Monday, August 3, 2009

A Baptist commemoration of the saints

In a chapter on worship in my book Towards Baptist Catholicity, I commended a Baptist practice of commemorating the lives of exemplary Christians as a means of ensuring that worship is a truly participatory rehearsal of the biblical story of the Triune God, one in which the divine narrative is intertwined with the stories of the members of the communion of saints, including those within and those beyond the local worshipping church:

"Though lacking the formal canonization process that is prerequisite for inclusion in the modern Roman Catholic sanctoral, the Book of Common Prayer, the Lutheran Book of Worship, and some other Protestant books of worship have included calendars with commemoration days for saints ancient and modern, including more recent figures such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, Jr. If Baptist historians were to propose additional exemplary Christians from the Baptist tradition to add to such calendars in producing a sanctoral that is both distinctively Baptist and broadly ecumenical, Baptist congregations might be able to include in their own weekly worship a few moments for telling the stories of men and women who have provided worthy examples of lives lived in the service of God and humanity....The late Baptist theologian James Wm. McClendon, Jr. offered seminal suggestions for incorporating the lives of the saints into Baptist worship in an appendix to his groundbreaking study in narrative theology Biography as Theology. In this treatment of “Christian Worship and the Saints,” McClendon developed a theology of the relation of the departed among the communio sanctorum to the worship of the earthly church that is both consistent with the “baptist” vision and yet broadly catholic. On the basis of these guiding theological principles, McClendon advocated a “baptist” retrieval of the veneration (in the sense of honoring, not worshipping) of the saints in the worship and educational programs of congregations. McClendon’s suggestions are the starting point for future Baptist attempts to recover the patristic practice of the commemoration of the saints for contemporary Baptist worship." (Towards Baptist Catholicity, pp. 170-71).

On July 30, the Baptist World Alliance held a worship service commemorating the formation of the first Baptist church in 1609 in Amsterdam. The service, held at the United Mennonite Church of Amsterdam with which the earliest Baptist community there had close associations and which stands near the site of the Baptists' first meeting place, included an extended litany that did precisely the sort of thing that I (and Jim McClendon, too, I think) envisioned. The order of service is downloadable here; the photo from the service at the beginning of this post is courtesy of Tony Cartledge, whose blog offers a first-hand account of the service.

The litany, which is printed on pp. 4-5 of the order of service, commemorates these representative saints for their contributions to four centuries of Baptist life: Menno Simons, John Smyth, Thomas Helwys, Roger Williams, John Clarke, John Myles, Frank Spence, George Liele, William Hamilton, Hannah Marshman, William Carey, Samuel Pearce, Joseph Merrick, John Aseltine, Manuel and Justina Pedras, Mark Hayford, Thomas Bowen, Antonio Teieira de Albuquerque, Diego Thompson, Guillermo Bagby, Guillermo McDonald, Samuel Sharpe, Thomas Burchell, William Knibb, John and Sally Leland, Elizabeth Gaunt, Martin Luther King, Jr., John Saunders, Pablo Besson, and Eurico Nelson. In addition, the litanity includes those saints sine nomine whose contributions to the living tradition of Baptist faith and practice are indispensable: "the women and men who have served as lay preachers and pastors, elders, deacons and deaconesses, Sunday School teachers and caretakers, and youth and community group leaders"; "teachers and students in our colleges and seminaries who seek to serve the church of the future"; and "members of our churches and congregations who live out the story in hope and in fear, in safety and in danger."

The Baptist World Alliance has encouraged local Baptist churches to use this litany in their own commemorations of this quadricentennial of Baptist life. I hope Baptist readers of this blog who have a role in planning worship in their own congregations will not only utilize this resource, but take it as a starting place for envisioning other ways in which the stories of exemplary Christians might enrich our participatory rehearsal of the biblical story of the Triune God.

Related posts:

More on Baptist commemoration of the saints

Towards a Baptist commemoration of the saints

The Feast of Saint Mary the Virgin

A Baptist commemoration of the saints

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