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Congregation of Abraxas UNDER CONSTRUCTION

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

from the
Congregation of Abraxas
Worship Reader
Essays in Worship Theory from Von Ogden Vogt (1921) to the UUA Commission on Common Worship (1980)
Congregation of Abraxas: Newport, RI, 1980 -- Supplement 1981

Unless otherwise noted, the author of each essay retains its copyright.
Otherwise, copyright 1980/81 by The Congregation of Abraxas

Please report copyright violations and typographical errors.
Keep any theological complaints to yourself during this construction project. Thank you.
Index / Contents is under construction.



Clarke Dewey Wells

 A Church service, if it is to be adequate to the needs of a varied and intergenerational community, must be large, imaginative, evocative, utilizing myth, symbol and the arts.

 Why is this so? Because few of us are at the same place in life in either our cognitive or emotional understandings. Each of us is in process. It would be easy to build a liturgy without the qualities desiderated above. And that liturgy would no doubt satisfy a few of us who happened to be at the same place in life, sharing the same age, sentiment, economic class, social status, theological viewpoint. I can put together a liturgy that in its clear?cut rationality excludes everything beyond my present range of appreciation and understanding. I could exclude and exclude and exclude. I am clever enough to devise services that would exclude humanists or theists, traditionalists or modernists, Socialists or Republicans, and end up with a righteous remnant of two or three of us echoing away in the purity of our own perspectives.

But of course I am committed to a structure of experience on Sunday morning that goes beyond our differences in age, sex, politics, attitudes and life style, embracing the greatest compatible contrasts, contrasts that border on chaos . . . that we can manage. My commitment is based on my belief in the Church as a unique institution for intergenerational encounter and upon my belief that each of us needs constantly to be reminded of worlds of vision beyond our present ones.

A Church service serious about moving beyond narrowness and narcissism must have what Bernard Loomer calls S I Z E. It must be large enough to take in and integrate the diversity and rivalry of our small perspectives and reorder them in light of a larger community and wholeness.

 A Church service appealing only to the young, or to the old, or to the  successful, or to iconoclasts, or to traditionalists, or to any other particular segment, is a service without size, without that larger integrity that stretches and restores and renews our own.

 If you find parts of the Church service not speaking to your needs, say Halleluiah. It may mean your neighbor is being spoken to in the depths, and it may mean that there is more in store for you as your needs change in the unfolding years ahead.  Only a very large liturgy can speak to us for a lifetime.

54 THREE ELEMENTS OF WORSHIP by Joyce H Smith, River Road Unitarian Church

 abridged and edited from a sermon 1979 Apr 29, Bethesda, MD

Often the word worship brings to mind the concepts of bowing down to, sacrificing to, making submission before that which makes me feel unworthy, small or insignificant. The emotions of awe and wonder can be a part of worship, but for many of us the effect such awe or wonder seemed designed to create was that in comparison to God I am a lesser person. This unfortunate attitude is not the true meaning of worship.  While in relation to the cosmos or to God (however you define that word) we are small, still the aim of worship is not to make us feel insignificant, but rather to help us, through relationship to God or to all that is, to feel a sense of our own deep worth. Religions must emphasize the reason for worship forms which create this feeling of smallness. They should not point out that we are "miserable worms," but that all of creation is of value as it relates us to the whole larger picture.

What do we worship? The process of worship is one of holding up that which is of primary worth. Unitarian minister Von Ogden Vogt in his book, The Primacy of Worship, says what we worship is the spirit of goodness, the spirit of beauty, and the spirit of truth. Note he says it is the spirit of goodness, beauty and truth not any concrete embodiment of any of these things, which would be idolatry. The ancient Jews did not allow an image to be made in the likeness of God because they feared that the image itself would be worshipped, not the spirit.  No specific act is good in and of itself. Giving money to the poor may be an act of goodness, but the spirit of goodness is something else.  The purpose of ritual in religion is to perform an act that will create or generate this concern or identity with others. The act of giving money to the needy could in fact generate the concern for those people hurt by poverty and racism. The act or ritual itself should never be confused with the spirit which it may generate.

The spirit of beauty is revealed by the various forms in nature and in human art. The Eskimo carver believed that he released the animal trapped in the wood or stone, simply carving off that which hid the form of beauty inherent in the material. It was the spirit of beauty which was being revealed.

