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Congregation of Abraxas (site under construction)

Essay on Worship    ...Vestments..........Worship Reader (under construction)......... Historical Notes (under construction)

SCANS........ Matins........ Eucharist........ Compline........ Rite of Ordering (public version)

Digitized   Eucharist

Drafting an Overview of the Congregation of Abraxas

under construction (formatting, etc in process)

Digging Up A Little Unitarian Universalist 
Liturgical History:
Gathering Some Thoughts And Information 
On The Congregation Of Abraxas

© by Tom Bozeman, 2010

included on this web site with his permission

He invites comments which can be posted
in the right-hand column.

C O M M E N T S 


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     The Congregation Of Abraxas (COA) was a liturgical and missionary order whose primary aim was to develop liturgies for Unitarian Universalism.  From the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, an expanding number of clergy and laypeople gathered at retreats to discuss, practice, and refine liturgy; sent around writings on liturgy to one another and for publication; and developed fellowship with one another.  Whether or not the Abraxans made a lasting impact on Unitarian Universalism is open to opinion, as a convincing determination would likely need a good deal of research and analysis to argue convincingly in any direction (which is very much outside the scope of this exceedingly humble paper).  However, if nothing else, the experience seems to have had a positive impact on the primary participants.

     On that note of something being “open to opinion”, it should be noted that documentation of the activities of the Abraxans is rather scarce.  The central texts could be said to be a reader and supplement that were put together and released by the original five members.   These collect excerpts and original essays by a range of authors, from Congregationalist-Unitarian liturgist Von Ogden Vogt to Abraxan Vern Barnet.  The 1976 essay, “An Abraxan Essay: Worship,” was a collective effort and is currently the most widely-distributed piece associated with the Abraxans.  It appears in both the Reader and the Rite of Religion, as well as the websites of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations and the Community Resource for Exploring Spirituality (with which Barnet is affiliated).  Otherwise, however, the writings included in the Reader go in many different directions and, collected, seem to serve more as a source book for provoking thought around the creation and use of liturgy than as a specific unified perspective.  Indeed, I have gathered in my readings of what documents I could find and conversations with some of the members that the intention was to inspire and provoke, rather than to directly prescribe.  This is demonstrated in Barnet's placing the word “draft” on all liturgy that passed through his office and in The Rite of Religion's opening poem:
There is a shape to experience
whether or not there are words.
The words can reinforce the experience
or work against it.
This book is an exploration
pointing with words
toward the experience of worship.
Without experience
the words are nothing.
We hope this book will help
in thinking about worship services
and in planning them[...] 

     Further, both Stephan Papa and Vern Barnet (two of the original five members of the COA) seem to regard The Rite of Religion as something of a spin-off text.  None of the four editors of Rite was a founding member and they did not necessarily hew to the same vision as the original five.  To adequately examine and analyze the output and perspective of the COA, I believe that one would need to engage in a fairly thorough sifting of perspective and voice.  This difficulty is exacerbated by the limited amount of text to draw on and the differing memories of the participants involved.   Therefore, it is beyond the scope of this paper to include much more than a bare sketch of the output and activities of the Abraxans.  This author hopes that a greater scholar might be able to piece together something more substantive in the future.

    The COA was formed at the 1975 Convocation of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association in Buck Hill Falls, Pennsylvania by its original five members: 
· Duke Gray (now retired in Maine ), 
· Fred Gillis (now retired in Concord, NH ), 
· Stephan Papa (now working in Stewardship and Development at the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations ), 
· Harry Thor (now deceased ), and 
· Vern Barnet (now minister emeritus of the Community Resource for Exploring Spirituality [CRES] in Kansas City, MO ).
At the founding, the youngest of this group was Papa at 26 and, at 62, the oldest was Thor.   Later, they were joined by, among others:
· Wayne Arnason (now a parish minister in Rocky River, OH ),
· Mark Belletini (now a parish minister in Columbus, OH ),
· Richard Boeke (now retired in England ), and
· Grace Ulp (the first female member, a laywoman now retired in Berkeley, CA ).

      Inspired by Herman Hesse's novel Demian, the original five members aimed to develop a cult of Abraxas, taking the name of the novel's mythical deity that symbolized a monism that encompasses both good and evil (Abraxas)  and using a version of the triskellion – seen as a kind of Western yin-yang – as the symbol of the foot of Abraxas.   The three “toes” of the foot stood for fate, grace, and will (corresponding to the traditional monastic oaths of poverty, chastity, and obedience).  While fate, grace, and will were not central to their work, they did play a role in some ways – such as pooling their money to pay for the travel costs of the poorer members. 

