thing apart, e.g. the Table is not any table to be used for modelling and painting during the week;

(2) Its purpose may be that of praying for the ministry that will be associated with it;

(3) It may be a recognition that the God who fills all creation and may manifest himself in any part of it, chooses particular places where he discloses himself in special ways.

My initial reaction was to say ‘Amen’ to each suggestion. However, I then realised that in our context at least, the first of the suggestions is not actually applicable. For example, we have already agreed that our new 450-seater worship area will be ‘multi-purpose’, and that in principle we will have no objection to it being used for a secular concert or seminar. For that reason we have decided to speak of this particular space as ‘the meeting place’, as distinct from ‘the sanctuary’. True, our hope is that this will be a place where we will meet with the Living God on a Sunday, but it may well be a very different kind of meeting point at other times in the week. So, although our new communion table will normally be used to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, there may be occasions when aspiring party political candidates might sit around it when being interviewed at a meeting sponsored by the churches of the town. After all, it is just a table, and not an altar. Similarly, our new lectern will primarily be used for the reading and proclamation of the Word of God, but there may well be times when it is used by a speaker at a church growth conference. Likewise our new organ will be used primarily for the worship of God, but we hope there will be times when it is used to accompany a local choir.

On reflection, I also feel a little uncomfortable about the last suggestion, not least in the light of our experience over the past eighteen months, when as a church we have been worshipping in a local school. Our experience has been that God has been as truly amongst us in a school hall as he was with us in a church-building. True, some of our older people found the transition to a secular hall difficult, but was that because of memory or because of a lack of an organ, as distinct from one space being more sacred than another? The question arises: to what extent is the temple theology of the Old Testament, present for instance in such passages as 1 Kings 7 and 2 Chronicles 7, applicable to the people of the new covenant, who now gather together in the name of Jesus (see Matt 18.20)?

Maybe, therefore, dedication is primarily praying for the ministry that will be associated with the new building or furnishings?

With interest I await re-action to this hastily thrown-together 800-word article!

The Revd Dr Paul Beasley-Murray is the Senior Minister of Central Baptist Church, Chelmsford and chairman of the Ministry Today Board of Management

Paul Beasley-Murray

Senior Minister of Central Baptist Church, Chelmsford<br>and Chair of Ministry Today

Ministry Today

You are reading What Do Baptists Mean When They Dedicate "Things"? by Paul Beasley-Murray, part of Issue 22 of Ministry Today, published in June 2001.

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