The spirit of truth is in like danger of being made into an idol. The truth of one time and person may deeply reflect the spirit of truth, but to hold on to that truth as a permanent fixed expression for all times is a form of idolatry. Religions often express as their central form of worship a story of a quest for truth as an example of how the spirit of truth may be sought. To make that story or the truths found in that journey the final and complete expression of truth is to be worshipping idols. This is why we Unitarian Universalists find the limits of any one story and the answers of any one person or people to be idolatrous. The spirit of truth revealed in our various human stories??Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, scientific, sociological or psychological??this spirit is what we find of supreme worth, what we hold up as teachings of significance to us.

Given that it is the spirit of beauty, truth and goodness which we are holding up as of primary worth in our worship, what happens when we worship? What is the process by which worship occurs? Why do we set aside a special time, a special setting?  Three things must happen for worship to have occurred, revelation, recognition, and acceptance. The forms of worship may vary widely, but unless all these elements occur, the act of worship has not been complete. We may have a highly structured religious ritual (like a Mass), a walk in the park, a program on TV, a concert or a sermon, any of which may be worship if the three elements are present.

First there must be some aspect of the spirit of truth, goodness or beauty revealed. It must be there for us to see, hear, feel, sense or experience. Often we are more aware when something has failed to reveal the spirit of beauty, truth, or goodness??a concert which fails to show beauty or is badly played, a service whose meanings are so diverse or so obtuse or unorganized that we end up more confused than enlightened. An example:  the setting was lovely??an area overlooking a New England lake, the air was cool, spring was coming fast, the birds were singing and the sun shining on the morning of the service. The worship leader had taped a series of popular songs and read selected poems between. The poems and the songs were in themselves good selections, but they were far too many, too long, and too confusingly diverse in expression. In spite of the lovely setting, the attention to each individual selection, there was no revelation of the spirit of truth, goodness or beauty because it was unclear what was being held up for us to experience. For us, the participants, revelation was closed.
Second, even when revelation is clear and the spirit of truth, goodness or beauty hovers in the air, unless the participants recognize the revelation as related to them in some significant way, the revelation will not result in worship. The tone deaf person cannot be moved by music and the observer of rites and rituals with which he does not identify may see that they have beauty and goodness about them, but still remains an observer only. I remember in my adolescence such an experience. I was raised a Methodist and wanted very much to experience the depth of emotion which I suspected the story of Jesus' last days on earth could create in the heart of the Christian worshipper. I participated in church services for the week which were meant to create that very experience. But I was unable to recognize in that revelation the spirit which was significant to me. I did not grasp that here too was my story, something which was a part of me. I left that faith since it did not fulfill the worship needs in me.  I did not recognize myself to be involved in the revelation given.

The third part of worship is perhaps the most difficult part??that of acceptance. Acceptance means taking the revealed truth, goodness or beauty, not only recognizing it as your own but making it a part of your life and acting on it or out of it. Much of the deep power of the civil rights marches and the anti?war rallies of the 1960's was that the people participating (and perhaps those watching) were actually changed by those rituals. They became different people in the areas of race relations and they became more dedicated to peaceful ways.

Several years ago when I preached on hunger, I had pointed out that one aspect of our complex civilization and the hunger of others was that we ate food like beef, at the top of the food chain, food which required more of the world's energy to produce. One of the congregation so took that message to heart that he had cut down his consumption of meat and he had almost entirely cut out beef from?his diet. That type of acceptance, which effects a permanent change in behavior, is an example of acceptance in worship.


Recognizing what we worship and the elements of worship, we must yet consider the attitude we bring to worship. We create special places and settings with the expectation that worship will occur because the attitude of worship is not easy to maintain. I call this a "tip?toe" attitude. It is the feeling that I must take off my shoes, for this is holy ground. This kind of attitude allows us the necessary openness to see the revelation which is given, the openness by which we can recognize the revelation as ours and accept its meaning in our lives in such a way that it will influence our actions. This attitude of expectation is sometimes a part of every moment of life, for some rare persons, whom we call saints or gurus. For most of us open expectation and receptivity is not our everyday attitude. Joseph Campbell believes that worship is conscious playfulness. It is the sense of taking the ordinary, common parts of life and using them to reveal something extraordinary, breathtaking and uncommon which is akin to playfulness. The reason Jesus could say of children that "Of such is the kingdom of heaven," was that children often see the common as extraordinary, every experience reveals meaning. This same sense of openness and expectancy is part of the attitude necessary for worship to occur. We create the special place, the ritual, the time, and the attitude to make this happen for us. We create the occasion for worship.

