If you don't have millions to buy a Bay Psalm Book

This week one of the eleven surviving copies of the 1640 Bay Psalm Book, the first book printed in English North America, sold at auction.

The owner was Old South Church, Boston, and the sale reminded me of all the old Unitarian communion plate that was sold to keep the staff paid, the furnace stoked or the roof on.

Though I respect our history, I respect the institutions more. And there’s something sad when a communion cup or psalter becomes so valuable as an artifact that it loses its intended use; it’s like the Velveteen Rabbit in reverse. As treasure, the silver and the printed pages become less real. They were real because they were instruments of praise and thanksgiving. Better then, I think that they can be sold, conserved and placed on display, as indeed the new Psalm Book’s owner, David Rubenstein, intends to do. (He owns two of the eleven.)

Better still to keep the Great Thanksgiving at table, and our praises in song. And if you want to pray from the Bay Psalm Book… well, then thank God: you can read it online, in this 1903 facsimile reprint.

Bowen's parting thought on the Lord's Supper

Last month I read Unitarian biblical scholar Clayton R. Bowen’s “The Last Supper and the Lord’s Supper” “a lecture given at the Meadville Summer Institute on June 29, 1914.”

… Jesus be remembered, that the unswerving faith, the boundless hope, the sure hope, the boundless love, that made him our supreme Master and our supreme Servant, may somehow be kindled in us also, through this simple act that we do in remembrance of him.

I wonder if he wrote it in a self-consciously liturgical way. In any case, I’m going to hold on to it for possible later use.

"Wholly symbolic" communion?

In the joint Unitarian and Universalist 1937 Hymns of the Spirit the shorter communion service has a provision where “there is to be no distribution of the elements” “the communion being wholly symbolic.” I’ve never seen this ever done myself; has anyone?

Woodworking plans for communion trays?

Years ago, at a prayer breakfast, I received communion with others at our table, the bread and wine (juice, of course) from handmade trays. These were “smaller than a breadbox”. The individual cups rested in dimples in the base. A handle ran lengthwise, padded feet under the base and a groove through the base allowed them to stack, like these seen at a church supply house. (So much for illusions of a quaint English workshop.) At the breakfast, a small oblong plate covered the groove and made the apparatus self-contained. The “breakfast model” was smaller — 8 or 10 served, I think — so perhaps more modular for small congregations.

I would love to see plans and a buying list for these, either vintage or new.

Alternate cups for communion

I mentioned recently how a Dopp kit would be a good case for carrying communion supplies for home or hospital and an alternative to the junk so often sold by church supply houses. I mentioned I had an alternative for communion cups, too.

I can’t find a good generic term for what I have in mind. They are sets of stacking metal cups, probably for spirits, and intended (I gather) for traveling or camping. They almost always have a leather case, and most of the ones I’ve seen were made in Germany. They’re not new, and not West Germany, so perhaps pre-war? I have three sets, pictured above and below. The set with a black case only has two cups, but the case is surely synthetic (better for us vegetarians) and is new; this set was made in China. The largest set only has three cups, and they’re large. Not ideal.


One reason this might be a good option is that you, someone you know or someone in your congregation may already have a set of these cups. I got the black-cased set as a groomsman’s gift, with (I believe) with a flask. That’s a pretty common gift, speaking to how many may be out there.

But if you want to buy one? You can get sets on eBay: this current set in Tiffany silver (!) would be nice, if expensive. This old set on Etsy is more practical. If these stacked, it would be another good and appealing option. Also these, if they weren’t so darn expensive.

Dopp bag for communion

Last month, I wrote “In place of cheap church gear” and now let me suggest you use an old Dopp bag (or Dopp kit, or shaving kit) to keep your portable communion kit. The kit itself can be assembled from Nalgene-type bottles for the bread and wine. The other vessels (and linens and candles, if any) would depend upon your tradition. (I will have one suggestion for the free churches later.) A Dopp bag can carry all of these plus a small service book, orders of service or both.

Why? Because they’re a handy size, “read” as a case, and are easy to come by –indeed, you may have one or have one given to you.  I own three, including a grandfather’s leather kit which — apart from the sentimental value — has the added feature of being firm-sided to protect the contents. Dividers, sewn from sturdy cloth, or fashioned out of foam rubber would keep the individual pieces from jangling if there aren’t linens enough to meet this need.

