Holy and eternal Spirit, source of life and light…

Holy and eternal Spirit, source of life and light, thou art our helper in every need, thou fulfillest all our joy. Be thou this day the present help of all who turn to thee, here and everywhere, whether hurt or ashamed, whether sick or disheartened. And when we are strong, be thou a light beyond our present thoughts and pleasures, to guide us into ways of larger right and nobler blessedness. Amen.

Von Ogden Vogt

The simplest definition of a Christian…

The simplest definition of a Christian is one who follows Christ. This was his own definition: “My sheep hear my voice, and follow me.” “I am the way and the truth and the life.” “Come to me, all ye who labor and are heavy laden.” When Mary sat at the feet of Jesus, and heard his words, he said that she had chosen the good part, and had done the one thing needful.

James Freeman Clarke, “The Five Points of Calvinism and the Five Points of the New Theology” in Vexed Questions in Theology: A Series of Essays (1886)

The pew rent system and membership

This is a continuation of the thread on the history of membership in Unitarian and Universalist congregations.

I know the very idea of a fundraising canvass will send many of you into a fit of groaning. But the approach to funding, also known as the voluntary system, is a huge improvement over what came before it: the pew-rent system.

By this I mean raising money for building a meetinghouse and sustaining a minister by selling or renting seats or pews. You can see vestiges in older churches, in the form of engraved plates with names of people long dead. Owned pews were property: they could be inherited or sold. Their use was restricted by their owners, and status-seeking persons could show their social station though high-priced seats up front. Additionally, they could be used as collateral in securing debt. Pew owners, very often hereditary and with no particular interest in a congregation, had been known to sell out meeting house for profit.

The pew-rent system made theological orthodoxy nearly impossible to enforce, even as it reinforced class structures. Thomas Whittemore, in his 1840 The Plain Guide to Universalism, cautions societies to maintain the twinned church–a community of professing believers– with the religious society because

In some cases, especially in Boston, it is impossible to guard the society against the admission of members, whatever their religious opinions may be. For what is a religious society in Boston? It is the proprietors of the meeting-house, the owners of the pews therein. These pews may be transferred from one to another, at the will of the owners; and the purchaser has the full and legal right to attend all the proprietors’ meetings, and vote in all concerns of the corporation, whether he be Christian, Jew, Mahometan, or heathen. The whole business is in the hands of the proprietors of pews, and we suppose, of right, ought to be, not excepting the selection and settlement of the pastor.

But as with other calls to reform, the weight was with the status quo: a practical source for liberality or practical plurality?

But times changed. James Freeman Clarke was the Unitarian first-mover when, also in 1840, he opened in Boston the Church of the Disciples on a “free seat” (voluntary donation) basis. While Universalists came down on both sides of the religious freedom this system brought, its unworkability with its final downfall across all confessions. It was unfair and discouraging to new would-be members. The occasional provision of free seats (in undesirable places) underscored the problem. It set the building up for speculation, and building bubbles bankrupted not a few congregations. And while the idea of collecting rent seems simple enough, there were also complaints that it was impossible to extract them–particularly from absentee landlords–and so money was tight. By the time in 1922, the Christian Register (May 4) published it survey of more than 200 Unitarian parishes, none had anything good to say about the pew ownership or rental, or any number of hybrid variant, systems. The voluntary system was modern, ascendant and lucrative. “Free seats” made better financial sense. Churches in the easy-going West were most likely to use the voluntary system, and churches in New England, where the practice continued the longest, were willing to try something new.

Of course, the pew-rent problem would have solved itself in time. There are usually too few attenders rather than too few pews. Amplification has made more of the meetinghouse accessible to more people. And how many times have the few first pews of a church been taking up–prime real estate–in order to make room for a piano or some other liturgical change? New occasions teach new duties.

All of this goes into our understanding of the running of a religious society; that financial responsibility, however structured, is a valid, perhaps even critical requirement, for full participation.

