There are many years of the Universalist Register, the denominational directory, on either side of the turn of the twentieth century available from Google Books. But there’s a catch. The most useful part (I think) is the set of charts identifying the location of parishes and churches, their membership, minister, clerk and how often they meet for worship. These are printed at ninety degrees to the running text, and the Google’s scanning treated them like images, and lifted them out of the text. Not helpful.
I found a single issue of the Register — the 1912 edition — scanned by and from the Library of Congress. A touch of irony: the charts are printed right way up, so it wouldn’t have mattered.
Lots of fun things therein.
Ah, I let my subscription to the Universalist Herald, “The Oldest Continuously Published Liberal Religious Periodical in North America” lapse, but I corrected that before General Assembly. Since then I’ve gotten an issue — and I’m so glad I’m back!
You should get yours, too, here.
For the last week or so I’ve been praying an abridged version of Universalist morning and evening prayer (evening prayer, rather than the morning prayer and vespers PDF I posted) at home. Abridged in that I don’t read out the dialogues, opening words or anything to direct the congregation. No hymns and obviously no sermon.
A psalm or two, a reading, and the usual prayers. I add a collect for the day, and I’m slowly working through various resources to find these, and collects for special occasions.
I’m getting used to the rhythms of grammar of the prayers, and I add to specific petitions more naturally each day. I started using small sticky notes to remember particular people places or situations in my prayers. Some elements are showing their age; others provide timeless comfort.
Even after a few days, I can feel something changing my direction towards God, and I look for new discoveries in the days and years to come.
When we look at the norms of Christian worship, there is a standard of time, however frequently it’s broken. (Non-Christian Unitarian Universalists note this, too, considering where we get our worship habits.)
To put it so briefly as to risk being misleading, daily prayer should go up morning and night each day, and we should attend to the Table each Sunday, and that’s excluding duplicated services on Sunday morning. Two times seven is fourteen, plus one equals fifteen. So ideally a congregation should have at least fifteen worship services a week, if not more. But who does that? Some Episcopal cathedrals, if you’re lucky. And the occasional parish in Advent or Lent. But a leaner schedule is more customary, considering staffing costs or parishioner demand. Even a few decades ago, mainline Protestants would commonly have two services outside Sunday morning (Sunday evening and a midweek evening service, often on Wednesday) and communion once a month. This create a roughly the same ideal-weekly proportion of worship services over the course of a month. In short, a more appropriate rhythm developed, and one that seemed appropriately scaled. Some small town churches — we certainly see this among Universalists — take that to an even smaller scale. A service a month or so and communion once a year (if ever) based on the ability to secure a minister’s services. (How many of us have preached on a circuit?) Indeed, include too-cold or too-hot weather, and I suspect you find the UUA’s ten-services-a-year minimum. And now the ideal-weekly schedule gets pulled out over a year. But perhaps that’s appropriate, given the size and resources of the congregation, and the size of the community. The rhythms adjust to fit the capacity of the congregation, which might have a much (or more) to do with leadership as money.
And so, if this is true of worship, it is surely also true of mission and education, to name two other key functions of a church. And sometimes, particularly in small churches, one function will exist to the practical exclusion of the others. We all know of churches that struggle to stage a Sunday service. And how some Fellowship-era congregations existed primarily at first as Sunday schools. Some can even exist only as mission, or at least at their mission arm. Here I’m thinking of little Universalist churches that closed, leaving a women’s organization — sometimes for decades — is a group dedicated to fellowship and possibly for service not a valid expression of the church?
And so to my point. A church may not have the expected size or scope of activity and yet may be a genuine expression of church. It may start small, grow in size and complexity, and then later contract and simplify. The right goal needn’t be continued and progressive development, but graceful adaptation to new conditions and the good sense to make the most of it.
In case you wanted to see the printed services used at First Universalist Church, Providence, held over General Assembly, please download this PDF (4.2 Mb). I created this not out of the 1941 edition of A Book of Prayer for the Churches that First Universalist, Providence, uses, but the 1957 edition printed by the recently defunct First Universalist Church, Woonsocket, Rhode Island. (I got it on eBay.) Just to be clear that the tradition isn’t a nineteenth-century re-enactment, but long-held. And there’s a difference.
