Revisiting worship from 1939

I’m making a historical review of worship at Universalist National Memorial Church, by request, to help worship leaders understand how worship has developed. I’m curious to see what will turn up.

I’ve written very generally about a set of orders of service, saved in the Library of Congress ephemera collection and posted online. Two posts (1, 2) from 2012.

So, what can we tell from the order of service? Some initial thoughts.

  • It’s pretty easy to see the morning prayer format. The Venite, the typical morning psalm, is a pretty big tell, too. The current UNMC service has all of the elements of morning prayer, with some parts more emphasized than others, and new elements (joys and concerns, center aisle greeting) added.
  • The call to worship, invocation and Lord’s prayer are grouped, with the organ prelude and hymn (music) and procession (action), as a unit: the opening sequence.
  • In Hymns of the Church services, the opening sequence may begin with opening words, but the hymn fills that role, presumably. The call to worship is the statement of the purpose of worship. The second service has a prayer for purity, which almost presumes a private and unspoken confession. Or if not confession, then at least a good intent. You see this construction in other published services.
  • With sentences, we hear echoes of this sequence at UNMC today, though the Lord’s Prayer is in another place.
  • The responsive readings are really long. About twice as long as found in the 1964 Hymns for the Celebration of Life and absolutely endless by 1993 Singing the Living Tradition standards. About two psalms worth, but perhaps used in halves, as suggested by the order of service, and the penciled notes in the Archives.org version of the Hymns of the Church.
  • The prayer after the scripture reading may be a general thanksgiving, a part of a larger sequence from Anglican morning prayer. The “pastoral prayer” or “long prayer” may be implied here.
  • In morning prayer, two major elements can appropriately be put in different places: announcements and the sermon. The announcement placement problem is perennial. In one version of “morning prayer and sermon” the sermon comes close to the end, before an optional prayer, final hymn and benediction. This is what UNMC has now. The printed order of service has the sermon after the reading, which might be a more modern ordering. But that’s not necessarily an endorsement.
  • This service includes communion, a service its own right of course, after the usual morning service. Several years ago, a member of UNMC told me that Seth Brooks, who began his long pastorate the following week, presided over communion from the pulpit. Make of that what you will: better amplification perhaps, and that the thin space behind the altar was never meant for a versus populum service. (I recall getting a shoe wedged in.) And there’s no way that stone will move.

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Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.

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