Don Vaughn

Worship is the act, performed individually or as a group, of honoring the intrinsic worth of a person, an idea, or a thing. By "honoring" I mean making a special effort to laud or emphasize or enjoy. This may also be called celebration and it may be characterized by acts of self confrontation and confrontation with reality, but standing in awe and wonder at both the clarity and mystery of that worthfulness, and by praise, penitence, and thankfulness. The occasion may be either grave or joyous or both. Worship has at least three central aspects. The first is reveling in the fact of that worthfulness and can draw on all phases of human activity (mind, emotions, physical movement) for its expression. The second is probing into the intrinsic meaning of that worthfulness and into its relation to other aspects of human existence. This while seeming to be only an operation of the mind, may require the full capacity of the person to experience, to know, and to understand"operat1ons that can be as affective and somatic as mental. The third is asserting the reality of that worthfulness and, again, may involve the full range of human powers especially since this is the realm of symbol which may be not only of a verbal nature but also use the full range of human senses and physical movement.

Liturgy is the ordering of the means of worship; it is worship's form. As such it is not optional although it is greatly variable in as much as it may range from impulsive spontaneity to unvarying adherence to our present order. The content of worship is the ideas and acts which flesh out the liturgy.  Every element of the above attempt to define worship is problematic in our liberal religious movement. The problem derives not simply from a lack of consensus on the content of worship, the liturgy of worship, the proper relationship between worship's three aspects, the varying emphases which worship may pursue, or the acceptability of the very notion of worship itself, although there is disagreement and confusion over each of these.  The greatest difficulty arises from a lack of having a common object of worship. Since the whole act of worship receives its coherence and integrity from being well ordered and directed at, and a celebration of, an object, confusion (if not chaos) must result when the object is obscure.

Because of the general difficulty in our movement with the concept of God as the focus of worship we have been casting about (in a largely unconscious way) for something to take its place. The effort has been, for the most part, to substitute some notion of ideal humanity, or of human values, or of the democratic process for God but perceptions in these areas have been so individualized and inchoate that groups seldom meet with a common aim in worship and, therefore, seldom can coordinate their energies in a common sharing that can be built on. When this does occur it is hard to understand what really made it happen. And some people go away with a fear that they have been psychologically manipulated or invaded and, therefore, maintain a suspicious attitude toward such experiences. Until we can tell people what we worship when we come together, we will continue to experiment and test with highly uneven results and worship will continue to be a fundamental need which we cannot adequately fulfill.

adapted and excerpted from OM Worship Workshop 10/78
by Alice Blair Wesley

A woman came up to me [after the service] to say, "I felt today for the first time in two years like I was at church." I later learned that at the First Church in Dallas, where she had been a member for several years, the congregation begins every service by reading those words as an affirmation.

Similarly, the Emerson Church choir in Houston ends every service with the traditional "The Lord Bless You and Keep You" and a seven-fold amen. A college student once told the minister with a lump of gratitude in the throat, "When the choir started to sing that amen, I knew I was home."  In both these cases people knew where they were because of the ritual. That is to say, memories of meaningful experience of a particular type and a kind of self-fulfilling prophesy of more meaningful experience of the same sort were triggered by the explicitly repeated ritual. Those memories and expectations are important. The richness or paucity of our lives largely results from their influence or absence.  Much more importantly, however, the potential for creativity is not present without ritual, more broadly conceived now as flexible forms of expression. By way of example think of Greece of the fifth century BC.  Surely a more creative people never lived. They produced great architecture, poetry, drama, painting, sculpture. But they wrote no novels, because no one had invented that art form. The form of an art is a product of the entire culture; it belongs to everyone. Once the form is discovered, individual artists can be infinitely creative within it. Formlessness is a vacuum. The purely spontaneous service is a non-event.