    Their order was intended to develop liturgies for Unitarian Universalism.   What kind of liturgies and for what purpose, however, is uncertain.  Arnason's profile on his church's website characterizes the COA as “a small but influential ordered community of U[nitarian Universalist]s interested in creating worship for personal use and for retreat settings in a monastic format.”   Similarly, The Rite of Religion states that
The monastic disciplines of Abraxas, (being the services of Matins and Vespers and Compline and Eucharist) are not for Parish use, nor has the liturgical passion of the Congregation of Abraxas ever threatened to supersede, replace or substitute its own creations for those indigenous to the parishes. 

     On the other hand, Barnet remembers the COA as having an explicitly missionary purpose: to impact Sunday morning services.   The disparity may have arisen from differing expectations or memories or a mission that evolved in complex political circumstances or all of those.   Looking to the texts does not resolve the disparity, since the main document produced by the original five members (“An Abraxan Essay: Worship”) does not address the point.

     Rather, one way of summarizing that key essay is as follows:  Since worship is the consideration of things of worth and religion “means to bind up, to reconnect, to get it all together”, worship “is thus the central activity of religion because through worship we reconnect with worth.”  The fullness, “scope, diversity, coherence, and power” of worship is a kind of alchemical procedure that engenders meaning, value, relation, connection, and place.  “Worship is the celebration of life at its depths” through which “we discover, enliven, enrich, create, order, enhance and empower what gives life worth” and “experience awe, wonder, flow, fitness, appreciation, refreshment and commitment”.  When “the horizontal and the vertical – the mundane and the transcendent – suddenly intersect for us”, “a moment of high awareness” - “a consideration of worth [...] occurs” wherein we can “integrate […] values into a larger whole.” 

      Further, deliberate worship, which guards against idolatry, can reconnect us to ourselves if it is “the work of the people”.  If it is experiential, rather than explanatory, it can unite rather than divide a people (as exegesis often does).  In order to do so, though, the liturgy must be “large” enough to include all identities and locations.  “Such liturgy reorders our differences in the large view and makes them whole.”  The goal of the experience can be to “epitomize the history and possibilities of human interaction” through “the ordering of awareness, the design of fitness and fullness, the reconnections of genuine faith”, thereby helping “individual participants [to] discover their parts in the human enterprise” and the church to “find[...] and express[...] its corporate entity.”  Worship brings together the changing of the world with the changing of ourselves.  Like sex, worship needs to be playful and celebratory, since (as sex is to marriage) it is “the essential […] defining and enlivening” sacrament.  To “attend church as an obligation […] profanes life's character as a gift, unearned and unbearable.”  Our purpose in worshiping is “not to earn life, but to revere it in centered faithfulness.” 

      Particularly important in our secular age is “genuine open community”, which gains us “access to the whole – the crafting of which, through ritual, is particularly possible in that secular age because there is fragmentation.  “The very alienation of our age gives us the opportunity for empowering liturgy.”  Because the “liturgy demands our presence as whole persons involved with one another, [it] thus reconnects us.  This sometimes means singing or saying something we may not literally believe but which, from another perspective, informs our experience.”  “Our genius[, after all,] is being able to see God, the Void or Whatever, working in every person and place.” 

      And, finally: “With a rich liturgical tradition we can build temples of meaning and societies of justice.”  “Without it Unitarian Universalism will continue to be for many a revolving door into the secular world.”  “To develop an empowering liturgy, the professional U[nitarian ]U[niversalist] leadership must turn from the charismatic model[,] from narcissism.”  “Instead[,] we must develop disciplines for sharing the technical as well as 'spiritual' aspect of worship as we use it and live it in our churches and lives.” 

     The development of disciplines for sharing the technical and spiritual aspects of worship was initiated in a non-charismatic, non-hierarchical manner.  Abraxan decisions were made by the group as a whole.  Originally, the group met four times each year for a retreat to discuss liturgy – often in the St. Lawrence District, since it was most convenient for most of them.  At some point, they decided that it would be a better use of those retreats to actually put together and practice liturgy – and began painstakingly crafting liturgies that could feel inclusive to each of their theologies.  Hours were spent debating the inclusion of the word “seem” before the word “evil” and it took about a year to finish their matins.   Through such rich conversations, each participant seems to have tapped into something vital, from Grace Ulp's characterization of “those interesting people,”  to Papa's statement that, “I have fond memories organizing Abraxas”  to Barnet's regard for the experience as one of the most wonderful things that happened in his life. 

      As noted above, the lasting impact of the COA is debatable.  Barnet laments that their impact was limited to popularizing the use of the stole and the lighting of the chalice as a regular part of worship, and (due in part to the increased dialogue and reflection about liturgy that they helped to generate) assisting in the popularization of water communion .  He would have liked to have seen more utilization of a structured liturgy, rather than the haphazard one he has most often found in Unitarian Universalist churches.   Papa and Belletini, on the other hand, think that the COA accomplished what it set out to do: encourage and provoke discussion of liturgy within Unitarian Universalism.  Papa points, for instance, to the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association's 1980 Convocation theme (worship) as evidence of their impact.  He also claims that the shift from the intellectual to the spiritual that has been observed in our congregations in the recent past is due in part to the work of the Abraxans – pointing out that, in the late 1970s, only the Christian wing of Unitarian Universalism was talking about spirituality.  Belletini credits the COA with getting people more used to experimenting with liturgy (including more freedom to do creative, sensual worship), resulting in more satisfying parish worship. 

