Don’t fill the meetinghouse with domestic bric-a-brac

I got so many nice comments from my post about not holding worship in the round, that I thought I’d press my luck by talking about how we decorate our worship space.

A few months ago I attended a worship service — not in a Unitarian Universalist church, if it matters — where the candles and flowers and paraphernalia of worship was made up of flower delivery cast-off vases, a hodgepodge of tea lights plus tatty papers and other assorted junk.

This wasn’t a poor congregation. They have full time staff, an old but large and attractive building and a prominent place in the community. And I remember thinking in the moment that this worship service was dragged down by the ticky-tacky.

Not that the congregation needed elaborate or expensive ornaments. But it should be fitting. And in a large building, large equipment is necessary. If the vases are donated, let them be large ones and few. A little taper on a candlestick is far more attractive than a mass of matches, barbecue lighters, or messy little tea lights. The readings that service leaders bring should be put into attractive if inexpensive folders, and not be seen as floppy bits of printed paper.

Less is more. And cleanliness is next to godliness.

And while you’re at it, revisit this video — a few years old and taggeted to an Evangelical audience, but still apt — about how your church may be perceived.

Commuting zones: airdrop


“We light this chalice…”

Finishing up a thought from last month. If you had to pick one part of the United States where — all else being equal — it would make sense to start a new church from scratch and with an external push (or airdrop) because there was relatively little support available nearby, where would you go? It would have to be sizeable city with no organized Unitarian Universalist presence.

I ran the numbers and one candidate rises above the rest: Lake Charles, Louisiana.


There are three small lay-led congregations — all organized in the Fellowship Movement era — within 100 miles. All together their membership is 40. The nearest residential parish minister is in Houston, Texas. And yet the Lake Charles metropolitan area boasts about 200,000 residents. Selection_074

It’s a gap in the map. Just a thought.


Why the Fellowship Movement will never come back

Following on yesterday’s post, we can talk about the Fellowship Movement with either praise or scorn, but either way, it will not come back. We have to understand what it was, good and bad, before deciding what we want. (Or what some of us want: I’m not suggesting Unitarian Universalists need to act as a united front with one missions policy.)

So, we can have something today that draws upon the lessons of the Fellowship Movement, but it’ll come with its own rewards and challenges. We do not live in the demographic world of the 1940s to 1960s. Anything we learn from those days needs to be translated for today.

Let’s count out the obvious differences. Can you think of others?

  1. We do not have a culture that defaults to church membership.
  2. Indeed suspicion of religion is at all time high, and despite our rhetoric of how different we are, we are still a religious institution to anyone criticizes religion.
  3. We don’t have a mass exodus to newly developed suburbs.
  4. There are a few areas where there is no liberal religious congregation. (But many are underserved.)
  5. We do not have a shortage of ministers.
  6. Women, who more likely worked at home in the Fellowship Movement era, and so may have been available for the volunteer roles necessary to run fellowships, are now more likely to work out of the home.
  7. Opportunities for social service in secular settings are more robust now they were in the Fellowship Movement era.
  8. The Internet makes it easier to connect with communities of religious liberals without actually having to be physically present.

It’s not polity LARPing or worship re-enacting

Here’s the word: Christians and the nameless group who appeal to accustomed polity standards (like plain congregationalism) not play-acting. We have something to say and something to offer.

I’ve been in this game for a long time now. And so it’s not hard to tell when I’m being sidelined or even gently insulted, although I didn’t understand this at first.

  • Oh, you’re a nineteenth-century Universalist.
  • I didn’t know there are any Christians left.
  • That’s fine for traditionalists like you but what you suggest isn’t practical.

There’s the insinuation that anyone who’s a Christian is being obstinate, or that our presence is indulged as some sort of polite inheritance. The same goes for anyone who insists that the processes within our religious institution should be held to a higher standard of democratic and spiritual accountability, using historic models of how Unitarian and Universalists organize. What better way to sideline people than to tell them they don’t belong, or that they belong to another era.

There’s the cruel insinuation that our religious lives are some kind of live-action role playing (LARP) game and that the way we worship is more about re-enacting then having moments of profound spiritual joy or insight.

They're probably not talking about the Universalist General Convention.  CC-BY-SA, Wikipedia/user, JensNiros

They’re probably not talking about the Universalist General Convention. CC-BY-SA, Wikipedia/user, JensNiros

To me, the issues are fundamental. Does Unitarian Universalism include a assortment of customs and churchmanships (we need a new word for that) that can cooperate without trying to undo each other? Meaning that there needs to be room for each to grow. Unitarian Universalism is increasingly a brand name: a kind of politically-involved, community-focused, liberal eclecticism, within in the bounds of respectability.

