How the Hymns of the Spirit editors saw the services

Another phone-typed blog post as I wait for my bus to church this morning. Yesterday I wrote that one service was unlike the others.  This is incorrect: there are two. In the editor’s words:

The first five services are of a traditional type, based upon forms long familiar, but printed with greater detail and choice of content. The Sixth to the Ninth Services follow a similar but simplified sequence of events, and are ethical in tone, as are the Tenth and Fourteenth Services. The Tenth and Eleventh Services follow a somewhat different pattern, which has proved acceptable in some churches. The Twelfth to Sixteenth Services are for use at Christmas, Easter, a Spring Festival, Thanksgiving Day or Harvest Festival, National Anniversaries or a service for International Peace. For other special occasions, — Whitsunday [Pentecost — ed.], All Souls’, Children’s Sunday, etc. — the usual order of service can easily be adapted by the use of appropriate scripture and responsive readings, and of prayers selected from the section entitled Additional Prayers and Collects.

Two issues come to mind. First, that Hymns of the Spirit is essentially a Unitarian project that the Universalists joined, as evidenced by the list of miscellaneous services core to the Universalist calendar. (Did the publishers fear low Universalist adoption?)  See also the set of hymns at the back that “do not enter into the general scheme of the book. ”

But that’s the past. Consider instead the opportunity. So often, an old mode of worship is judged poorly as if it were an anthology of elements. But a service also includes a framework, directions, themes, and the provision of options. These are also valuable in discerning the liturgical theology of a church and tradition.  (The physical space and use of light, sound and artifacts too.)

Which brings us back to Service Eleven to consider for rehabilitation in the New England tradition of liberal Protestant churches.

The shape of services in Hymns of the Spirit

The old 1937 joint Unitarian and Universalist hymnal, the Hymns of the Spirit had orders of service and liturgical elements that I suspect were well used through the 1960s and 70s, with use continuing til today.

You could divide the services into clearly Christian, something other than Christian but familiar and services for holidays and special occasions.  Leaving the holiday services aside, I was pleased to discover that all but one of the other services walked down the well-established path of Morning Prayer with Sermon, with its origins in the Elizabethan prayer book. The not-Christian services were (on the whole) simpler, and the Christian services had the — or rather, a — litany preceding the collects,  but the lineage is unmistakable. Certainly to the Episcopalians and others heralding to the same tradition — optional Presbyterian service books come to mind — since Morning Prayer and Sermon would have been the default service back then.

Which should make me happy? Not quite. Morning Prayer and Sermon is a hybrid affair, and the sermon feels like an indigestible afterthought.  But with really good music and a careful preacher it functions like a stimulating alternative to Evensong. Alas, I have small congregations with little access to fine music in mind. More mission post than cathedral. 

For these, the service which was the exception might help. More about that next time.

For the record,  I’ve written this on my phone with the WordPress app — a first for me.

Bible study in Unitarian Universalist congregations

Unitarian Universalist blogger Plaid Shoes (Everyday Unitarian) is frustrated by the lack of Unitarian Universalist-produced bible study material and got helpful suggestions from commentors. Dairy State Dad followed up, but otherwise there haven’t been any follow-on blog posts so far as I’ve seen. And I have an idea or two.

I understand the concern, but I’m not aggravated in the same way. For one, there are some denominational materials produced — if you go back a few years — particularly considering the thin demand for the resources and the high cost of producing good ones. Also, to a large degree, denominational materials have given way ecumenically to joint projects. And perhaps even more to the point, adult bible studies are often conducted without step-by-step lesson plan. That’s where I would start, or more accurately with a copy of Walter Wink’s Transforming Bible Study (which was popular when I was in seminary) or another guide on leading bible study itself.

I’d ask potential class members why they want to study, and commission one or two willing persons to learn enough about some basic concept to teach a class that’ll bootstrap further discussions and more self-directed study. Consider four different orientations a class could take:

  • better understanding how the Bible came to be as a literary artifact, and its influence in culture.
  • making peace with emotionally difficult passages of scripture, or how certain passages have been used in class members lives.
  • examining the claims made by biblical figures and themes on personal and political behavior.
  • touring the Bible for poetic and inspirational selections.

I’d try to organize five or six sessions around that and then disband or re-commit to another phase or theme. Or even a book study. But if the group is very unexperienced with the Bible, I’d start with the sessions about the Bible as an English document.

  • a review of leading English translations
  • films (television, music) that depict passages from the Bible
  • a how-to session about the general sections of the Bible, the genres they’re written in and the tools and apparatuses (maps, concordances) that of often bound with the text.

And of course, plenty of time to ask open-ended, judgement-free questions about what people want to know and learn.

Giving up Unitarian Universalism for Lent

I wrote this three years ago, and on March 1, 2014 — for some reason, perhaps Google searches — it was the number one item read here. So I thought I’d give it some attention.

I’ll keep this short.

I have a maxim I live by: if something you desire or rely-on continues to fail you, hurt you or inhibit you, get rid of it. The initial pain is nothing like the eventual relief. A collorary: you can’t change some situations, and eventually you’ll wonder why you thought you could.

