This coming Sunday we shall be giving a special welcome to two families who will be bringing children for me to ‘dedicate’. Or at least that’s the term we Baptists traditionally have used. Ernest Payne and Stephen Winward in their classic Orders and Prayers for Church Worship (1960) listed ‘The Dedication of Children’ as one of the ‘Ordinances of the Church’. Similarly the next Baptist worship manual, Praise God (1980) complied by Alec Gilmore, Edward Smalley, and Michael Walker, called it ‘Infant Presentation’ – to my mind a much more old-fashioned term. Patterns and Prayers for Christian Worship (1991) compiled by Bernard Green and others used the term ‘Infant Presentation’, while the latest Baptist worship manual, Gathering for Worship: Patterns and Prayers for the Community of Disciples (2005) edited by Christopher Ellis and Myra Blyth, speaks of ‘Presenting, Blessing and Dedicating’. I sometimes speak of the service being one of ‘thanksgiving, promise-making and blessing’ – but that is a real mouthful. In my book, Faith and Festivity (1991), with tongue-in-cheek I used the term, ‘The dummy run’!
The ‘dummy run’ apart, the fact is that Biblical texts can be adduced for each form of wording:-.
- Those who believe the child is being dedicated can point to Samuel’s ‘dedication’ in 1 Samuel 1.27-28. There we read Hannah saying to Eli: “I asked him for this child, and he gave me what I asked for. So I am dedicating him to the Lord. As long as he lives, he will belong to the Lord” (GNB). However, the parallels with a 21st century dedication service is scarcely exact. In my experience nobody ever hands over their child to the Lord in the way in which Hannah handed over her child!
- Likewise, as far as the term ‘infant presentation’ is concerned, the parallel with the ‘presentation’ of Jesus in the Temple (Luke 2.22) is hardly any more appropriate. Sacrifices are not generally held at dedication services! What’s more, this ceremony only applied to the first-born, who were considered to belong to the Lord and had to be ‘redeemed’ by him. Furthermore, thank God, we no longer combine the idea of ‘purification’ of the mother with the concept of ‘infant presentation’.
- The most helpful parallel is found in the story of Jesus ‘blessing’ the children (Matt 19.13-15; Mark 10.13-16; Luke 18.15-17), yet even there the parallel is not exact. Only mothers seem to have been involved – certainly there is no reference to fathers. Nor was there any element of ‘dedication’ or ‘promise-making’ on the part of the mothers.
Honesty compels us to admit that there are no biblical grounds for such a custom. But then there are no biblical grounds for weddings and funerals being held in church! However, just as it seems to us right and proper to mark weddings and funerals by a Christian service, to it is equally right and proper to mark the birth of a child by a Christian service. It is natural to want to thank God for the gift of a child; it is natural to ask God’s blessing upon the child. Furthermore, the birth of such a child is of such importance that it demands the utmost parents can give – so it makes sense for the parents to ‘dedicate’ themselves publicly to their role of bringing up the child Christ’s way; and because the task of Christian parenthood is so demanding, it is natural for church members in turn to ‘dedicate’ themselves to the task of caring for and supporting the parents.
In summary: strictly speaking to talk of dedicating children is wrong – the ceremony is more a service of thanksgiving, promise-making, and blessing. But for simplicity’s sake, I shall probably go on speaking of dedicating children!