St. Mary, Mother of God, pray with us

Less a proper blog post than a thought, perhaps to amplify later.

Copy of Theotokos icon of Máriapócs
Copy of Theotokos icon of Máriapócs, (CC-BY-SA, Joejojo)

I’ve read — but forget where — that Christmas is the time when Protestants become (more) Catholic. A higher regard for the saints and the generous use of medieval images come to mind. Not just the “you and me Jesus” focus that, in its own simplified way, places the Protestant ethos.

Which, is a bit weird for Unitarian Universalists, except perhaps for a small minority of the Christians who are already looking at this religion askew. Sometimes we seem like Protestants — certainly in our forms and structures — without Jesus. Something akin to “my experience with an uncertain universe” but with Sunday meetings and urn coffee.

Christmas is one of the times that flips that. Less the art than the songs and — if you’re using scripture at all — the biblical narrative. It’s hard to talk about a birth without considering the mother, and especially so when she’s one of the world’s well-loved religious figures and objects of projection. Particularly in an era where we’re more consciously trying to hear the testimony of women.

So far, Mary’s been a safe bet as the role of Jesus’ mother. But what ought we, might we say about her — even to her — once the boy is up and walking? Something to ponder.

John Murray commemorated

Universalist pioneer and minister John Murray died this day in 1815. While known in his own day as Father Murray, and honored for his early leadership, his own theological views were largely disregarded in his own lifetime.

His works, formerly hard to find, have been brought to light again by scanning projects. His Letters and Sketches of Sermons are particularly noteworthy.

His autobiography, finished by his wife Judith Murray, was often cited as an influential spiritual classic.

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost preparation

The nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost is October 23. The Universalist collect is clearly derived from the Anglican prayer book collect for All Saints Day, and it would be better used thus, or as a common for saints.

Free Church Book of Common Prayer (1929)

God, the Bestower of peace and Lover of good will; grant to thy servants to stay their minds on thee, and to live in true agreement with thy holy will, that they may be delivered from all evils that overtake them, and stand fast in all time of temptation; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Epistle: 1 Cor i, 4-9.
Gospel: Matt. xxii, 34-46 (end).

A book of prayer for the church and the home (Universalist, 1866)

O God, who art the fountain of all holiness; grant unto thy servants grace to follow thy blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living; that we may be with them come to those unspeakable joys which thou hast prepared for them that love thee and keep thy commandments. Amen.

Gospel. St. Matt. xxii. 34.
Epistle. 2 Cor. iv. 13

For the Humanists: a United Nations calendar for themes

I’m not really kidding here. I’ve written in 2003 and last year about the prospect of a sanctorial calendar — commemoration of saints — for liturgical purposes in Universalist and Unitarian churches, Christian or not.

Here, I’m thinking not. It isn’t so far a stretch from saints-as-faithful (not demigods) to thematic communities (commons) of saints to themes in worship. Follow me here.

The United Nations has a very full calendar of themes of concerns and commemorations that would fill the year for one of those cool, lean Midwestern kind of Unitarian humanist societies (I almost typed churches) that I have a certain odd affection for.

Perhaps not the International Day of Solidarity with Detained and Missing Staff Members (this Friday) or World Rabies Day, but International Book Day, International Day for the Right to the Truth Concerning Gross Human Rights Violations and for the Dignity of Victims (if repackaged), World Interfaith Harmony Week and others have worship hooks.

And I’d totally be there for International Day of Cooperatives.

Weekend inspiration #1: Church of South India church calendar

Ever since I bought a copy of the 1963 Church of South India Book of Common Worship on a trip to London in 1997, I’ve been impressed by its liturgical quality and how it negotiated various forms of churchmanship. (It has since been succeeded for use in the CSI, but the English versions of parts of the new book leave me cold.)

I’ve praised the old book before, so check here, here and here for details and links, including liturgy portions and a spreadsheet I made for what I’m calling tier one below.

But it also proves helpful for the sanctoral cycle project I’ve embarked on.

  1. It takes the church year and breaks it into three tiers: Sundays and main holidays; saints days and other commemorations; and a way to commemorate others who are specifically named.  This is helpful, because it implies an increasing level of optionality, making the whole scheme more useful for different kinds of churchmanship. (A “low” evangelical can stop with the first tier, but an extensive devotion of the saints can be locally preserved by reaching out to the third.)
  2. The second tier is relatively modest and reformed. The sometimes-inflaming word saint isn’t used, for one. I could be quite happy with if if the national pieces were removed, the lone CSI observance substituted for something Universalist, and if All Souls were added. (That also being a Universalist distinctive.) A provision for additional persons, including Old Testament figures, could be added using the third tier.
  3. There’s relatively limited jargon, once you know what a “proper” is — and its an efficient and meaningful term worth learning, if you’re planning worship.
  4. The third tier uses what the Episcopal Church (USA) and others call “the common of the saints.” Helpful if you’re starting from scratch and don’t know if a particular person or group have quite become observance-worthy. And with a small tweak, can be helpful for funerals, especially for spiritually weighty people.
  5. It’s worth remarking that I intend the sanctoral cycle I propose to be used with Second Universalist, Washington, and isn’t offered as a general resource for Universalist Christians. But it may be so adopted and the rubrics below suggest a way that other churches may modify a calendar for their own reception.