But the text for morning prayer and vespers in the two editions is the same. Note: we prayed vespers and not evening prayer. Evening prayer developed from vespers (the evening service) and compline (the service before bed) so that raises the question: why does the book have both? I don’t know, except to think that some churches used one and some the other. I’ll have to analyze their differences.
A word about how they ran. The pastor of First Universalist, Providence, lead the services making “micro-alterations” and applying local, customary ceremonial. We were supported in our singing and chanting by organ and organist. With readings (Old Testament and Gospel in the morning; New Testament epistle for vespers), sung responses, psalm, a brief address, and a hymn (vespers only) the services ran about 20-25 minutes in the morning and fifteen for vespers.
One feature of the opening ceremony at General Assembly is the welcoming new congregations. Normally — and perhaps I’m dating myself — there are several welcomed into membership. Except this year there was only one congregation, the lowest I’ve ever seen. Congratulations to Original Blessing, Brooklyn. But when I asked the question does it matter? The answer is undoubtedly yes.
Not all young congregations survive. Not all young congregations encourage the ministerial college by providing employment. Not all young congregations contribute talent for common work, or funds. Not all young congregations reflect well on the common fellowship, or add to mutual encouragement.
But all congregations do depend on the strength that new growth provides. Some congregations have gotten larger over the last few years, and some have gotten smaller. But nothing lives forever. To keep from shrinking, we need new congregations, and one isn’t enough. We need leaders with experience to foster new congregations, and one isn’t enough to found them.
So, again, I’m happy for Original Blessing. I only wish it had some cradle mates.
I went ahead and orderod what seemed to be the most practical New Testament with Psalter; it arrives on Wednesday. Not in love with the theme and it seems to be (non-leather) softback, but the size, translation and price are right. And I can use the “helps” as a substrate to paste on prayer material.
Faith-Sharing NRSV New Testament with Psalms (Cokesbury)
If that doesn’t do, I’ll go for one of these.
Bring your prayerbook! I’ll grow out my beard! Portland, ho! (An earlier video, possibly NSFW, for context.)
Unitarian Universalist Christians have no mission society or support base to help new Christian churches organize. And while that would probably be helpful, you have to work with what you have. Better to build from attainable work than to plan and plan fruitlessly.
So I commend to my readers six projects or habits that Unitarian Universalist Christians could undertake to make the work of starting new churches that much easier:
- Talk up funding, whether it be by Faithify, some other crowdfunding platform. private pledge or Chalice Lighters. Stand ready to give.
- If you preach, be willing to license sermon texts to be read in the new congregation.
- Be available to attend worship of a new congregation, if one gathers within a reasonable travel distance.
- Commit to praying for the new congregation regularly.
- Research online for meeting locations for the new congregation. Prepare a spreadsheet with the map coordinates.
- Survey what talents you already have that might be useful to a congregation — copy editing, digital image processing, sewing, contract review come to mind quickly — and offer your services. Be prepared to decline graciously.
I dashed these out in less than fifteen minutes. I bet you can think of more.
This quotation from Elbridge Gerry Brooks’s Our New Departure (page 14) sticks with me. Again, this has an echo of familiarity.
Has not our effort been to convince the head that ‘orthodoxy’ is not true, and that God is good, and that all men are to be saved, rather than so to present the fact of God’s persistent and pleading love, and of the ultimate repentance and obedience of all, as to convict the heart of sin, to quicken the conscience to a sense of guilt, and to bring the people, in penitence and a confession of personal need and obligation, to their knees? In a word, has not our labor been theological more than experimental, aiming to make Christian Universalists, and to build and consolidate a Universalist denomination, rather than to make Universalist Christians, compacted and consecrated in the Universalist Church?
The deepest and most interior meanings of Christ’s work have never been wholly overlooked among us; but, as the rule, we have given more attention to the fact that he is to save, than to the question, How ?