Theistic worship: notes from “the Unity Men”

I’ve been writing at this site (and earlier, at boyinthebands.org) since 2003, and it amazes me that I’ve written so little about “Western Unitarianism” or “the Unity Men”: those Unitarians of the Western Unitarian Conference who promoted a theistic moral religion, in contrast to the Unitarian Christianity of New England.

This is all I found of mine in 16 years of writing:

A fiddle-and-lecture order of service

To be honest, it’s not my thing. But it is an honest expression of religious faith, has a genuine appeal and is a honorable part of the Unitarian tradition.

And more: I worry that they’re not going to be any new Unitarian or Universalist congregations. The UUA seems to have gone out of the church planting business. Perhaps this is just as well since there’s been noted tendency, even among the Christians, to encourage congregations to have an all-inclusive Unitarian Universalist identity, rather than being true to a particular vision. It never made sense to me, either on theological or polity grounds. This kind of society (and it probably would be called a society) might be very desirable today.

Without banging my “parish and church” drum too hard, the Theist church looks to me to be the perfect modernist parish without a church. By which I mean it’s a public service body, dedicated to education and morals though worship and service. Its “sacrament” is the pulpit. The (missing) church is that body of believers who seek (to keep it brief) closeness to God through profession of faith, and the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. It is specific in much the same way the parish is general. Can you guess which side the Unitarians have defaulted to? (And most, but far from all, of the Universalists.)

Of course, the Western Unitarians had a particular focus and context: public morals, personal development and a calm sense of awe and devotion. I’ll defer to those who know it better to describe it in depth. It was progressive in a way that might make us roll our eyes, but what doesn’t these days? Revivals, if anyone wants one, require interpretation.

Looking back to when they Western Unitarians were at their strength, you can also see a parallel movement in Reform Judaism. With its emphasis on the prophetic and universal, and a strong reduction in the use of Hebrew, Classic Reform offer something of a similar liturgical experience to the Western Unitarians. At least you could be excused if you stumbled into either service and confuse it for the other. Classic Reform at its most Classic Reformist had organs in worship, some used hymnals, might refer their pulpit-gowned rabbis as “The Rev.” and some even met on Sundays. I would love to visit one of the remaining Classic Reform congregations, though watching the livestream of services from Temple Emanu-el (New York) or reading the Union Prayer Book, Sinai Edition, Revised puts me close to the tone if not the text of the Western Unitarians.  I think the clearest “bridge” is the hymn “Praise to the Living God,” a traditional Jewish synagogue song, translated into English by a Unitarian minister. It was found both in the Union Hymnal (Reform Jewish, 1897) and Unity Hymns and Chorales (Western Unitarian, 1911). This is the same hymn that would open Hymns of the Spirit, and a version is found in Singing the Living Tradition.

Of course,  Unity Hymns and Chorales is where you go for a words, if you wanted it as a period piece. (Or perhaps from the Hymns of the Spirit, the fourth, fifth, sixth and eleventh services.) It’s lovely, but a new Theist society, eastern or western, will need to find its own voice and its own take on that vital if emotionally constrained approach to speak in this anxious age, beset by demons.

In praise of the pipe organs of Greenland

I don’t travel as much as I like, or I think I’d like, so I let my mind wander instead. As a child, I occupied myself with atlases and encyclopedia. In college, I heard the Iron Curtain fall by shortwave and met strangers by Usenet. Since the early 1990s, I’ve trekked down the back alleys of the internet. Today, I remembered a site I once enjoyed about the pipe organs of Greenland. I could have picked something else as a window into Greenland; indeed, I also look at sales flyers. (Frozen pizza, anyone?) But with pipe organs, I not only get something of obvious ecclesiastic interest — I know nothing of organs but I do like to snoop around a church — but also a slice of what Greenlanders value in music, architecture and religion.

Pipe Organs of Greenland (randallharlow.net)

I’ve written about churches in Greenland before, but not for ten years or so.

The site has been nicely updated since I last looked it up. Be sure to click on the photos, which cycle you through the images for the town or village. The dramatic landscapes! Both the spare Nordic modernism of the larger towns, and the colorful historic churches. The lighting fixtures!

