Thursday, 3 November 2011

Happy Birthday South Street

Fuller Baptist Church in Kettering, where I was once the Assistant Minister and at which Rachel and I got married, sent me an invitation this week to the 315th Anniversary; for them, I sense, it feels like a special one worthy of celebration.  Although I cannot join them I sent my best wishes with the rather smug rider that this Sunday South Street is marking its 356th Anniversary – how about that for ecclesiastical one-upmanship!

Anglican congregations have Patronal Festivals – celebrating the life of their church on the Saints Day after which their church is named; Baptists have Church Anniversaries.  Some churches mark such occasions with festive balloons or visiting preachers of the well known type – we do it on a Sunday close to All Saints Day with Holy Communion and music from our Junior Church and Hymneo – along with some fascinating archive material from Tony Overd.

356 years is a staggeringly long time for a Baptist Church.  It means South Street was born in the Civil War years with Oliver Cromwell ruling as Lord Protector; it makes us one of the oldest Baptist Churches not only in Great Britain but in the world! At this time of year I love looking at the list of the nineteen ministers who have preceded me here (some of them have had exceedingly long pastorates!) and thinking again about the first, Thomas Miller who was personally offered an Anglican living by the new king, William III and turned it down in favour of remaining a Baptist Minister – good for him!

Of course, unlike our Anglican friends, nothing of our building dates back to the year of our foundation, 1655.  Some of The Sanctuary, such as the ceiling, probably dates from 1828 and the impressive portico and pillars on South Street from 1868 – the rest, we know, was wonderfully redeveloped in 2003 and provides us with such a usable and inviting space for the 21st century.

Today I’ve been putting a power-point display together which, photographically, records some of our work since last year’s Anniversary – if you’re with us on Sunday you’ll see it during the morning service. Pictures of: a Christmas barn dance, Easter Monday walk, children music group, reception of new members, baptism, weddings, GB leadership transfer, Burkina Faso Christian Aid fundraising, regular worship services, pulpit exchanges, the start of The Theology Group.  Now I know that being busy isn’t the same as being productive – yet I do rejoice in the rich and diverse activities in which we share and pray that God is being honoured by all of this sincere and faithful effort.

Yet my mind wanders back to 1655...to turbulent times when men and women dreamed of greater religious freedom and tolerance...a king had been beheaded in Whitehall and no one knew how our island’s future would develop, not even Cromwell.  In such days, and for such a time, a group of committed Christians, convinced of the value of Believer’s Baptism and Congregational Church Government covenanted together to form Yeovil Baptist Church.  Such a coming together took courage and conviction. 

One of my prayerful longings for South Street is that we might continue on that journey, into year 357, with a real sense of identity; that we too might have beliefs which are expressed with courage and conviction.  Courage to continue this tradition of faith and conviction to see it through in a way that honours Christ. 

Thinking through our identity wouldn’t be a bad way to celebrate Church Anniversary – it’s an important issue to prayerfully think about: why am I a Baptist, why do I go to South Street, what do I value in our Fellowship, what can I contribute, what do I long for in our shared life, how do I meet Jesus in my sisters and brothers?  When we’re addressing these questions we move a long way from simply being a ‘club’ to becoming a ‘church’.

With best wishes,

Ian

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