The better order of service

Today’s customary printed worship order of service is a triumph of technology that’s been left too long without a serious revisit. I forgot where I read  — and this is not a thought original to me — that the development of the spirit duplicator was a watershed for local liturgy, because it gave ministers the tools to make their own weekly bulletins at little cost, thus allowing introductions and innovations that a long-use printed liturgy (or job printed order of service, pasted into the front cover of a hymnal) could not accomodate easily.

And there it rests. Swap the word processor and photocopier for the typewriter and duplicator, and really little has changed in many church — in terms of format — since. The assumption of lifelong denominational loyalty has changed, the liturgical literacy of congregations has changed, and consumer-driven demands for quality have changed. The order of service, not so much. Not in its shape and format. And where it shines with good directions, lovely typesetting and good paper, you can bet there’s a hearty staff, perhaps some print shop magic and a significant budget for the effort. And that’s a hard sell for most.

I think it might be time to abandon the format, for some churches anyway. Here’s an idea I’ve been mulling over. In place of a weekly order of service, publish a quarterly (or so) booklet of 40-64 pages. Have it include an outline church calendar and leadership/contacts directory. Have it include a thumbnail church history and outline of governance. Have it include how to join and how to leave a bequest. Have it include a order of service — it needn’t be listed as usual, but should have descriptions of what’s done in worship, and so far as possible, the reasons why the service has this or that element. It should include most of the usual responsive readings, psalms or litanies. Also the hymns most commonly sung in that quarter, to help build familiarity. Directions on how to use the booklet at home, or prayers for spiritual emergencies or table graces for extra credit. Have it also include a readable excerpt from a good sermon, faithful proverbs or both.A bit of art, a well-chosen poem or even a recipe can finish the work. It should be more handbook than service leaflet.

A special edition each for the Christmas and Holy Week-Easter arcs might make sense, since those tend to get more attendees.

The  church handbooks can be reused from week to week for a season, but the church should encourage them to be taken by guests or used at home by members. It should feel like a gift and a useful tool. It would require advance planning and seeking licenses, or the use of public domain or liberally-licensed works. But the discipline, if there’s capacity, might focus attention on the importance of planning worship in places where “the minister does that” or “that’s not my concern.”

It would need a weekly tip-in — for a special hymn, liturgical fragment and timely notices. And perhaps not even that if a hymnal is used or retained, and a there’s good announcement discipline and a well-mananged communications plan.  But after the first couple of issues, it might not take any more time to produce than all the publications it would effectively surplant. And it would make a grand statement to members and guests: we have something good here, and this is how we do it.

History needs to repeat: a ministry for affordable housing

I was reading the Universalist Register for 1912 to plan ahead for blog posts for next year. (What I don’t do for my readers.)

I noted a ministry affiliated with the old Massachusetts Convention: The Bethany Union for Young Women.

Its object is to maintain a home for respectable young women who are forced by the keen competition of a large city, to work for small wages.

Gauging by the horror stories I’ve heard in D.C. about housing, particularly among the 20-something set, even moderate wages get ground to nothing under the weight of student loans and a heritage of real estate speculation. Could use such a ministry in D.C.

It’s moved from its former location in the South End, but the Bethany Union still exists in Boston.

Liberate your documents by choosing a better format

Microsoft owns the ideas around word processing, spreadsheet and presentation software. “I want it in a .doc” “Put it Excel” “Look, another PowerPoint!” But it need not and should not be that way.

I’ll cut to the chase: if you create content in proprietary format, you will always depend upon the company that supplies the company to access your work. And as the saying goes, “if you can’t fix it, you don’t own it.” So much more for simply opening what you’ve created.

Or inherited. I’m thinking about documents in the long game. Proprietary document formats are a dead end. I have files from the 1980s and 1990s I can’t open; what the chance that a church archivist will open your membership list in a hundred years?

You can (and should) use plain text and comma-separated values for simple documents. I have a fun, easy and public-domain resource for presentations that I’ll write up in about a week. Perhaps some will use (La)TeX for graduate theses and dissertations. (Right, mathematicians?)

And for more complex, but everyday tasks of word processing, spreadsheet and presentations, please use the Open Document Format. The world of open format advocates are celebrating Document Freedom Day today.