I think I prefer the more homespun choices. For example, I rather like what appear to be metal house numbers used in lieu of cards on hymnboards. (I’ve seen something like this before, at the now-demolished Third Church of Christ, Scientist, here in D.C.)

That little church in Nutaarmiut (2010 population, 36) is simple but endearing, and I might harbor wistful, romantic notions of the hamlet if it hadn’t been the scene of a triple murder in 2012. (I think that was about the time I stopped looking at Greenlandic churches.) Which, I suppose, is the value of travel — in fact, or by armchair — namely, the appreciation of what is, and not you would imagine to be.

W. E. Orchard, liturgist

For years I have run into the works of W. E. Orchard, and have made references to him twice recently. He was neither a Unitarian or a Universalist, but a Congregationalist minister later becoming a Roman Catholic priest. His service book, The Order of Divine Service for Public Worship, was evidently influential in Unitarian and Universalist circles.

I make reference to his works in the following articles:

Additionally, a prayer of his own composition appears in Hymns of the Spirit, in the Thirteenth Order of Service, for Easter :

O Thou who makest the stars, and turnest the shadow of death into the morning: on this day of days we meet to render thee the tribute of our thanksgiving. We praise thee for the resurrection of the spring-time, for the everlasting hopes that rise within the human heart, and for the gospel which hath brought life and immortality to light. Receive our thanksgiving, reveal thy presence, and send into our hearts the spirit of the risen Christ. Amen.

But I also introduce him here, because he will appear again as an associate of Unitarian minister Joseph Morgan Lloyd Thomas. Both of whom were member of the Society of Free Catholics, which will get me back to my ongoing series about the Independent Sacramental Movement.

 

Sharing my articles

I’ve gotten a lot of interesting messages lately and some requests to share the articles that I’ve written. I wish I could say it’s about my reviews of prayer resources or research into Universalist polity. No, it’s almost always about the UUA, the UUMA or their action against Todd Eklof. There’s a lot of anger towards the signers of that letter out there.

Sure, share my articles. I post them in public to be read. (And if I said no, how would I stop you?)

But if the point of sharing the article is to stir up trouble in your church, please consider speaking directly and clearly to whom you have the conflict instead. Use the systems of accountability you have at hand, rather than relying on gossip and back-channel. While sometimes effective in the short run, gossip and back-channel are intensely corrosive to a church and that way nobody wins anything.

Another prayer collection for your reference

Following some fan mail yesterday, I think I’m going to continue this thread of prayer resources for a couple of days more at least.

These days, I rarely write my own prayers. There are so many established prayers with deep and sensitive wordings, and written in the rhythm of human speech, that it makes sense to use those and take what time I have for worship preparation and put it into the sermon. These are not usually new published prayers, which too often look and read like free verse, are breathy in their self-satisfactions and stumble into cliche. I’d rather take something old and tweak it; say, if there are too many generic men or fathers.

One of the reasons I set up hymnsofthespirit.org was so that I could share the liturgical elements I scanned for easier searching. (Despite it being dedicated to the hymnal, the site now is really for the associated Services of Religion.)

I’m looking for other similar resources, and I think I found one: Morgan Phelps Noyes’s 1934 Prayers For Services: A Manual For Leaders Of Worship.

This work obviously isn’t a denominational work, but comes out of that thought-filled mainline Protestant stream, which included Episcopalians, Presbyterians and Unitarians. Several prayers from the then-standard Unitarian hymn-service book and James Martineau, with Anglo-Catholic Pearcy Dearmer and the evangelical-tinged YMCA being the other bounding limits.  I think it has promise, even if I might not think every prayer is appropriate.

Plus, it’s large and well-organized. The table of contents and index are useful alone for inspiring sermon themes. The selection of opening words is well-chosen, and includes occasions outside the liturgical church year, like Children’s Sunday.

