Category: Baptists

Mixed feelings on Saint Mary MacKillop

I’m not sure what to think about the canonisation of Mary MacKillop.

Despite the appropriation of various Catholic impulses by post-evangelicals – that herd of discontents which I might loosely be included among – I haven’t heard much taking up of devotion to the saints. I sympathise with the letters to the paper which dismiss the whole thing as rather medieval.

But then reading Henri Nouwen’s Genesee Diary, I at least realised that I had lightly dismissed something that meant a lot to spiritually mature people who I respect. Each saint’s day gave Nouwen an opportunity to reflect on the significance of that particular saint, their virtues and life story, and how he might draw lessons from it. Nothing wrong with that. I am acutely aware of the historical impoverishment of my Baptist upbringing, where there was no-one to admire, save those in the Bible (and perhaps the odd missionary). There was no-one to aspire after, no holy examples of a life well-lived. Because, it was insistently pointed out, we are all saints, those of us who are saved.

But this is true for me now too as an Anabaptist, much more so than in the contemporary Baptist tradition. Anabaptism expects us to be holy and set apart from the world, a peculiar people. If this caveat had been added to the idea of us being saints, maybe it all would have made more sense to me.

It is nice to think there might be saints interceding for us in heaven. The scriptural warrant for praying to them to do this seems slim to me. But praying to a saint – especially one with a picture – must be so much tangible than all this abstract Protestantism we are used to. ‘Pray to God, this being that you cannot picture, cannot see, and most of the time cannot hear.’

Baptist liturgy

Visiting a Baptist church today, I was struck by how ‘liturgical’ it is, in the sense of following a quite rigid structure. This wasn’t altogether obvious to me growing up in Baptist churches; we were open to where God was taking us, unlike those Anglicans stuck in their prayerbooks. Our services were spontaneous and not bound by tradition.

But the Baptist service leader must make some gentle, cliched jokey comments to start out with, usually referring to sport, current events, or presently, the Christmas season. Then we have some songs. And strangely enough given how serious Baptist beliefs really are, the mood is never allowed to get too serious. The service leader then gets to give a couple of Daily Bread type thoughts for the day, a little like an anecdote from Reader’s Digest.  Everyone sits and listens. (But what’s everyone thinking, that’s what I want to know?) One of the anecdotes today compared the job of a life insurance salesman with our job as eternal life insurance salespeople. Always look for a chink in a conversation to get the eternal message in. Oh dear, that’s reducing the gospel a little isn’t it? If I think about that too long, I will get really upset. I’m not going to think about it. I’m going to let it wash over me.

 Some notices, another song, a sermon, and then perhaps the closing hymn. Oh, I forgot the offering. And every second week, the private cup of grape juice and piece of cracker. (We mustn’t have it every week or it will become a ritual, I was told growing up.)

And that is the spontaneous Baptist service – for better or for worse.