Ways of organizing churches, including how membership is accorded, come and go. It might surprise my long-time readers to hear that I’m not particularly taken with any given model. (I may have radical views about the relationship between the church and society, but these remain to be revealed.) All I care about is that membership standards are made deliberately, fairly, and with the goal of healthy institutions. Since unintended results may come out of good planning, there must also be a mechanism for adjustment, for the sake of equity.

But what we have is better than what we had, and to God be the glory.

Sources for Unitarian and Universalist membership historical context

Well, my post (“What is it we become a member of?“) seems to have stirred the Walled Internet. Where do you go to know what our Universalist or Unitarian forebears thought membership meant? So long as you don’t confuse the concepts of parish, society and church, you can look to a large, if disjointed, number of resources. And the idea of a meetinghouse being an entity, through trustees, in its own right. I do not intend to exhaust this thought here.

First, I’d look to service books and ministers’ manuals, common after the first third of the nineteenth century. Look for services of opening churches and confirmation, which often includes language about membership. Also, Universalists published meaty apologetic works that often had a polity chapter, so you’d have all you need to start a church. Don’t skip the introductions. Look for model bylaws and constitutions, especially among the Universalists; these are easier to find than the local bylaws, but some can be had. Not just for the church and the parish, but for the (after the 1890s) the recommended unified church-parish. And for the state conventions, and how the concepts of fellowship, obeying laws and assented belief have parallels at the local level. Look to the Universalist professions of faith without knee-jerk anti-credalism, such as the 1899 “Five Principles” which begin “conditions of fellowship in this Convention shall be as follows…”

James Freeman Clarke
James Freeman Clarke

Look to what made certain churches and leaders exceptions, so as to see the rule. The preface of the King’s Chapel prayerbook is, among other things, an ecclesiological document. Investigate James Freeman Clarke‘s Church of the Disciples (I’ll come back to him) and the institutionalism of Universalist Elbridge Gerry Brooks’s “new departure.”

Consider that the law itself has shaped our ecclesiology, even if we don’t talk about it past the Cambridge Platform. There’s the ad-hoc and minimalistic ecclesiology of first generation Universalists. The Dedham Decision, naturally. But also laws that forbade religious congregations from incorporating early on; what was their alternative? (Virginia was the last (PDF) give this up, in 2002.) And the very idea of tax exemption…

There’s more, but that’s enough to digest now.

Graphic Origins of the Flaming Chalice

Someone I met recently asked about the origins of the flaming chalice. He said that someone coming from a non-Unitarian Universalist background might think it had something to do with a cross. Indeed.

I pulled this very fragile 1946 poster out of my Big Box of Ephemera (Unitarian Section) and thought I’d share some pictures.

IMG_20130708_232933

IMG_20130708_232951IMG_20130708_233000IMG_20130708_233020 (copy)

More Unitarian service books

While I focus on Universalist worship resources, the book digitization revolution has brought back to light Unitarian service books, too — by which I include comprehensive prayerbooks and other resources (often with hymns) that have service elements.

cover page, Church of the Unity bookHere are some I’ve found recently, in chronological order; click through to download or read online. (There are others I’ve writtem about before.)

"Orders of Worship" (1944)

I owe a debt of thanks to the Rev. Dr. Leonard Smith, principal of the Unitarian College Manchester, for responding to my appeal to buy a copy of the old Orders of Worship “for use in Unitarian and Free Christian congregations” by sending me a copy as a gift.

It is a small volume a 1944 reprint of the 1932 edition with a familiar feel to anyone (left) who has experience using the Services of Religion attached to the front of the 1937 Hymns of the Spirit. (1937)

The bulk of the book is eight forms of service that, with experience, could be used morning or evening for short devotions or full services. In my quick survey, I discovered some nice touches, like appointed introductions to the collects (that may be used in lieu of an extemporaneous pastoral prayer) and a bidding for silent prayer and a small blessing to “dismount” from the silence. This one, for intance, is from the sixth service:

Grant us, Lord, we pray thee, day by day the joy of true living, that we who seek thy service may ever find thy peace. Amen.

There are a couple of litanies, and “acts of devotion” plus a proper service for Easter and Christmas Day, the latter of which I’ll comb of ideas this year.