There are, of course, many prayers. But one feature I look forward to using are “addresses to deity.” Fundamentally, collects are modular. You might remove the first part where you address God and replace it with something appropriate. Each section of the book (“The Prayer of Invocation,” “The Prayer of Thanksgiving,” “…Petition,” “…Intercession,” “…for Special Days and Seasons,” “… for the Funeral Service”) starts with these open-ended addresses. This can also be useful for prompting prayers that would be better for you to write or heavily adapt.

Lastly, the prayers are well-cited and the bibliography seems ripe for further exploration. I know I will.

The prayer from Malabar

So, the last prayer choice under “Close of Worship” in the Additional Prayers and Collects, in the 1937 joint Unitarian and Universalist Hymns of the Spirit is cited in the index as coming from “Liturgy of Malabar, adapted.”

Grant, O Lord, that the ears which have heard the voice of thy songs may be closed to the voice of clamor and dispute; that the eyes which have seen thy great love may also behold thy blessed hope; that the tongues which have sung thy praise may speak the truth; that the feet which have walked in thy courts may walk in the region of light; and that the souls of all who here receive thy blessed Spirit may be restored to newness of life. Glory be to thee for thine unspeakable gift. Amen.

I think it’s lovely.

Loveliness aside, you may ask, how did a prayer from fifth-century India get into something as New England-bound as the old red hymnal?

My first suspicion is that a Unitarian member of the committee recommended it rather than a Universalist member. I keep finding traces of early twentieth-century interest in antiquarian liturgy among Unitarians: an attempt to find the earliest, most authentic and most lowercase-c catholic strata on which to base liturgical devotion.  What keeps this from being simple primitivism is looking past the apostolic age and outside the New Testament. The Liturgy of Malabar is very old, but is the work of a developed church, and one that would have been very foreign to American Protestants. (And provides an link between the Unitarians and their later though brief interest in what we would call the Independent Sacramental Movement. More about that some other time.) Let’s put a pin in that curiousity: we will see this interest in a more universal Christian liturgical expression among the Unitarians again, and those influences on the Universalists.

While the prayer appears in different works before the red hymnal and since, its inclusion in W. E. Orchard’s The Order of Divine Service for Public Worship is the likely source, as the red hymnal also includes one of his own prayers. (Again, for another time.) This prayer is noted in that index as “(? 5th cent.) Neale and Littledale’s Translation.” John Mason Neale, better known as a translator of hymns, also translated liturgies. His translation of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” perhaps his best known.

But their translation of what? The Liturgies of SS. Mark, James, Clement, Chrysostom, and Basil, and the Church of Malabar. Is this Malabar liturgy the original East Syriac rite of the St. Thomas Christians, the restored East Syriac rite of the Eastern Catholics or the adopted West Syriac rite of the indiginizing church? There have been Christians in South India from antiquity, and the traditional founder of these churches was St. Thomas. Today the St. Thomas Christians range in theology and jurisdiction from the Nestorian to Eastern Catholic to Anglican. I ask all this with huge caveats: this is not my field, is centuries old and in languages I don’t read. Any clarification from readers would be well appreciated. Neale, in his introduction, isn’t clear about the source of the text he translated, but presumably from the Eastern Catholics with noted and obvious changes removed.

So what was the prayer originally? One given by a deacon, at the communion of the faithful. You can read it here.

The prayer has appeared in the Armed Forces Hymnal (1950); also here, here (for use after communion), and this textbook on worship.

It’s use as a post-communion prayer fits will with a liberal-Reformed use; I’ll use it at my next opportunity.

Liminal spaces, providing sacraments and Universalist theology

Responding to Tuesday’s post, Demas asked in the comments:

I’d be interested in reading your thoughts on what modern churches with less-than-optimal resources could do about the sacraments, and what your underlying beliefs about those are, if you wish to share them.

Dear Readers: You know I live for this, so I’ll reply as much as makes sense in one post, with a Universalist hook, of course.

First, what do I mean by the sacraments?

