How would one conduct a Unitarian worship service using a Victorian-era (1877) Christian rite, in a historically appropriate way? This is the question asked in one of those confidential mailing lists I subscribe to. I won’t say which list, or where such a service might take place. It doesn’t really matter since this could happen anywhere in “Unitarian-dom” (or “Universalist-dom”) if only the option was known.
First, I suppose it should be asked, “Should worship take on the guise of historical re-enactment?” Doesn’t it, in this case, cast Christian worship as a part of the Unitarian and Universalist past? I suppose it might, but I’m inclined to take Christian worship — or historical understanding — where you can get it. Other churches, particularly the Episcopalians, are known to conduct worship using an antique rite to commemorate an anniversary (like the 450th anniversary of the Merbecke setting) or to better understand and record old ceremonies.
That said, I wouldn’t overdo it, say, to include period clothing. So here are some thoughts on its execution.
1. No vestments. You heard it here first. A Unitarian minister of the period would have worn street clothes, though perhaps a frock coat. This Protestant use of formal clothing for preaching continued in some places so long that a cutaway is still sometimes associated with old-fashioned ministers. (A Universalist predecessor of mine at Canon, Ga. wore one as late as the 1920s or 1930s; the church’s eldest members recall Br. Rasnake’s “preaching suit”.)
See this article from Material History of American Religion site.
2. Real wine — or perhaps water — and real bread. I suspect Unitarians would have used real wine and not grape juice in 1877, as pasteurized grape juice — thanks to that esteemed Methodist Dr. Welch — was still pretty new at the time. But they might have used water. My former pastorate (Universalist) certainly did in the period and several votes fought back the grape, fermented or not. (I think it was the cost.) One of my favorite images of Hosea Ballou — Universalist again, and probably thirty years too early — is him leading communion. The bread looked like a sliced sandwich loaf on a footed cake-plate. (He also had a cup as above, plus flagon.) I’d commend pre-cubed plain white bread on a napkin-lined plate.
3. One cup. Individual cups — a response to infectious disease, and especially cholera — didn’t come into vogue until the 1880s. A low-church communion cup would have been tall with a lip, as opposed to the coupe-like chalices used commonly by Catholics and Episcopalians.
4. I’m at a quandry as to the leader’s posture. Lacking any direct citation or references, I would suggest the officiant kneel for the whole service at the “north horn” — the corner of the table to the congregation’s left — or even pray the whole rite from the pulpit. Really. Touching the cup or elevating the elements would surely have been unknown and denounced as “papist.”
5. I haven’t a clue as to distribution, but in-the-pew would have its own challenges. Especially if you don’t have pews.
6. So when? Believe it or not, I would hold a communion service after the main Sunday service, that is, after the benediction. This was the custom. And most members of the congregation would surely have absented themselves.
Oh well. Some things never change.