My mobile phone of three years showed signs of instability after General Assembly, so rather than waiting for it to fail, I decided to get a new one. It arrived today.
There’s a custom of photographing the unwrapping — “unboxing” — esteemed electronics and then sharing the photos and thus the experience. This is considered normal behavior among Apple goods owners (I am not one) but it still strikes me as a bit precious, even ostentatious. After all, what does it show, other than the ability to buy things?
I suppose it shows this: how lovely the thing is in itself, and more, how lovely it comes to the new owner. It is worth having, and cherishing. Since, I’ve seen beautifully packaged clothes, snack foods and charitable solicitation appeals that have the same attention to presentation. And, to be honest, they do seem better than the alternative, and so make me feel better about myself. I look forward to the moment of acquiring something, and not just the having (and so take pains to not shop for this thrill, but that another story.)
So, we turn to churches. In this culture where even a knockoff laptop battery (bought before GA) is carefully wrapped, how do we change how we prepare our churches for worship? Or present certificates and awards (when we do so) or arrange candles or implements of worship? Or share refreshments, or post signs?
Or any of a thousand ways we can say, “this house of worship is special, and beautiful, and you are welcome” — or not.
So, what makes Universalist worship Universalist? What keys do we have, if we want to build on a tradition?
It turns out that it’s harder to say than in other denominational traditions, including the Unitarian. The problem may date to the beginning, by which I mean the 1790 Philadelphia Convention, where the assembled delegates claimed, “as we have no rules laid down in the word of God to direct us in our choice of a mode or form of public worship, it is recommended to each Church to use such modes and forms of prayer, and to sing such psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, as to them shall appear most agreeable to the word of God, or best suited to promote order, and spiritual edification.” Not a sense shared by many of their contemporaries! Whether this was an act of liberality, or a politic act of evasion, I will leave for you to decide.
Universalism was made up of different streams, united by a common hope in a common salvation. Other doctrines were a matter of liberty — one reason theological unitarianism had a place — and so much for liturgy, too. As such, the various hymnals and worship books had denominational sponsorship and could be widely adopted and still be entirely optional.
After the Civil War, institutional Universalism congealed around a common program and denominational governance. The theologial schools and denomintational press were growing in influence, and yet there was little discussion about how this new structure applied to worship. Prayerbooks could go out without a preface; liturgists, like Charles Hall Leonard, could write the works, but scarcely say what they intended.
So, where to look for clues? Private papers? Articles in the weekly papers, as yet little digitized? But it may be as subtle as examining the more popular texts themselves, and see what was used, discern what the source documents were — the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer and the prayerbooks of James Martineau, surely — and see what they thought to change…
I’m working on some Universalist liturgy projects and have been keenly feeling both the generations of lost ecumenical interchange, and the lost reasoning that lead to the texts we do have. So I decided to read some older works to fill in the missing pieces with the goal of working towards the present.
Continuing the long-dormant transcription project of lessons and propers from A Free Church Book of Common Prayer (1929). The Universalist A book of prayer for the church and the home (1866) does not have these occasions.
GRANT, O Lord, that, in all our suffering here upon the earth for the testimony of the truth, we make steadfastly look up to heaven, and by faith behold the glory that shall be revealed; and, being filled with the Holy Ghost, may learn to love and bless our persecutors by the example of thy first martyr Saint Stephen, who prayed for his murderers, O blessed Jesus, standest at the right hand of God to succour all those that suffer for thee, our only Mediator and Advocate. Amen.
¶ One or more of the collects for Christmas Day maybe may also be said.
MERCIFUL LORD, we beseech thee to cast thy bright beams of light upon thy Church, that it being enlightened by the doctrine of thy blessed apostle and evangelist Saint John may so walk in the light of thy truth, that it may at length attain to the light of the everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
¶ One or more of the collects for Christmas Day maybe may also be said.
Epistle: 1 John i, 1-10 (end), or, Ecclus, xv, 1-6. Gospel: John xxi, 20-25 (end).
The Holy Innocents.
O ALMIGHTY GOD, who out of the mouths of babes and sucklings hast ordained strength, and madest infants to glorify thee by their deaths; mortify and kill all the vices in us, and so strengthen us by thy grace, that by the innocency of our lives, and constancy of our faith even after death, we make glorify thy holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
¶ One or more of the collects for Christmas Day maybe may also be said.
For Epistle: Rev. xiv, 1-5. Gospel: Matt. ii, 13-21.
About three years ago, I started a project where I compared the one-year lectionaries, with accompanying collects (prayers), of a nineteenth-century Universalist prayerbook and an English twentieth-century work that tried to restore liturgial worship to historic dissenter churches, project that reminds me of the work of James Martineau.
It is largely complete, but I realized that in moving the content from Boy in the Bands to this domain, I let the links to this and other liturgical resources vanish. I’ve fixed that, and this week will fill in the missing propers for the days after Christmas.
Cleaning up on a Sunday afternoon. I found one of a number of coated wire plate holders that I bought years ago at an icon shop, now gone. And while they are not a religious good per se, they are terribly useful in doing church.
It’s been a hard day, and seeking solace, turned to prayer. I pulled this book off my shelf because the title — Light and Peace — spoke to me. It’s a collection of prayers by Charles Hall Leonard, published by the Murray Press, a Universalist publisher, in 1915.
Leonard (1822-1918) was an outsized figure in Universalist history, was a professor and later dean of the theological school at Tufts, and remembered today I’d guess for creating Children’s Sunday, though readers of this blog may be more interested to know that he was the unacknowledged author of A Book of Prayer for the Church and the Home, or what I call usually “the Universalist prayerbook.”