I’ll speak out of my belief and tradition, and even there only in brief. Sacramental theology is the kind of thing that could take up a lifetime so I’m not even going to pretend to scratch the surface. I hold two sacraments, or ordinances if you prefer: baptism, and the communion of the Lord’s Supper, as commended and ordained by Jesus Christ. I group all other actions, like confirmation, marriage and funerals as pastoral acts, though in practical terms providing them probably requires the same solutions in small and liminal communities.

And yet the sacraments derive not only their origin but their authority from Jesus Christ. He is the great and eternal High Priest, and we have, with boldness, a hope through those who gather in his name. The sacraments are valid and effective because they fulfill his promises. These promises include being known, being present and drawing us towards him. Which is to say the sacraments encourage, revive and sanctify us. They do not contort us into a state of being better or apart from other people, but throw us both morally and mysteriously into a greater likeness to God. Which is hardly a Zwinglian interpretation of the sacraments, though that’s probably more typical among denominational Universalists historically.

And the liminal communities?

While I’ve read about religious services in submarines and on Tristan da Cuhna, communities can be isolated in other, more ordinary ways. Dying towns, linguistic minorities, or cultural minorities — say a predominately gay church — might have a hard time getting a minister for the sacraments, even as an occasional visiting supply, to give three examples. I’d think the greatest isolator would be poverty, which might also rob a church of a pastor, or subject them to bad options out of necessity.

Two typical solutions are lay presidency and local ordination, which are likely to become more common in time. But there are risks. The former rejects officiating the sacraments as proper to, or necessarily from, the clergy, while the later tends to create different classes of clergy. I suppose neither is ideal, but being without the sacraments is worse. King’s Chapel in Boston, not Universalist but Unitarian, pivoted away from the Church of England when, denied the sacraments for years because of the Revolution, ordained their reader whom the Bishop of London wouldn’t. Thus a local ordination by the laity!

Back to the present. I would think that either a lay president or local minister would need training, perhaps something practical under the mentorship of a minister or (better) a group or association of ministers. That will depend on the setting. But even more, I would hope there would be plural presidents or ordinands as a practical matter, and to ease the responsibility of a single person being the last of last options for each and every service. Indeed, plural eldership (if coming from a low Reformed tradition) might be better still.

Universalist notes

As with most theological points apart from the final salvation of the world, Universalists held a variety of opinions and usually didn’t let those opinions get away of the essentials, of which the sacraments were not included. Yet there was tolerance. So while some ministers would not abide communion, it would always be found at meetings of the conventions, for instance. An open table was a condition of ministerial and parochial fellowship for generations, not being removed from the Laws of Fellowship well into the 1950s. In short, the sacraments were recognized, even if there wasn’t agreement about what they were or that they were necessary. There was this one point of agreement though: with two particular exceptions, their administration was the province of the clergy.

The first exception came very early on. Delegates at the 1790 convention at Philadelphia passed:

Whereas a great diversity of opinions has prevailed in all ages of the Church upon the subjects of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper; as also upon the subject of Confirmation, the Washing of Feet, Love Feasts, and the anointing the Sick with oil, &c. and as this diversity of opinions has often been the means of dividing Christians, who were united by the same spirit in more essential articles, we agree to admit all such persons who hold the articles of our faith, and maintain good works, into membership, whatever their opinion may be as to the nature, form, obligation of any or all of the above named ordinances. If it shall so happen that an application shall be made to a Minister to perform any of the said of ordinances, who does not believe in the present obligations of Christians to submit to them; or if he shall be applied to to perform them at a time, or in a way that is contrary to his conscience, in such a case a Neighbouring minister, who shall hold like principles respecting the ordinance or ordinances required by any member, shall be invited to perform them; or, if it be thought more expedient, each Church may appoint or Ordain one of their own members to administer the ordinances in such a way as to each Church may seem proper.

In other words, don’t get into fights about the ordinances. If your minister doesn’t agree, he (women weren’t ordained yet) should invite another minister who does to fill in. Or you can “appoint or Ordain” a member to do it. Appoint suggests a lay role within a church. A friend once pointed out to me that the resolutions at this convention were never repealed or repudiated.