So here are the headings and categories for the three tiers, or tables (their term). No further content, since it’s in copyright, but once you have the categories (and dates), it makes hunting for resources easier. The bracketed dates in Table III suggest alternatives; note particularly the suggestion that Stephen’s commemoration be moved, to not get lost within Christmastide.

The Propers

Bible Readings, Collects, and Prefaces, Proper for Sundays and Special Days, Seasons, and Occasions

Table I

Sundays and Other Special Days of the Christian Year

Table II

Special Days on Fixed Dates (Other than Christmas Day)
Nov. 30     Andrew
[Dec. 26    Stephen]
Jan. 1      Covenant
– 25       Paul
– 26       Republic Day
[Feb. 2     The Presentation]
Feb. 15     Stephen
Mar. 25     The Annunciation
Apr. 25     Mark
May 6       John the Apostle
June 11     Barnabas
– 24       John the Baptist
– 29       Peter
July 22     Mary Magdalene
[Aug. 6     The Transfiguration]
Aug. 15     Independence Day
Sept. 21    Matthew
– 27       Inauguration of CSI
– 29       Michael
Oct. 6      Thomas
– 18       Luke
Nov. 1      All Saints
—         Harvest Festival
—         Meetings of a Synod
—         Dedication of a Church

Table III

Common Forms for Commemorations
Unless the Synod shall authorise a list of persons who may be commemorated in the public worship of the Church, each diocese may make its own rules.
  1. Apostles
  2. Martyrs
  3. Faithful Women
  4. Preachers of the Gospel
  5. Pastors
  6. Teachers
  7. Doctors of the Church
  8. Healers of the Sick
  9. Prophets and Reformers
  10. Pioneers and Builders
  11. Servants of the Church

The church calendar, liberal Christians and the sanctoral cycle

Three guiding principles for Second Universalist’s worship. It should be, where possible and principled, in union with the ecumenical middle of the Christian church; its liturgical resources should be commonly owned, liberally licensed or in the public domain; and the cycles of the church year should be publicly stated and approved.

As a collorary, would be no room in worship for events of a purely national or social nature. What, exactly, is the Christian significance of the Fourth of July, save it being evidence of churches being co-opted by patriotic respectability? And how comfortable are we with Mothers Day if — as I’ve seen in some churches — the definition of motherhood has to be stretched out to accommodate the childfree and men?

But perhaps a more conspicuous change from Unitarian and Universalist Christian practice is a richer sanctoral cycle than has been commonly used. The Christian church year recounts the life, mission, death and resurrection of Christ, with Christmas and Easter as its two poles. On top of this, Christians have a calendar of saints and observances — independent of Christ’s life — that is the sanctoral cycle. Normally, we associate this practice in its most elaborate form with the hierarchical churches: Orthodox, Catholics, Anglicans and to some degree Lutherans. One sign of Protestant reform is to pare away the saints, perhaps removing all but the saints mentioned in the New Testament. Or, dropping the sanctoral cycle, leaving only the observances related to Jesus himself. Or taking it down to just Easter and Christmas. Or at the radical end, seeing Sunday alone as the only observance.

But, we have seen, with the vacuum this creates other observances creep in, like the Fourth of July and Mother’s Day, or quasi-Christian ones like Bible Sunday. In this way, ironically, mainline Unitarian Universalism has then re-filled a secularized sanctorial cycle with observances that seem saintly. Consider the United Nations Day (October 24) observances that were so common until recently: functionally, a secularized version of (itself modern) World Communion Day? And how many UU churches have a Martin Luther King commemoration in January? And the surviving practice of All Souls Day fits in this scheme. (Some, however, are just ghastly. Consider Chalica. Or don’t.)

All in all, I think I’d rather go back to the traditional approach, if somewhat more reformed than even the Episcopalians have. (And Martin Luther King would be remembered in April; death dates, not birth dates, are the norm.) Here’s the article that several years ago introduced me to the idea of a modern Protestant sanctoral cycle revival.

And hold on to your hats, for I think the Eastern Orthodox and conservative Lutherans have something to offer: the commemoration of Old Testament figures. So the dates and some resources (Bible readings, prayers, hymns) wouldn’t have to be invented from whole cloth.

And last, add in very judiciously a handful of Universalist observances, including some commended by the Universalist General Convention itself. That is, were selected and voted upon by our spiritual ancestors.

Now that I’ve presented the concept, I’ll soon recommend a calendar.

