Berkeley Updike and Harold Brown thought Episcopalians named and dedicated their churches inappropriately and in a slipshod manner. Nomenclature became thoughtless and frivolous, and things got worse with spreading evangelical congregations. According to Updike and Brown, ‘the names of our Lord, and of the Apostles and Saints of the New Testament’ – traditional sources – were ‘quite sufficient’. Names such as ‘Heavenly Rest’ or ‘House of Prayer’ were as ‘meaningless’ as ‘Precious Blood’ or ‘Bread of Life’. These were ‘fanciful names’. If we demand variety, ‘let us have at least no doubtful novelties.’
Looking at you, c4so diocese. With a diocese name like that, how can you avoid frivolous names for parish churches?
But Chinese churches should also take note. Such names as Mr Updike cited are not out of the ordinary for a Chinese church, and their frivolous novelty is no less than it was in 1892, the year that he and Harold Brown published On the Dedications of American Churches. Many evangelical Chinese churches, trying to signal their orthodox evangelical credentials, have chosen novelties to shout their decency, and in so doing have negated their own orthodoxy.
It is far better, as Mr Updike says, to take ‘the names of our Lord, and of the Apostles and Saints of the New Testament’ – among whom, I take it, he includes saints who are not mentioned in the pages of New Testament, but who lived and died in the New Testament. It is no novelty, after all, to name a church after a local martyr or a saint from another place whose influence is felt as far as the church to be named. Thus might a church in Edinburgh be named after St Cuthbert, who lies buried in Durham, or a church in Vancouver’s Chinatown after St Robert Morrison, translator of the Scriptures into Chinese. These are names that concretely draw the Christian’s heart to the life of Christ, or to his life in a particular saint.
The more our churches seek to differentiate ourselves from the whole work of the Holy Ghost on earth, by taking vain names, the more we separate ourselves from the Church. May the Lord’s blessing rest upon the churches devoted to the glory of his Name.