The other example came late before the 1961 consolidation with the Unitarians. By that point, the ministerial shortage had become acute. Universalists had long had licensure: originally a probationary year before ordination where a lay person could preach and pastor a church, but could not “administer Christian ordinances.” Licensure was also a way to induct ministers from other denominations, and later became a status in its own right. (I think the last of the Universalist licensed ministers lived into the 1990s, and the rule allowing for them was quietly removed shortly thereafter.) By no later than 1946, licensed ministers were permitted “to administer Christian ordinances” “with the approval of the Central Committee of Fellowship,” a concession to the ministerial shortage.

But it’s worth noting that in both cases, this is an extension of church authority to a lay person to meet a particular need. Which is to say, there is a solution where people do not have access to the sacraments, but not one that individuals can confect in the presence of an orderly church.

Which is not to make it entirely about the Universalists, of course. At least in the United States, and perhaps anywhere Protestant missionaries (foreign or domestic) served: a shortage of ministers and a can-do spirit tends to make exceptions, and consider new options. Distance (literal or social) from seats of power intensifies the process.

And what if there’s not an orderly process? In such cases, God provides and ecclesiastical authority yields.

Possible source for non-Biblical responsive readings

Yesterday’s century-old Unitarian resource reminded me of another.

The “non-biblical” reading has been a staple of Unitarian and Unitarian Universalist worship for ages; in some societies, it’s the default. Of course, even in late antique Christian worship, hymns were adopted in worship as extra-biblical texts but I’m describing something that functions in one hand as a hymn or psalm, but may also be used as a preaching text.

Some time back, while looking for another book online, I found one that looks like an early source of these, edited from the work of “great authors”, led by Unitarian minister John Haynes Holmes.

The 1919 edition is in the public domain, and that’s the one I’ll be referring to. (While the the 1929 edition may be checked out by persons with an archive.org account, only one person may use it at a time.)

It’s a bit like the Golden Book of Liberal Religious Wisdom, with arranged readings from Tennyson, Whitman, Jesus, the Buddha and Marcus Aurelius. Some Whitman in his birth bicentennial. And Channing in the bicentennial year of his Baltimore Sermon. It even has Parker’s “arc of the [moral] universe.”

selection from Parker reading

The red 1937 Hymns of the Spirit has a few non-Biblical responsive readings, and so I’ve wondered if some of those readings were built from these. That Channing one above has the text for the responsive reading “I Call that Mind Free,” a staple of the blue hymnal and the gray (#592).

Sure, some are stuffy, but there’s a grandeur to them that deserves respect and perhaps emulation, even if only for private meditation.

Revisiting the Lay Centres book

More than five years ago, I first wrote about a Unitarian effort about 110 years past for the creation of “lay centres” that in many ways anticipated the post-WWII Fellowship Movement.

There’s little I can find about this initiative apart from a few articles and a small worship guide. I intended to say more about the book — famous last words — but it is fragile and rare enough that I did not want to subject it to a flatbed scanner.

2014-04-02 21.13.36

So I’ll pick up where I left off.  A couple of years used my phone camera to first “scan” it, and then produced a version to share. This is part of my ongoing meditation what churches can do with less-than-optimal resources. So far as I know there’s a single survivor from that experiment: First Unitarian, Memphis, a.k.a The Church of the River.

Here are those articles listed in one place, to finally launch my review. Hope it’s helpful; comments welcome, below.

About the Bisbee trial

Because of the controversy around the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association’s public censure of Todd Eklof, there’s been talk of heresy trials. Of course, there’s no trial yet, just the censure and waves of accusation, though some formal action could happen. (I wonder what the euphemism will be?)

There was a trial of a Universalist minister, Herman Bisbee, that’s widely regarded as a heresy trial — and a mistake. Naturally, it’s come up in the Facebook conversations (with Michael Servetus, whom I’ll leave for someone else to write about) so good to give some context to those unfamiliar with the situation. I’m going to pull together what I’ve written about it plus any original documents I can scare up.

But Charles Howe’s article at the Dictionary of Unitarian & Universalist Biography is detailed, and rather than re-write one, I’ll point to his.