Without the form nothing creative can be done at all. Liberal forms of worship must have autonomy. That is, the generative imagination and the content are ours and no one else's. But liberal forms of worship cannot be isolated from religious practice in the rest of the society. We will simply kill ourselves as a religious institution if we abstain from the forms in use throughout the culture, because there are and can be no others available to us. The alternative to their adaptation and use is spiritual and artistic sterility.  The ritual art forms of worship serve as vehicles for expression of the truth of our experience in a way which allows for intimacy without intrusion of privacy. The form is there; the degree of intensity to be expressed or experienced within the form is left up to the individual. For example, the  handshake of greeting or the reading of a confession may be "merely" a ritual more often than not, the commonly polite or usual thing to do, with little to recommend it except that it makes us feel comfortable in the sense spoken above. However, there are times, which we may not care to spell out with soul-baring publicity, when the handshake of greeting needs to and does communicate profound feelings. There are times when we can deal honestly with our shortcomings and guilt by reading them out loud in symbolic language and so start the work of healing that only honesty can bring to a burdened soul. The availability of the form will

Excerpts from a paper prepared for the Prairie Group, 1967 Nov 6
Arthur Foote

Worship is a human activity—something done by an individual or a group--that concerns man's relationship to the divine, however conceived. For the theist, it is an act of adoration, a humbling yet uplifting invocation of the sense of God's presence. In her well-known study, Evelyn Underhill maintained that worship is essentially   disinterested. It is something we freely offer to God. While it is God "from whom all blessings flow," the object of worship is properly not to receive but to give—to give praise, to express thanks. Thus, worship is not synonymous with prayer, since prayer may or may not be disinterested. The words of the seraphic hymn, in Isaiah's vision and call, state its essence:
Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of Hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.
       (Isaiah VI)
To recognize that glory, to love it, to serve it, to be possessed and transformed by it: this is worship. There is, then, a valid distinction to be made between worship and religious experience. Religious experience—as the very phrase implies—is something that happens to us. We may invite it, prepare for it; but we cannot command it. It may happen to us anywhere, anytime, while star-gazing or washing the dishes, standing before a Rembrandt or waiting beside a deathbed. It is the sudden apprehension, or the gradual awareness, of what Sir Julian Huxley calls "sacred reality." To me, religious experience is most naturally described as a meeting with the divine, a sense of communion with a power "vast as life and love," but I would not wish to limit such experience to my language, or to the traditional language of theistic religion. Its occurrence is clearly not limited to those who believe in a personal God. James Bissett Pratt and others have demonstrated the universality of religious experience, however varied the verbal descriptions employed by persons who have had it.

Worship may be considered the other side of this enterprise. It is the human act, the conscious effort to induce religious experience (in so far as we are able); the discipline through which we seek to strengthen our commitment to ideals, to examine our motives. But even more basically, it is the act of praise, the celebration of the goodness of life. In Sir Julian's phrase, it is evoking a "consciousness of sanctity in existence."

Religion is sometimes defined as a man's love affair with life; worship thereby becomes his disinterested endeavor to express that love.  It is important that we do express that love. For [as Harry Emerson Fosdick says, Nothing else matters much—not wealth, nor learning, nor even health—without this gift: the spiritual capacity to keep zest in living. This is the creed of creeds, the final deposit and distillation of all man's important faiths: that he should be able to believe in life.
*     *       *
We Unitarian Universalists, spiritual descendents of the New England Puritans, have evidently never shaken off their intense suspicion of institution worship, their fear of formalism, and (as Evelyn Underhill said of the Quakers) we tend to demand a personal religious sincerity so drastic that no word may be said or sung which is not true for such individual worshiper.  Hence, we make what is basically an artistic enterprise especially difficult. For the artist is not primarily concerned with facts, or literal truths. Picasso only overstates when he asserts:
We all know that art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth at least the truth that is given to us to understand.

The artist's search is for meaning; his effort is to communicate that meaning, to illumine experience, and by imaginative vision to add insight to sight.