I keep running into this phenomenon with Unitarian Universalists, in no small part because there’s so little choice. Most areas have a single Unitarian Universalist church. There’s only one functioning denomination (and a few independent movements, which I shall discuss in coming weeks) and its theological breadth seems narrower than when I joined my first church some quarter-century ago. There’s an implied bargain: accept the status quo, or leave. But don’t you dare make a fuss on the way out. Certainly, on the Christian end, the United Church of Christ has been the winner in that bargain.

I was a member of the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship — and this is the first time I’ve mentioned this in public — because it was the only game and I had fond memories and friendships, but I let my membership lapse because its offerings were skimpy and quietist, and its direction haphazard. I let my membership in the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association lapse because its programming was never directed toward my professional needs or station, never offered meaningful services, not to mention being shockingly expensive. And I’m more-than-usually weary of the Unitarian Universalist Association itself because it confuses busyness with services, and the current leadership — well, some — is engaged in a power-centralizing campaign. Monopoly, with appeals to emotional and professional dependence (perhaps not so much with the UUCF), makes for a bad bargain at the grassroots. If I hear covenant used as a coded message to clam up and step back in line, I’ll scream so loud that Cotton Mather will rise from his grave. I didn’t come to Unitarianism or Universalism for its threadbare institutions or the opportunity to conform.

I still think we can do better. But not if there’s some existential fear that, without current Unitarian Universalist institutions — I’m thinking of the appeals surrounding Meadville-Lombard, but not exclusively — the whole movement will drift into the Void. Indeed, I think we would fare well without some. Call it a Lenten meditation on self-reliance, and to a degree, self-respect. We can do better.

And I gather some people have figured this out, when I read Bill Baar’s comment in a recent blog post where he states that “I’m aware [that some districts] are contemplating a life post UUA.” Or when I read Unitarian Universalist minister and blogger Elz Curtiss in the comment following or at her blog, Politywonk, lay out the moral and historical situation from the Unitarian side.

Just keep telling yourself we can do better and remember it needn’t be with what we have now.

Please remember Tim Jensen in prayer

According to his brother Erik, he died yesterday (Sunday) morning.

He was a minister (most recently at Portland, Maine) but perhaps known equally as well in Unitarian Universalist circles as a blogger. I think of him in that generation of Christian ministers that immediately preceded my own, and who held on when there didn’t seem much reason for trying. I also think of him in that heady Unitarian tradition that values thought and reasoning more than now commonly seen.

His cancer was a matter of record — and I appreciate him carrying us on his journey — but I had hoped he might recover, or at least have more time.

Victoria Weinstein, knew knew him far better than I, has a few words here.

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 2 Timothy 4.7

Liberal Christian #4 pushed back

Who says it gets quiet in Washington? Between day job work and a much needed vacation, I will push back the publication date of the Liberal Christian magazine to give it justice. Look for it on August 24 instead of its scheduled August 17 release date.

Not ideal, but I suppose disclosure is something.

Better hope for the Unitarian Universalists

The biggest cultural divide among Unitarian Universalists (it seems to me) is over the question of whether of our religious movement and institutions are inherantly healthy or not. I suppose the yes crowd is larger because the UUA culture is so hard to change, and leaving (or being quiet) is an easier option for the “no” crowd. That, and some quarters are more defensive about criticism than others. (Meadville Lombard and Starr King — the theological schools — have some of the touchier stakeholders, for instance.)

I used to want to change and improve Unitarian Universalist institutions, but you can only run up against bristle-laden defenders and entrenched interests so long. In time, when you find productive and confident institutions or movements, you want to participate with them.What’s left?  An internal focus that begins to look a bit like self-obsession, or worse, self-pity.

Three signs?

  • Anti-racism (as an end, within congregations) is a more important than forming new congregations.
  • Defining basic Unitarian Universalism is a normative rhetorical flouish in our preaching.
  • The dogged adoption of shop-worn models. (Take, for instance, the Carver Model.)

So instead of trying to fix anything, the most I can manage is to identify and praise those who seem to have something better to give. I was thinking about the healthiest, most productive and most interesting systems among Unitarian Universalists.

Working from intuition, I think these would be the Partner Church Council and Project Harvet Hope, and in the informal sector, John Cooley’s immensly valuable

Can anyone else add some high-functioning signs of life?

Other coverage of UUCF Revival?

I see that UUCF Executive Directory Ron Robinson has blogged about the UUCF’s Revival Conference in Tulsa.

But I can’t see that anyone else present has. (I don’t know who’s there.) Nor do I know of any so-called hashtags (for example, #uucfrevival09) used to identify photos, microblog posts (like those found on Twitter or or more conventional blog posts.

Does anyone know of coverage of this event?

The Liberal Christian: update

After hearing from people about what’s affecting them, I’m expanding the subject focus of the next issue (perhaps next two) of the Liberal Christian magazine to include how the economic downturn changes your theological outlook and practice, and particularly how, if applicable, it shapes your view of Lent and Easter.

Also, I’ve ended the experiment of having visitors register before being able to download PDF copies of the magazine. I’m sure this has scared off some would-be readers, and fewer people signed up than I expected. (But I’m grateful to each of you.) Please do still register if you want updates (no more than monthly).

Unitarian Universalist group at

A quick follow-up from yesterday. Noting there was no Unitarian Universalist (or Unitarian or Universalist or anything kindred) group at the microblogging site, I created one.

I’m — as yet — the only member; please join me.