You can participate by considering how your casual document format choices have limited your access — like sending or having been sent one of those .docx files — and considering your options. The Open Document Format (ODF) is used in Google Docs, and the mature and free (both in licencing and cost) office suites OpenOffice.org and its continuing spin-off LibreOffice. (These can also read the proprietary formats, so I’m not setting you adrift.)

Use those formats, please — and I’ll make the pledge. If I need to put a word processing document or spreadsheet on my blog, I’ll make it available in ODF.

And learn more at the Document Freedom Day site.

Later. Jeremy Carbaugh, a colleague in the Sunlight Foundation Sunlight Labs team, was the one who told me about Document Freedom Day, and he also wrote about it. Sunlight makes a similar pledge about publishing these kinds of documents additionally in ODF.

Even later. Another member of the Unitarian Universalist blogosphere has gotten in the act: The Prayerful Sceptic, linking to another self-written blogpost at Intuitionistically Uncertain.

Unitarianism as a steampunk folkway

A frivolous thought occurred to me this morning as I was mooring my zeppelin.

“Western” Free Religion Unitarianism — think Jenkin Lloyd Jones — would make an ideal component to steampunk culture, along with complicated brass fittings and Tesla coils.

Something optimistic, progressive and brashly over-promising.

A notary public to marry?

On March 11, the District of Columbia Council published an intention to introduce legislation, B19-142, the sole outcome of which would be to allow notaries public to solemnize marriage. (PDF)

I’ve been watching for this because I know the person who put the bug into the ear of a member of the Council. (I’m also watching for another bill, but I’ll announce that when it becomes law.) But why would this be a good idea?

  • There’s a shortage of officiants willing to do a non-sectarian or secular service. Surely not a small concern in a town as secular was Washington, and where same-sex marriage is the permitted under the law.
  • Notaries can already execute oaths. Notaries can solemnize marriage in South Carolina.
  • Lawyers, in neighboring Virginia, can solemnize marriage. This would make the process of getting married in D.C. a bit easier.

I think this law would be a improvement, even if — as a credentialed marriage officiant in D.C. — it might cost me some business. (I’ve always been open to conducting a purely secular service because of the shortage of options, but I rarely do a wedding these days.)

The part that makes me smile? I’ve asked my employer to sponsor my commission as a, um, notary public.

A (sad) reminder of faith from Japan

Like many of you, I’ve been watching video of the tsumami that destroyed towns in northeastern Japan, and have been stunned by the immensity and power of the water. Pray for the people; their anguish will last a long time.

The loss of life is devastating and the lost will be mourned. More than 11,000 have been confirmed dead. Perhaps it seems in poor taste to recall the houses, vehicles, businesses and whole towns lost, but walk with me. First, they will be bitterly missed by those who lived a long time in those communities, and especially by those who depended on the security of a home and have no equal resources. So, too, as we age, it’s hard not to think about the items, places and thing we’ll leave behind: these are our visible legacy, and tied up with the idea of “leaving the world better than I found it.” The houses, street life and communities washed away destroyed the accomplishment of generations that died long before the earthquake and tsunami. Time and fortune are the great destroyers.

As a Christian, and a Protestant at that, it’s hard not to think about what has been lost in the faith but, unlike a natural disaster, the losses are of our own making. To try and overcome the errors and abuses in the middle ages, Protestants have developed a particular attitude towards it. In short, remove anything that stands between us and an imagined, pure, undivided Apostolic Age. For many low-church Protestants, God revealed all that was necessary for salvation in the scripture, and then has been curiously mute since. Or perhaps God is heard to speak, but centuries of Christians past are thought corrupt, superstitious and untrustworthy. Few would say as much, but the implication is there when “the truth” is carefully traced through a particular line down the ages. Universalists, too, have been guilty of this.

But our tradition also offers some ways, here in the form of question, to make some sense of the enormous and ambiguous past. (I’m thinking of the touching stories of “memorabilia” hunters who glean the ravaged areas for photos and other irreplaceable artifacts.) First, does the thrust of a particular Christian community honor God’s love and glory, or obscure God’s being? Next, do the virtues cultivated in a particular Christian community lead to happier and richer lives in its members, and non-members nearby? Also, is a particular Christian community able to allow predictable — it need not be limitless — spectrum of views without coercing minority opinions? And, last for now, does a particular Christian community value a reasonable and practical approaches to measuring claims to truth? With these ways in mind, it’s possible to step back and now ask: what guideposts should we first put back up? what lost homes restored?