One prayer “in memory E. H. C.” bears repeating here. That was the thirty-years’ Tufts president and Universalist minister Elmer Hewitt Capen, who died in office in 1905.
Prayers for deceased ministers have a special place in my heart, and particularly as Terry Burke, the long-time and much-loved minister of First Parish in Jamaica Plain was laid to rest today, and with whom some day we shall each share glory.
A Fruitful Life
O God, our heavenly Father: To whom can we go, but to Thee, who art our strength in weakness, our light in darkness, and our comfort in sorrow? To-day, we know not how to speak to each other, nor how to interpret to ourselves. We turn to Thee, and, first of all, beseech Thee to awaken within us the memory of all that has been precious in the life of our great friend and leader: his wise devotion to the college into which he built his life; his intelligent administration of its affairs in a manifold range of usefulness bearing upon its progress and growing facilities, and in that loving care and interest which reached the endeavor and the struggle of the humblest student. Help us to recall the calmness of his thought, his unselfish regard for others, his generous approval of all that is right and good, and his Christ-like pity and forgiveness toward all the weak and sinful. We remember the words, spoken in private and in public, which move us to-day with new power, because of this mystic silence.
We desire also to remember all that he was and is, and will be to us, as a part of permanent influence in all the relations which distinguished his life: in the privacy of his home, in the maintenance of a loyal service to the church, in all his efforts as an educator, and in the ampler calls of citizenship.
Help us, O God, in our sense of gratitude for all that this full life has been to us now that we read it anew, know anew its noble witness to learning, to charity, to religion, and get its larger message as from open skies.
We bow down before Thee, with whom are the issues of life and of death. Help us all to that acquiescence in grief, which, year by year, has been taught from this place, and, above all, breathed in the prayers that here have daily been put up in our behalf. Help these sorrowing teachers who waited for his step, were cheered, day by day, by the denials he so patiently took up, and were inspired more and more by his confident sympathy. We remember before Thee those who, in great procession along the productive years, moved through these halls, and bore hence the mark of the man they had learned to know, to honor and to love. And grant Thy especial favor to the students, in all ranks, and in all places, here and there, who are now enrolled as members of the college. Have regard unto their sad and questioning hours; and give joy to them also, that they came to know so well the man and president who greeted their coming at first.
And now, what wait we for but for grace and power, both for mind and heart; new motive in view of a great example; new ability to take up the tasks which a great leader has laid down; and new light, also, for comfort to those whose sorrow to-day is deepest, that there may be to them one fixed and tranquil object of thought and affection; and help us all to see that it is no fractional life that we are called to contemplate, but a life, forecast and fashioned in accomplishment, opening more and more into its own power and beauty, and, at the last, opening forth towards the realities of a world from which all veils were taken away. O God, most merciful and gracious, open our eyes to that grateful vision, that so we may be enabled to go on, to bear up, and to find our highest joy and peace in the field of duty to which now Thou dost send us back, and in the entrusted daily care to which Thou hast appointed us. Grant that, from the trembling moments of our human life, and from the mourner’s watch, we may go forth with uplifted heart, and a diviner purpose, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
Having non-biblical readings has become such a canon among mainline Unitarian Universalists that Unitarian Universalist Christians face a crisis on the subject of readings. Is it proper to have non-biblical readings in worship?
The question of authority isn’t clear-cut. My home library has several works of daily readings: selected sections meant to be read regularly to enrich one’s faith, and not just in private reflection. Robert Atwell, the compiler of one such work (Celebrating the Seasons) notes in the introduction (page iii.) that
In monastic custom… the Scriptural reading at Vigils was supplemented by a non-Biblical lection. In the words of St. Benedict’s Rule: ‘In addition to the inspired words of the Old and New Testaments, the works read at Vigils should include explanations of Scripture by reputable and orthodox writers.’ The reading of commentaries (presumably on what had just been read) enabled the monk not only to engage with Scripture more intelligently, but also to place his personal meditation within the context of those of other Christians from different ages and traditions.
We’re not monks praying Vigils, but in our liberal-Reformed tradition we insist on the considered and thoughtful expounding on the lessons in the sermon. The lesson does not disclose itself, and we rely on the preacher to unfold its meaning.
In this sense, the non-biblical reading acts — or could act — as a replacement for the sermon, not the revealed word. But current Unitarian Universalist practice is far removed from this. When — about a century ago — Unitarian and (to a lesser degree) Universalist ministers cast abroad for non-biblical preaching texts, they drew from weighty stuff: often the classics, or a work of philosophy, or — as a standby — a bit of Shakespeare.
But today, it’s not uncommon for a liturgical element from the back of the gray hymnal, or a segment from a ministerial contemporary to be pressed into the role of scripture. It an odd thought that a minister might visit a church and hear her or his words — not unjustly quoted within the sermon — elevated to the role scripture once held. It’s hard to shake off our flippant and shallow reputation if that’s the norm.
So, there may be a place for non-biblical readings in Christian worship, but to help us hear and understand the word of God: not to become it.
This is a blog-beg for preachers and ministers of any denomination who preach or have preached in churches that meet less than weekly, and who use a lectionary or observe a traditional church calendar. I appreciate your sharing this with anyone who has experience.
In short, how do you make it work? Do you use the lessons or propers of the day however it may fall? Do you pick from one of the Sunday lessons since the last worship service? Or before the next? And what about major holidays?
For a church that meets once a month or so, do you transfer Easter and Christmas (and Pentecost, today) to the nearest service, or rely on members worshipping with another congregation at the proper time? And if you do transfer the holiday, is it a kind of Lent-Easter/Advent-Christmas service? And how does that work?
Churches that meet infrequently probably aren’t high on anyone’s list, so it would be a great help to share ideas and resources. I’d appreciate details in the comments.