By Jeff Brumley
Even at Broadway Baptist Church, where classical and contemplative worship are the norm, some folks were stunned a few years back when the pastor held an animal blessing ritual in the courtyard. Turns out they were in for an even bigger surprise, said Brent Beasley, senior pastor of the Fort Worth congregation that held its fifth animal blessing service on Saturday, Oct. 20.
“They were really surprised by how many people showed up with their animals,” he said.
And the ceremony, held each October to commemorate the life of St. Francis of Assisi, has been growing strong ever since, Beasley said.
“It’s a way to celebrate creation,” he said.
Animals reflect grace
It’s also a sign that animal blessing ceremonies, long the practice of Catholic, Episcopal and other liturgical traditions, have made the leap into the Protestant world.
In fact, the practice is cropping up here and there in moderate and progressive Baptist churches where it will likely spread, said Molly Marshall, president and professor of theology and spiritual formation at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Shawnee, Kan.
Marshall said the American Baptist Churches USA congregation she attends holds pet blessings. She predicts it will catch on as U.S. birth rates continue to decline, making pets more important in people’s lives.
“It’s recognition of the role that animals play in our lives,” she said, “that they are faithful companions and that they reflect God’s grace.”
‘Nothing to do with salvation’
It also mirrors a growing focus by some Christians on the environment and a belief that “the whole of creation participates in God’s renewing overture.”
So it’s natural that congregations will want to offer “some sort of liturgical affirmation” of their animals, Marshall said.
The practice dates to at least the 1300s when Catholics began commemorating the life of St. Francis, a figure known for promoting vows of poverty, service to others and a love of nature.
Anglicans adopted the practice from their founding in the 1500s, said Gerald Alexander, associate priest at All Saints Episcopal Church in Jacksonville, Fla.
Blessings usually involve addressing animals by their names, sprinkling them with holy water and praying for them.
“In our tradition it has nothing to do with salvation,” Alexander said. “It is our thanking God for creating these companions for us. We want to bless them because God loves them.”
Effective outreach tool
That was partly the motivation at Broadway, too, Beasley said. Another reason was to give members another reason to be at church and as a way to serve residents who don’t worship at Broadway.
“It’s a great outreach for us,” Beasley said. “It’s great for kids and families.”
Beasley said he had to go to Catholic and Episcopal websites to cobble together a liturgy for the celebration. At Broadway, it includes a prayer, a singing of the hymn “All Creatures of Our God and King,” and then a blessing over each animal individually.
No one has brought livestock to the church, Beasley said, but just about everything else has made an appearance.
“We’ve had some baby chicks, and one person brought two chickens they had in their backyard.”
Beasley said there’s lots of humor involved with the practice.
“They always ask if we do exorcisms,” he said. “And there have been no reports of the animals being better behaved” as a result of the blessings.
Even so, the ceremonies will continue at Broadway, Beasley said.
“People’s pets are so important to them today more than ever,” he said. “This means a lot to them.”