     In the end, the materials produced by the Abraxans do still stand as a rich collection of thought-provoking materials for any Unitarian Universalist to draw from.  But their virtual unavailability to anyone but a few seminarians who have happened to have heard of them suggests that what liturgical wealth might have come from them is in danger of (if it has not already) ossifying into yet another stagnant experience for so many churchgoers.  In the light of both Unitarian Universalism's poor retention of its youth and the general societal spiritual/religious demographic shifts (and accompanying statistics of declining church attendance), perhaps it is not a bad time to revisit the Abraxans' warning that Unitarian Universalism might “continue to be for many a revolving door into the secular world” and look to their offerings for new inspiration. 

References (Footnotes)

We expect to have footnotes included in html by Jan 15, 2011. 



1. Backus, Chris Lilly, ed.  “Turning of Our Lives,” Elderberries: The Newsletter of the Retired Ministers and Partners Association., vol XXV, # 4 (Fall 2010), (accessed October 17, 2010).
2. Barnet, Vern, ed., The Congregation of Abraxas Worship Reader: Essays In Worship Theory from Von Ogden Vogt (1921) to the UUA Commission on Common Worship (1980).  Newport, RI: The Congregation of Abraxas, 1980.
3. Barnet, Vern, ed., The Congregation of Abraxas Worship Reader Supplement.  Overland Park, KS: The Congregation of Abraxas, 1980.
4. Barnet, Vern, “Historical Notes,” Community Resource for Exploring Spirituality, (accessed October 17, 2010).
5. Barnet, Vern, telephone interview by author, 17 October 2010.
6. Belletini, Mark, telephone interview by author, 19 October 2010.
7. Belletini, Mark, Richard F. Boeke, Ted Tollefson, and Grace Ulp, eds.  The Rite Of Religion.  Kensington, CA: Abraxas West, 1980.
8. Boeke, Richard, e-mail to author, 15 October 2010.
9. Community Resource for Exploring Spirituality, “Volunteer Staff,” Community Resource for Exploring Spirituality, (accessed October 17, 2010).
10. Congregation of Abraxas, “An Abraxan Essay: Worship,” Community Resource for Exploring Spirituality, (accessed October 17, 2010).
11. Congregation of Abraxas, “An Abraxan Essay on Worship,” Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, (accessed October 17, 2010).
12. Congregation of Abraxas, “Basic Vestments Of The Congregation Of Abraxas,” Community Resource for Exploring Spirituality, (accessed October 17, 2010).
13. Congregation of Abraxas, “A Ritual For People Who Hate Ritual: A Didactic Pilgrimage Parish Liturgy,” Community Resource for Exploring Spirituality, (accessed October 17, 2010).
14. Congregation of Abraxas, “Trial Compline,” Community Resource for Exploring Spirituality, (accessed October 17, 2010).
15. Congregation of Abraxas, “Trial Eucharist,” Community Resource for Exploring Spirituality, (accessed October 17, 2010).
16. Congregation of Abraxas, “Trial Matins,” Community Resource for Exploring Spirituality, (accessed October 17, 2010).
17. Congregation of Abraxas, “Trial Rite of Ordering,” Community Resource for Exploring Spirituality, (accessed October 17, 2010).
18. Congregation of Abraxas, “Vespers,” Community Resource for Exploring Spirituality, (accessed October 17, 2010).
19. First Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbus, “Our Ministers,” First Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbus, (accessed October 17, 2010).
20. Papa, Stephan, e-mail to author, 15 October 2010.
21. Papa, Stephan, telephone interview by author, 17 October 2010.
22. Roberts, Elizabeth and Elias Amidon, eds.  Earth Prayers From around the World: 365 Prayers, Poems, and Invocations for Honoring the Earth.  San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991.
23. Schwarz, Egon, introduction to Siddhartha, Demian, and Other Writings, vii-xi.  New York: The Continuum Publishing Company, 1992.
24. Ulp, Grace, e-mail exchange, 17 October 2010.
25. Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations' Ministry & Professional Leadership News, “In Memoriam: Unitarian Universalist Ministers, 2000-2001,” Ministry & Professional Leadership News, (accessed October 17, 2010).
26. Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations' Stewardship & Development, “Stewardship And Development,” Unitarian Universalist Association, (accessed October 17, 2010).
27. West Shore Unitarian Universalist Church, “Parish Co-Minister Wayne Arnason,” West Shore Unitarian Universalist Church, (accessed October 17, 2010).