(As for Japan: keep up with the news at NHK World.)

How do people read blogs? Some advice.

I spoke to someone recently who apologetically noted that she didn’t read my blog: the context was a lack of time.

I can understand this, in one way. Who has time to visit dozens of sites, even weekly? The problem: blogs look like static billboards or bulletin boards. To see if a bulletin board has changed, you visit it — and pin up a note if you have one. But it takes an effort to visit each and every blog or bulletin board, and one’s not likely to do it very often.

But that’s not the only way to read them. Most blogs — certainly any built on a modern service or software; my apologies to any who still homebrew their blogs — can be read in a non-bulletin-board way: through a feed reader.

This blog publishes my blog posts and your comments in a format that’s easy for web services or software to consolidate — the preferred term is aggregate, but here the meaning is the same — into a running stream. Most of these web services or software will show you headlines and beginning text the newest posts of the blogs you like, making it easy to scan them. Most of these web services or software have a facility to subscribe to a blog automatically. So you go one place to keep up, and within the software or web service, you can often tag, promote or annotate interesting posts, so you can refer back to them if needed.

So what are these web services or software? Google Reader is an obvious choice if you like Google products. But since I’m (unsuccessfully) trying to not give Google all my business, I use a free-standing feed reader. LiFeRea, since I use a Linux computer, but there are options for other operating systems.

But those just starting or only interested in a few feeds, a browser-based tool might work well. Sage, for Firefox, is the kind of thing I mean.

Statements of faith Universalists have professed

So what do Universalist Christians believe, today and historically?

The Rob Bell controversy has brought out some affirmations of universal salvation on the ‘net, both within and (largely) outside the Unitarian Universalist Association. And with it — as if we returned to antebellum America — sharp and untrue denunciations of Universalism, and claims about what universalist do or don’t believe, and whether universalism is a fundamental heresy.

You, constant readers, know where I stand. But since we’ve returned rhetorically to 1835 or 1870, it makes sense to list some of the important statements of faith.

So, for the record, here are key documents. Links will take you to the full enacting resolution or supporting documents:

The 1790 Philadelphia Articles of Faith

Section 1. OF THE HOLY SCRIPTURES We believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to contain a revelation of the perfections and will of God, and the rule of faith and practice.

Section 2. OF THE SUPREME BEING We believe in One God, infinite in all his perfections; and that these perfections are all modifications of infinite, adorable, incomprehensible and unchangeable Love.

Section 3. OF THE MEDIATOR We believe that there is One Mediator between God and man, the man Jesus Christ, in whom dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily; who, by giving himself a ransom for all, hath redeemed them to God by his blood; and who, by the merit of his death, and the efficacy of his Spirit, will finally restore the whole human race to happiness.

Section 4. OF THE HOLY GHOST We believe in the Holy Ghost, whose office it is to make known to sinners the truth of their [this] salvation, through the medium of the Holy Scriptures, and to reconcile the hearts of the children of men to God, and thereby dispose them to genuine holiness.

Section 5. OF GOOD WORK We believe in the obligation of the moral law, as to the rule of life; and we hold that the love of God manifest to man in a Redeemer, is the best means of producing obedience to that law, and promoting a holy, active and useful life.

The 1803 Winchester Profession, the standard profession of American Universalism

Article I. We believe that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament contain a revelation of the character of God, and of the duty, interest and final destination of mankind.

Article II. We believe that there is one God, whose nature is Love, revealed in one Lord Jesus Christ, by one Holy Spirit of Grace, who will finally restore the whole family of mankind to holiness and happiness.

Article III. We believe that holiness and true happiness are inseparably connected, and that believers ought to be careful to maintain order and practice good works; for these things are good and profitable unto men.

The 1899 “Five Principles” (“Essential principles of the Universalist faith”)

The Universal Fatherhood of God; the spiritual authority and leadership of His Son Jesus Christ; the trustworthiness of the Bible as containing a revelation from God; the certainty of just retribution for sin; the final harmony of all souls with God.

The 1935 Washington Declaration, the theological portion of the bond of fellowship

… we avow our faith in God as Eternal and All-conquering Love, in the spiritual leadership of Jesus, in the supreme worth of every human personality, in the authority of truth known or to be known, and in the power of men of good-will and sacrificial spirit to overcome evil and progressively establish the Kingdom of God….