If worship is an art—Von Ogden Vogt called it "the all comprehending art" and "the mother of all arts"—then he who conducts worship needs to be an artist. And this leads to the unavoidable conclusion that to conduct worship effectively, the minister himself must be a worshiping man. He needs to worship with his congregation, even though he cannot worship for them.  And this, in turn, means he must cultivate his own private devotional life.  In this area I fear our performance is sadly lacking. Our kind of religion encourages action far more effectively and persistently than it does contemplation, or the practice of "quiet sitting," as the Chinese called it.  ... It is my serious contention that whatever decline we have noted in public worship stems in no small part from our failure as religious liberals to value and faithfully adhere to some systematic plan for the cultivation of our inner life.

sermon excerpts from the UUA'S The Edge of Worship, 25-6
John F Hayward

[How] shall we think of worship in our times of defeat? If I come to church heavy laden with real sorrow or a vague anxiety, if I have steadily felt myself losing my identity and my way—or if I wonder if I ever had true identity and way—how can I rejoice in the gifts of man or God or enter into the mood of celebration? In spite of our confidence and our optimism, we liberals must take seriously man's constant tendency to deny and depreciate himself through discouragement, neurosis, and hostility. If the inner world is unlovely, it wilt project its dark shapes upon the outer world. Then all our attempts to celebrate run the risk of inducing only deeper discouragement in the already discouraged person. He will say, others can be excellent, I cannot. Others can enjoy communion with goodness, but I am cut off. The person who is cut off from worship because there is [in the design and conduct of the service] no excellence to be savored or the person who is cut off from worship because he is too depressed to respond to what excellence there is must be reminded that we call our worship services. The role of spectator is important but not primary. The role of server, offerer, giver is at the heart of the matter.

We become too precious, too merely aesthetic and abstract, if we lose the primal sense of offering to the centers of our well being. It is not enough to communicate to one another in worship about the things we hold dear. We may be wrong about what we value. And mere talk about value in the abstract can make us wistfully detached from the living concrete values in which life is established. . . . Let us ask, what in fact can we give? What is our offering?

Clearly, the Sunday service should reflect the weekday life in the community by hallowing the struggle of persons to make an offering of the major efforts of their lives. . . . Unless the church can find ways of hallowing the fundamental symbiosis of life itself, all the other features of the art of worship will be in vain. For the church will have missed the central religious fact, the holy covenant of men with one another and with their God by which the whole and all the parts may exist and enjoy. The church's primary mode of celebration honors the fact of mutual sacrifice and mutual sustenance.

Once this is understood, then the Sunday morning symbols may have a life of their own and breathe life into all living. Your Sunday event should be the symbolic epitome and symbolic transformation of your weekday living. By celebration, by penitence, by a crying-forth of needs and by re-dedication, each person's isolated offerings are taken up into the common life and are seen and felt in a new way. Thereby is the Sabbath blessed. That epitome and transformation require that each worshipper offer his full self to the event. He offers his physical presence, his attention, his voice (however untrained), his own full tone issuing forth from his whole being. Let that brightness be offered by a very few and a service will take fire. . . .

Even if the individual worshipper is discouraged, all is not lost for him. Much worse than being discouraged is to be flaccid, careless, bored, uncommitted, ungiving. If he cares too little to dress with a feeling for festivity, if he can mope and drift off into irrelevancies, If in fact or fancy he can smoke a casual cigarette, his worship will be just as irrelevant as he has made it. ... But let us suppose that the worshipper does give of himself even in a state of discouragement. Please remember that discouragement, pain, anxiety are not without their energy. If this is what you have on Sunday morning, bring this honest self to the service and pour its energies into the common act.   Take the energy of hostility and pent up anxiety and pour these into hymns and prayers and readings with full power. Accept your state of need and project its energy into the common act. And you will be surprised at the return of energy, the strange symbiosis of grace, where what you give seems.ashes, and what comes back to you is gold.


The theory and content of worship in the First Unitarian Church of Rochester:
A brief explanation by Richard S Gilbert

Although one can set forth no official definition of worship satisfactory to all Unitarian Universalists, worship as the celebration of life is perhaps most generally accepted. During corporate worship the religious community gathers to affirm and articulate-to celebrate-the value experiences of life. Those value experiences have to do with the moments of life crisis-birth, coming of age, marriage, death-with the peak experiences of human life-joy and pain, agony and ecstasy, love and anger. This celebration deals with ultimate concerns as to the values and meanings which ought to be operative in human life.