Or are we just subject to the American fascination for the new? Unitarian Universalists have the uniquely unsavory prospect of outliving what they have come to know is good and true.

I bring this up now because I have been posting so much historical material lately. I don’t necessarily feel old works should be used as-is, but the tendency to write off any resource or development (except trust funds) that’s more than a few years old means that we don’t dwell with our ancestors long enough to learn from them. Would it hurt to try? We don’t get inside their heads to see what they valued and what they rejected; we don’t understad their process. And because we don’t understand well what made them tick, it’s hard to see the arc of Universalist or Unitarian culture, past individual personal preference. How we do what we do is not an accident, but in many cases an inheritance. (I’ll post a couple of examples of “living fossils” within Unitarian Universalism when I come across them again.)

And once we understand how our traditions evolved, it become easier to draw on old cultural resources, adapting them to our own time. This is a serious practical matter. We have a thinner corpus of go-to worship, education and (perhaps) administration resources than we did 25 years ago. Through the Internet, the cost of storage and “duplication” has dropped to nearly nil, so we should be awash in resources, but we aren’t. It makes sense to reuse and recycle; I suspect money’s going to get tighter in the next 25 years. Room for everyone, and resources for all.




“A Hundred Unitarian Sunday Circles” (1895)

Moving back another generation from the Lay Centers I wrote about last week.


What is the next aggressive missionary movement for the Unitarians of this country to give their attention to? I believe it is the establishment of religious Sunday circles, or what I may call simple parlor churches, in a hundred–yes, in five hundred–communities where there are now no liberal religious churches or services.
Continue reading

List of hymns in the League of Lay Centers hymnal

A listing of the hymns in the Service and Hymn Book for the Unitarian League of Lay Centers, by incipit and by section. The hymns themselves are unnumbered; the number is the page. (Nearly all are one page long and no more than one hymn is on one page.)

I’ve also outlined the book’s liturgical offerings.

61. Let the whole creation cry
62. Be thou, O God, exalted high!
63. Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
64. Rise, my soul, and stretch thy wings
65. Still, still with Thee, when purple morning breaketh
66. Sovereign and transforming grace
67. To thine eternal arms, O God
68. Father, again to Thy dear name we raise
69. We praise Thee, Lord, with earliest morning ray
70. Thou Lord of Hosts, whose guiding hand
71. Come, Thou Almighty King!
72. Thou, whose almighty word
73. O Thou who hast Thy servants taught
74. This is the day of light!
75. O God, whose presence glows in all
76. Gracious Spirit, Love devine
77. Out of the dark the circling fear
78. Father of me and all mankind
79. Shine on our souls, eternal God
80. Return, my soul, unto thy rest
81. Mysterious Presence, Source of all
82. By cool Siloam’s shady rill

Worship and Service
83. Nearer, my God, to Thee
85. Wenn Thy heart, with joy o’erflowing
86. Life of Ages, richly poured
87. Eternal and immortal King!
88. God is love; His mercy brightens
89. Lord of all being! throned afar
90. Father, in Thy mysterious presence kneeling
91. Send down Thy truth, O God!
92. O everlasting Light!
93. As pants the weary heart for cooling springs
94. Awake, our souls; away, our fears
95. O God, I thank Thee for each sight
96. Abide in me; o’ershadow by Thy love
97. O God, beneath Thy guiding hand
98. O Thou, whose perfect goodness crowns
99. Glorious things of Thee are spoken
100. O Thou, in whom we live and move
101. Our Father! while our hearts unlearn
102. Let my life be hid in Thee
103. O Love Divine, Whose constant beam
104. One holy Church of God appears
105. Wherever through the ages rise
106. The Lord is my Shepherd, no want shall I know
107. O Spirit of the living God
108. Father of eternal grace
109. Oh, sometimes gleams upon our sight
110. Spirit of grace and health and power
111. O Blessed life! the heart at rest
112. Awake, my soul; stretch every nerve

113. Calm, on the listening ear of night
114. O Prophet souls of all the years
115. O Thou great Friend to all the sons of men

116. Lead, kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom
117. Now, on land and sea descending
118. Abide with me! fast falls the eventide
119. Our day of praise is done
120. Softly now the light of day
121. Abide with me from morn till eve
122. Teach me, my God and King
123. Lord, dismiss us with Thy blessing

Inside the Lay Centers service book

After poking around the League of Lay Centers service book I wrote about yesterday, I discovered something about how is organized.