There are also local adaptations — almost always interpreted as an interpretation of the Winchester Profession — from the nineteenth centuries and later. (The newest of these was adopted by the Universalist National Memorial Church.)

Two worth particular note are:

1865 Rhode Island Convention Catechism

We believe in one God, the Creator of all things, and the Father of Mankind; in Jesus Christ his Son, who is the true Teacher, Example, and Savior of men; in the Holy Spirit, the Comforter; in the certainty of retribution; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of all men from the dead; and their final holiness and happiness in the immortal life.

An 1903 unofficial Universalist Creed

I believe in God, the Father Almighty and Universal; and in Jesus Christ his Son, the true teacher, example, and Savior of the world. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the quickener and comforter of men. I believe in the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as a revelation of righteousness, truth and love. I believe in the Holy Church Universal; in the communion of saints; in the certainty of punishment for transgression; in the forgiveness of sins; in the life immortal; in the final triumph of goodness and mercy; and in the union and harmony, at last, of all souls with God.

Blog posts I'm reading today: our past and future

Unitarian Universalist minister and blogger Elz Curtiss (Politywonk) writes movingly about the hagiographic and political misuse of Unitarian and Universalist history, and it power to misshape the truth about our traditions. Worth reading.

Unitarian minister and blogger Stephen Lingwood (Reignite) talks data — the size of congregations in the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches (GA), our counterpart body in Great Britain (and a handful of congregations elsewhere, like the UUA) just reported in its Annual Report. (Can’t find it online.) Unlike the UUA, the GA doesn’t have a historical practice of publishing congregational size data, so this report is noteworthy, if chilling. He sounds the wake-up call, given the smallness by congregations and overall of the GA — only one of the GA’s 170 churches wouldn’t be classed as “small” in the UUA — and how many congregations could easily slip below the water line.

It also makes me think the Church Admin plugin for WordPress I noted might be more useful for the British churches of 15 to 60 members than the American ones I was imagining for a use case. (The developer is also British and that comes across in the plugin.) Since it’s in rapid development, I’ve not properly tested it, but I’d be willing to do so if any British Unitarians would like to examine it with me.

Welcome, new Google search overlords (and helping you do the same)

First, I’m a bit uneasy living in a world where a company — Google — knows, or can know, so much about me. But I’ve long chosen to make my thoughts public, and to try to reach as wide a readership as possible. And your church, as an institution, depends on public recognition to sharing information, so let us proceed.

More than a quarter of my readers (hi!) get here from a Google search, so I’d be foolish to not use the tools they provide to get more readers to find me, and to identify me as a reliable, expert source and not a website generated automatically to sell certain odd products. The benefit to Google is clear, if indirect: to identify more reliably what searchers are really looking for, and thus improve the product they use to sell advertising. And as I noted yesterday, they provide robust tools for that, too.

The first step, I think, for blog writers and church site owners, it to provide the Google robot spiders that record the net meaningful information. Human beings are very good about identifying patterns in text — think about reading an address, or pulling phone numbers out of a list — but computers aren’t, and can use our help to identify

  • which web properties are mine (like my other blogs and projects) and which are run by friends and colleagues, and so have added value from the relationships.
  • which links are noted for reference, but are what you’d not want to endorse or identify with you. (WordPress does this by default in the comments, so people can’t hijack comments and leave links as a way of making Google think their site is more important than it is.)
  • contact information, like addresses and phone numbers, in a reliable way for re-use; say, to be made into a map in Google search, or downloadable to a mobile device. (More useful, say, for churches than bloggers).
  • when and where are events and public meetings are.

There are other options — including constructing recipes and making cultural reviews — but the list above will do for the meantime. It isn’t as hard as it may seem, especially if your church site or blog is based on WordPress, but if you hammer away at your site by hand you can add this detail with little trouble. (If you make links, WordPress gives you the option to add relationships.)

Detail from WordPress Link page
Use these controls in WordPress when you add a link to note your relationship with the other site or blog owner.

But I just wanted to raise the thought now — I’ll return to more theological blogging now — and refer you to this page at Google called “creating Google-friendly sites” and note the “rich snippets” section and the three current standards — Google allows all three — for doing what I described above. (I use microformats, but that’s just because that’s where I started.)