Don’t serve communion? Consider a Dopp kit for storing and carrying the candles and bobeshes (protectors) for a candlelight vigil or Christmas eve service.


In place of cheap church gear

Hubby and I wandered into a well-known church supply house on Saturday.  I was struck by how shabby so much of the gear and books looked. Were the 1980s and 1990s the high mark for church design?  Must everything come in plastic.

Consider the home communion set made of a plastic clamshell box (which will surely wear badly), containing the kind of plastic bottle one would carry shampoo while travelling in (for the wine), another thin plastic tub containing thin plastic cups, and a tiny spun aluminum vessel with a tight fitting lid — serving as something between a pxy and a ciborium — for the wafers. The price for this disaster? $80.  It was neither large enough to be useful not small enough to be tucked into a handbag or laptop case. Of course, there are also fine church artisans, but it’s hard to justify so much a premium on goods when church budgets are under such pressure. And frankly, do we need another generation of neo-Gothic, neo-Byzantine or neo-Colonial whatsits?

I’ve written before about how church goods should be fairly sourced, and how secular goods can be repurposed for church use.  For the next little bit I will consider alternatives of the economical parson who wants well-made and tasteful equipment. And I’d like your help if you have ideas.

Imagining the lovefeast as a universal feast

Tonight and tomorrow night, millions of Jews will observe the Passover: a celebration of God’s deliverance from slavery. I’ve never been to one, tempting as family associations and food are. (I have, in my college days, had leftovers shared with me.) I’m OK having never attended a seder, and I would be just as happy to be invited into a Jewish home for it. I’m happy to be welcomed as a guest it and not be offended if it should never happen (my interest in haggadot and horseradish notwithstanding) because it isn’t my feast. I’m a Christian and not a Jew.

As a Christian, I recognize the liturgical and spiritual dependence of the Lord’s Supper on the Passover, and — at the risk of sounding anything but matter-of-fact — that’s good enough and close enough for me. And this is especially close to my heart as we approach Maundy Thursday, the one time in otherwise no-longer Christian Unitarian and Universalist churches that you might find it.

But it makes me think, too, the responsibilities Christians have when we do have, or share, or receive — the verbs are difficult — the sacrament at the table. A phrase I’ve seen Universalists use historically to invite others to the table is that it is open to all who see it “a privilege or a duty” so to do. Communion, at a basic level, is a matter (among other things) of Christian discipleship, and this is obscured when an invitation is made very broadly in the spirit of inclusivity. I’m not suggesting the table be fenced, but rather that the facts are disclosed to participants don’t practice something they didn’t intend. There’s a lot of subtext in worship, and that’s not a fair burden to put on the innocent. Especially if there are members of the congregation who have been attentively evangelized (see above.)

Better, I think, to revive or institute a service that, while coming from a theological point of view, is intended to be of equal access to all-comers. I think Unitarian Universalists like and create these services, but frankly they are often strangely named — anything with communion comes to mind, as my husband will tease me — or are liturgically awkward. Let me pitch for the Lovefeast, which has a quasi-eucharistic character, but has stronger focus on blessing and a real meal. (The Universalist drew from some of the Lovefeast-holding German sect, and in 1790 made its observance optional on all Universalists.) And which is not so owned widely known (except perhaps in areas with many members of Church of the Brethren) as to confuse newcomers. Or, use an agape meal form, but cast it as a Meal of Universal Blessing, where the form is one of blessing we ask to be given to ourselves and all others, and objectively state it is in addition to, and apart from the Lord’s table. Knowing I wasn’t overstepping, over-reaching or over-promising might be the real welcome some people need.

Software for that comparative liturgy project

A few days ago, I suggested a common dependence on Frederick Henry Hedge’s translation of the Liturgy of St. James for Unitarian, Universalist and Free Christian communion practice. Rashly I said would create a parallel text showing this development if I could find the software to typeset it.

I think I found what I was remembering: the parcolumns LaTeX package, in part because it can handle more than two columns in parallel. Shall test it, sooner or later, but I thought this tool would be helpful for others making liturgical comparisons.

As I proceed, I’ll also note which LaTeX graphical user interface (GUI) I’ve chosen, ’cause there’s no way I’m doing this in a plain text editor.