For one thing, it was not meant to be used by itself. The recommended order of service called for scriptural readings to come from a book called The Soul of the Bible. This was a lectionary in the true sense; that is, a book of readings, rather than a chart of readings. That deserves some investigation in its own right. Because the hymnal section has no printed music, an instrumentalist would need to use another Unitarian hymnal for the music. Recommended hymn tunes point to hymnals noted as “C & H” and “H & T.” Matching the citations, we see that these are

C & H: Hymns for Church and Home: with Tunes. (1895)
H & T: Hymn and Tune Book for the Church and the Home: And, Services for Congregational Worship (1896)

The former would have been more useful. Printed tracts or sermons, rather than original compositions, are likely the sermons intended, but those could be ordered for free from 25 Beacon Street. These resources in hand, let’s turn to the commended order of service.

Order of Service

  1. Music — Instrumental or Vocal.
  2. Responses Service from the Service and Hymn book.
  3. Hymn.
  4. Scripture reading from “The Soul of the Bible.”
  5. Hymn.
  6. Sermon.
  7. Hymn.
  8. Closing Formula Read by the Leader, or by the Leader and People in Unison.

As we now turn to the duties, to the joys and sorrows of this busy life, may the spirit of a brave confidence in God be our constant support and comfort, and the consciousness that we are doing His will guide us into to the way of sincere fellowship with one another, and along the path of perfect peace. Amen.

A hearty little order.

But what do you get in a Responsive Service? The first two options are stucturally similar, with a selection of opening words; an exhortation in the first option or the Lord’s Prayer in the second; and a substantial litany. The second option ends “Praise ye the Lord/The Lord’s name be praised.” Even without parsing the text closely, the first scans Classic Theist and the second Christian. The other Responsive Services are thematic and shorter: a substantial responsive reading and a prayer.

These services themes are

  1. God Our Father
  2. Man Our Brother
  3. Jesus Our Leader
  4. Character Our Salvation
  5. Progress Our Destiny
  6. Spring
  7. Autumn
  8. Worship
  9. A Very Present Help in Trouble
  10. Blessed Are They
  11. Righteousness and Peace
  12. A Service of Thanksgiving
  13. Commemorative Service

A pretty Unitarian assortment, and you’d be forgiven if you looked for Boston Our Neighborhood. No sacraments, wedding or burial services — as one would expect for a lay service book — but no Christmas or Easter either. The selection of hymns is equally hard-wearing, grouped under the themes

  • Invocation
  • Worship and Service
  • Christmas (3 hymns, but none we’d think of as Christmassy)
  • Evening

Details about the services and hymns eventually. But I’ll look to the next Unitarian hymnal-prepended servicebook, Services for Congregational Worship (1914) for shared material.

As churches and institutions name candidates and hires…

This is that wonderful-terrible time of the year when many Unitarian Universalist congregations and community ministry settings announce (sole) candidates for called pastorates or hirings for assistant and non-pastoral positions.

So here’s a bit of the 1894 Universalist litany that speaks to this season. And spare a prayer for the search committees, applicants and pre-candidates (many of whom must necessarily be disappointed at some point) and the candidates.  I’m keeping a secret prayer for many of you.

Minister. We beseech thee, O Lord, that it may please thee to rule and guide and comfort thy holy Church universal; to bring into the way of truth all such as have erred and are deceived; to send laborers into thy vineyard, and to give saving power to the preaching of thy word;

People. We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.

Minister. That it may please thee to illumine all Ministers of the gospel and teachers of truth; and to give to them, and to the people committed to their charge, the needful spirit of thy grace, and to pour out upon them the continual dew of thy blessing;

People. We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.

A hymnal from Fellowship Movement prehistory

Reading Bright Galaxy is making me re-visit the scattered history of earlier Unitarian efforts to organize lay-led congregations, including the League of Lay Centers. This was active, I believe, c. 1907-08.

[Correction: These were "Centers" and spelling changed;  but I believe there was another attempt with "Lay Centres".]

February 1908 issue of Unitarian Word & Work outlines the program.

I got in the mail yesterday a little find: Service and Hymn Book for the Unitarian League of Lay Centers. It’s undated, and judging by the condition, never used. I hope to share as much of it as I can.

2014-04-02 21.13.18

2014-04-02 21.13.36

The forward follows:


The formation of a League of Lay Centers has grown out of a demand for a liberal interpretation of religion and for a simple form of worship in harmony with it, such as can be conducted without the expense and responsibility of the ordinary church organization. This Service and Hymn Book has been arranged to provide for services of worship under lay leadership. And while it is brief and free from liturgical complications, it is hoped that the responses, prayers, and hymns contain the strength, beauty, and dignity which will commend them to the uses of thoughtful and reverent worshippers. Familiarity is, however, the best avenue of attachment for such a book, and too much cannot be said in favor of making use of all the services and all the hymns.

The compiler take this opportunity to acknowledge his indebtedness to Reverend Thomas Van Ness for the service and psalm selections taken from his “Responsive Readings,” and for many of the prayers selected from the Collections of the Reverends George Dawson and R. Compton Jones.

L. G. W.