Jumble Sales of the apocalypse: The strangest church names
I once heard of an evangelical organisation looking for a snappy new name for their ministry to students. They were impressed by the kung-fu style name of CICCU (the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union) and brainstormed ideas for names along those lines. But the meeting ground to a bit of a halt when someone helpfully suggested: “How about the Fellowship of Universities and Colleges’ Christian Unions?”
That story is probably apocryphal; although, stranger things have happened in the Christian world, such as the Nairobi church I discovered the other day bearing this marvellous name: Helicopter of Christ. I couldn’t help quipping about it on Twitter, and someone immediately replied: “Mock all you like, they will just rise above it.”
Church names have got a bit out of hand in recent years. It used to be so simple – you had a saint who once lived locally, or you admired (or thought would help stave off the next bit of Viking pillaging) and you named your church after them. You slapped in a few wall paintings of St Cuthbert or St Dorothy and that was it. Job done.
A book published 100 years ago contains a league table of medieval English church names. St Mary leads the field with 2,335 churches to her name. St Peter comes in second with less than half that number (1,140), while St John the Baptist and St Mary Magdalene lag behind with a mere 500 and 187 churches apiece.
Admittedly, some churches tried to get creative within this saintly system. A London church rejoicing in the name of St Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins once occupied the site where the Gherkin now proudly rears heavenwards. And if that isn’t a sign of the times, I don’t know what is.
The churches I knew when I was growing up in the 60s and 70s had no saints’ names. That’s because I was in South Wales, and the churches were of the Congregationalist, Baptist or Calvinistic Methodist varieties. I got to know them because (tragically for them) I started preaching at 18 and was sent by my Baptist church in Cardiff up the valleys to visit these great and gloomy temples of the Lord on Sunday mornings.
Each church had only a handful of ladies, plus a deacon in Bible black, in the yawning acres of pews. Finishing my sermon and descending from the Mount Sinai of wood which was the pulpit, I would find a deacon’s hand straying into my pocket to deposit an envelope with a fiver inside.
But it was the names of these churches which always impressed me: Forbidding names such as Tabernacle and Ebenezer; mountain names such as Moriah, Hermon and Carmel; names of places where prophets and patriarchs had met God, such as Ararat, Bethel and Zion. The Welsh revivalists who named these chapels were very taken with Old Testament encounters with God and wanted their grand and grumpy buildings to deliver the same experience.
Since those times, church names have risen and fallen with the tides of spiritual fashion. The bearded, sandal-wearing 60s gave us: Vineyard, Mustard Seed, Ichthus, Potter’s House. That’s also when some of churches named after saints went hip and trendy by resorting to nicknames. The Church of Saints Philip and Jacob, in Bristol, took on “Pip n Jay” as its name, while St Andrew the Great, in Cambridge, morphed into “Stag” – names which must test the gag reflex of even the most resilient saint.
Today’s hipster churches of the Western world have determined that pompous is the best way to go when you’re getting your name and logo together. Where once you might have gone to St Paul’s Church, or Salem Chapel, you’ll now find yourself in The Edge, Ikon, The Pursuit, or Empower.
Meanwhile, churches in Nigeria are pushing in the opposite direction with brilliantly tasteless names such as: Guided Missiles Church, Healing Tsunami Ministry and (possibly the best church name of all time and eternity) the Happy Go Lucky Church of Almighty God in Jesus Name Amen.
However you choose to name your church, one trend above all others is definitely worth keeping an eye on. The New Jerusalem Church in Little Bolton changed its name several years ago. It’s now called Bolton Carpet Warehouse.
Simon Jenkins is the editor of shipoffools.com. Follow Simon on Twitter: @simonjenks
This article was published in the May 2014 edition of Reform.