Thinking about church style

This is a first thought, because it will make my next blog post — about communion ware — make more sense.

When we think about what it means to be “churchy” we’re often — but not exclusively — talking about tastes and norms set by “the Ecclesiologists,” meaning that medieval-focused, Romantic movement that overwhelmed the Church of England in the nineteenth century. For them, there was one correct style appropriate for Christian churches — in a word, Gothic — whether that meant fully expressed in stonework, or vernacularized into the carpenter style. Think of pointed stained-glass windows. Why did this style cross the Atlantic and denominational lines? The prevailing taste, keeping-up-with-the-Joneses and the perhaps nothing so pedestrian as who the church architects and suppiers were. (This isn’t an original thought, and I’ve seen it in a few places, most recently in chapter two, “Capital Ideas: Building American Churches, 1750-1860.” of James Hudnut-Beumler’s In the Pursuit of the Almighty’s Dollar.)

There are noteworthy examples of Gothic Unitarian and Universalist church buildings, but so as not to lose the point: the creation of a common vocabularly of taste that’s hard to buck, save with variations, like the engrossed domestic style the Universalists seemed to favor, or the (later favored) colonial revival the Unitarians of Boston imposed on the Western churches who wanted financial support. And the less said about the post-war community centers hiding in their own private parksor forests — the  newer UU norm — the better.

This clip, from a 1922 issue of the Universalist Leader, shows that advertizers thought we might buy stained glass.
This clip, from a 1922 issue of the Universalist Leader, shows that advertizers thought we might buy stained glass.

Of course, those days may be declining: not a particular style or fashion, but the ability of churches to chose the shape of their buildings at all. I can all to easily imagine borrowed, rented or shared spaces being a part of the survival strategies of Unitarian Universalist (and other) churches in the all-too-soon future. Consider how many newer congregations meet in office parks or retail space.

Is short, design will have to be expressed in ways other than the building, and without the influence of an eccumenical community of tastemakers. It will be interesting what we come up with, and if we appeal to older and more humble models.

Fun midcentury Universalist Church logo

Still not quite ready to resume blogging, so combing through my “I should post this” pile.

This is the Universalist denominational logo, undated here, but probably from the 1950s. Not used for many years, but I’ve seen it on signs, pamphlets and here on letterhead — always this shade of blue, too.


Black Metal Universalism

My attention was drawn yesterday to a site called Black Metal Universalism, the only obvious purpose of which is the sale of t-shirts emblazoned with “All Souls” in a design that is a bit too daring for this 45-year-old to wear non-ironically.

So is it “our Universalism” or not? There are certainly independent Universalists, but most (any?) aren’t so culturally edgy and the success of the Universalist Christian t-shirts at the UU Christian Fellowship table at General Assembly suggests this comes from within “the family”.

I looked up the domain registration. The site was registered the day before yesterday, but no name! Naughty, naughty.

But all is forgiven. I approve of this kind of material culture; it helps reinforce a sense of belonging without depending on real estate….

So, here's that clever order of service I described

A few weeks ago, I mentioned a set of nicely-formatted orders of service/bulletins from First Church (Unitarian), Boston, that I found in the archives at the Andover-Harvard library. They were preserved in a file about coordinated opposition to the consolidation of the Unitarians and the Universalists because the minister’s message in them. But I recognized its good taste and yet was hesitant to post the photos of the order of service. Unless something is plainly public — websites and reported statistics come to mind — or of historic interest, I won’t discuss the business of a congregation. Is this too recent? We are talking about 1960: the matter is old (and decided) news and it’s very clear that I’m not going to get around to making a mockup of it.

So here are the photos. Click through to see enlargements. Lean but elegant stuff, this.





Mixed thoughts about memorial wreaths and flowers at momuments

I meant to make this post available well ahead of Memorial Day, but that obviously did not happen. There will always be another occasion for wreaths and tributes at monuments, though.

But it wasn’t a national holiday that made me think about this subject originally. I live in Washington D.C., and live near several memorials to foreign luminaries. Embassies and ex-pats will often leave flowers in tribute, so I see a lot of these. And then there are the wreaths and other flowers left at the military memorials. Florists must do well around here.

But not all choices are equally good. Here are some ideas if you intend to leave a wreath or make a floral  presentation at a public monument.

If I had to pick one action, plan for someone to clean up the wreath-remains within a few days. A pile of compost isn’t a tribute.

After that, choose the backing (and if needed, easel) well. The Ukrainian embassy left a wreath for the Schevchenko bicentennial earlier this year — in the context of a national crisis no less — but the flowers were attached to a plastic (think bread wrapper) covered foam hoop. Worse, it was too heavy for the wire easel, and with a slight breeze it toppled over and broke.

Before it fell apart

…and after

I found it broken I was out walking Daisy the Dog, but it was past re-staging.

Contrast this with a wreath the Slovak embassy left on the birthday of the first Czechoslovak president (and husband of American-born Unitarian, Charlotte Garrigue) Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk. The papier mache is stronger, so the wind did not destroy it, and the wooden easel adds dignity.

Before I put it back up
Before I put it back up


Or do without the easel, and mount the wreath with this tribute to the Madonna of the Trail, in suburban Bethesda. The coated wire provides a backing to hang the wreath. (And now I can imagine where the typical toothmarks of decay on old sandstone monuments comes from…)


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.

Reading "Bright Galaxy"

It’s been ages since I’ve seen Laile Bartlett’s Bright Galaxy: Ten Years of Unitarian Fellowships (1959) and I’ve never had one at hand long enough to read it closely. So I found a copy for sale online and it arrived a few days ago. It is still the definitive work on the Fellowship Movement, or at least the early phase.

I wondered what she thought the strengths and weaknesses of the fellowships were, and at least as importantly, what period Unitarian leaders thought they were doing. Why? Because even though it was an experience of rapid growth and geographic expansion, it’s hard to find someone in UUA officialdom that’ll call it a success or be willing to stake out a culturally-appropriate iteration of what “fellowships” can be. (Terminology seems to be part of the problem, thus the scare quotes.) But what we’re doing now isn’t working.

I’ll pull excerpts as appropriate.

And I’d never seen one with its dust jacket. See! Neuland!bright-galaxy



Image: Just the All-Conquering Love

The All-conquering Love logo, used by Universalists in the middle of the last century, has popped up on Facebook and drawn interest.

I used Inkscape to trace a vector image, peeled off the Universalist Church of America ring, and tidied up the lines a bit — and present it here.

As before, a PNG to use now, but the SVG (download) can be blown up to immense dimentions. Back tattoo? Billboard? Blimp decor?


eBay: late Universalist church sign

I was getting to the Universalist Church globe logo — quite a creature unlike others we’ve seen — from the 1950s, just before consolidation with the Unitarians. But if you’ve got the cash, you can get an original street sign on eBay.

I wonder what church it pointed to?