Easter Sunday with the Spiritualists

Hubby and I attended church twice on Easter Sunday: in the morning with the pleasantly-Protestant Presbyterians and in the afternoon with the Church of Two Worlds (no website), a Spiritualist church in Georgetown.

Why the Spiritualists? Well, the church, though nearby, is an almost-unknown curiosity. Second, at one point, about half of the Universalist ministerial college believed in Spiritualism, so it would probably have some resonance. Third, we enjoyed our off-beat excursion to the Christian Scientists last Easter. Fourth, it’s been our experience, when seen honestly and fairly, that “oddball” churches usually don’t make wilder claims than mainline churches, just less familiar ones. After all, it’s not like I’m a Presbyerian either (though one of the ministers did wear bands.)

The congregation was about twenty, predominately African-American, but even at that size genuinely mixed and multi-national. This is how the service went:

  • Read in unison the nine Spiritualist principles (seen here, but Unitarian historians: note the principles for the UK Spiritualists’ National Union on the same page; look familar?) I abstained as a non-Spiritualist, but participated in all the rest of the service.
  • A guided meditation through the shakras, with deep breathing, for self-healing and the projection of healing energy to friends, family and enemies.
  • A lengthy lecture on a practical subject. Though it had many tangents, the sum was “to prepare for contact with the spirit world, you need to have a healthy physical body.” It was punctuated with four selections of popular, inspiring music, including Louis Armstong’s rendition of “What a Wonderful World”
  • We stretched, and an offering was collected
  • The two mediums received and shared messages. I got two.
    1. From St. Luke, offering support for “a medical issue”, counsel to heal myself, and advice to journal with plans to review my journal in a year’s time.
    2. From an unknown entity, who enjoined that I might find spiritual resources from the Hadisim, but perhaps not for many years.
  • After the messages, there was a simple, casual farewell.

I listened attentively and thanked them for their readings. And later realized these were among the most useful and memorable — certainly personal — take-aways I’ve gotten from any church in I can’t tell you how long. By contrast, I can’t tell you a single thing about the morning sermon.

There was a hymnal — more about that in a moment — but we didn’t sing from it. We did use it to find the affirmations and a concluding prayer after the chakra meditation, pasted in the inside covers. Each part of the service was well-described and directed. Though there was no printed order of service — I’m glad there wasn’t, or I might have left after the first hour — I was never lost and never unsure of how I was supposed to participate.

The small hymnal, had I not seen the cover, might have easily been either a Unitarian or Universalist hymnal from about a hundred years ago; certainly there were many of the same hymns, but also something of the same pluck and optimism. It makes me wonder if our real kin are in this direction, and not in the mainline, like the UCC. Or, perhaps had the Unitarians and Universalist not consolidated, one or both might have dwindled to a small (smaller? tiny?) denomination with an equally oddball reputation. (Did I say that out loud?) And while Spiritualist are pretty clear that they’re not Christians, they don’t suffer the same angst Unitarian Universalists do, which made it far more comfortable and welcoming then when UUs “do” Christianity on rotation.

In any case, I’m happy we went. Happy souls surrounded by happy souls, visible and invisible.

St. Nicholas was good

Ms. Theologian noted a story about an Oregon Washington man who put up a Santa crucifix in his yard, to protest the commercialization of Christmas. Great idea.

But rather than getting het up about Jesus getting left out, I feel for St. Nicholas, who has become a shill for shopping and saturated fat. The real man, a Christian bishop, is someone to celebrate and emulate. There was an op-ed in the New York Times on Christmas Day, from which comes:

And what of the throwing of the bags of gold down the chimney, where they landed in the stockings and little shoes that had been hung up to dry by the fireplace? Charming though it sounds, it reflected the deplorable custom, still prevalent in late Roman society when the Byzantine church was struggling to establish the supremacy of its values, of selling surplus daughters into bondage. This was a euphemism for sexual slavery — a trade that still blights our world.

Little wonder St. Nicholas is the patron of brides: a cloaked reference to women who escaped sex slavery. And there are other stories like this.

If you missed it, go back and read “St. Nick in the Big City” by John Anthony McGuckin.

I also wrote about St. Nicholas in 2005 and 2006.


Today is Saint David’s Day, the patron saint of Wales. His shrine (where some think lie his remains) is in a town (technically a city) of the same name, in the traditional county of Pembrokeshire.

This seems to be a good time to recall that Universalist son of Pembrokeshire, James Relly.  And in case you don’t have his book Union, you can download it at my other site. (You’ll need to register to download it.)

Mo’ than ho ho ho: Happy St. Nicholas’s Day

St. Nicholas is very cool, and today is his feast day in some countries, which is cause of gift-giving. He is associated with sailors, harbors, brides, children and sundry others due to miracles associated with the fourth-century bishop from Asia Minor. A people’s saint, and quite the pastor in life I gather.

The Wikipedia article is a good place to learn more about him.

Ukrainian icon of St. Nicholas. Source: Wikipedia