The corporate experience of worship has a form called a liturgy--literally the People's work. While the minister is the one person most responsible for the service it is a creation of the people of the congregation in several ways. First, a Worship Group works with the minister in planning services, themes, special celebrations and format. Secondly, many lay people are involved in most services, including choir members, musicians, creators of the worship center, ushers, readers, dancers, and others who on occasion participate directly. The congregation also has a most active role, not only overtly in singing and reading but in responding to the various stimuli in the service--words, music, art forms. The sermon is really a kind of dialogue of minister with people; it is no less a dialogue if the congregation does no more than respond to the spoken word in ways clear to the speaker.

The mood of the service varies from the somber to the happy; emotional expressions from tears to laughter are appropriate; in fact the whole range of emotional response is appropriate when one is dealing with life’s ultimate issues.

The structure of the celebration varies from Sunday to Sunday, though most often following the format listed below. Structure follows function in each case and formality may contribute to one theme while informality may contribute best to another. Additionally, the Unitarian Universalist movement recognizes no final pattern of worship; it seeks to draw upon the best worship traditions of various world religions while constantly experimenting with new forms and variations. The present form is not final, but marks one provisional pattern in a never ending quest.


I THE ACT OF ATTENTION. This marks the ingathering of the community from the diversity of its weekday pursuits. It is a calling together, a welcoming to rejoice in the creation of a community. The Prelude sets a tone that here matters of consequence are to be considered; Persons are encouraged to enter the Auditorium early to enjoy music  uninterrupted. The Call to Celebration is the verbal welcoming to the congregation and often sets the mood or theme for the morning. The Song of Celebration is the congregational response to these words and creates an affirmative mood.

II. THE ACT OF EMBRACING THE LIMITS OF LIFE. The mood now shifts from that of celebration to that of reflection. Here the congregation considers the limits of life, those elements of human experience, which block our capacity for celebration. Centering Down, a term coined by Howard Thurman, aptly expresses the need for each person to get in tune with the deeper reasonances of his being, to sort out the various strands of his life, and to see the ideal in terms of present reality. These words are usually spoken by the minister. The Ministry of Silence follows and is a period of quiet for personal meditation using whatever form suits the worshipper.

Concerns is a portion of the service devoted to an expression of the limits of our personal and corporate life by the congregation. Members of the congregation are invited to step to the pulpit and briefly share concerns that matter to them, personal observations on the human condition, social issues which need response. These are distinct from the announcements which are printed in the program. The Offering and Music sees a change in mood from apprehending the limits of life to appreciating the possibilities of life. It provides opportunity for persons to contribute to the ongoing work of the church community. The music acts as a time for transition from the meditative to the reflective.

III. THE ACT OF PROCLAIMING THE POSSIBILITIES OF LIFE. The mood now changes to a consideration of what life might become. Usually this is done through readings from a universal heritage of man. The scriptures of the great world religions, classical writings, modern statements, anything that speaks to the human condition with eloquence and power. Most often an ancient and a contemporary reading are used to illustrate both the continuity of the human dilemma and the different ways in which we confront it.  A song of reflection is the musical expression of the possibilities of life.

IV. THE ACT OF FOCUSING. Here the congregation is directed to a particular human concern. Most often done via the sermon, it is a personal expression of meanings and values. It may be delivered by the minister, layman or may be in the form of a dramatization, readings, audio-visual presentations or other vehicles may be utilized. No area of human experience is foreign to the act of focusing. The silent meditation following the sermon allows time for appropriating that statement and reacting to it.

V. THE ACT OF COMMITMENT. The Song of Dedication is the musical expression of the congregation that this celebration is not at an end but at a beginning. It suggests the living out of the values clarified and embraced during the service in the life of home, family, and community. The Words of Aspiration punctuate verbally the entire service and serve to distill its essence. The Postlude sends people out of the service and back into their routines of living.

VI. THE ACT OF COMMUNITY CONCERN. During the Postlude all are invited to greet their neighbors to affirm a community based not on creed but in friendship. Although the formal service has concluded, the morning is not yet complete. All are welcome to a discussion of the service and/or sermon in the front of the Auditorium to share their reactions with others. This is a time for raising questions, making statements both supportive and critical of what has been said and done. It is a time for sharing one's concerns with others. More informal conversation is also a part of the morning experience through the social hour in various parts of the building.

excerpts from a 1977 sermon
Frank W Carpenter

Religion everywhere and in every time is primarily worship. It is the spirit of man seeking right relations with the final powers.  --Von Ogden Vogt
If we look around at all the other institutions and groups we are involved with in one way or another, we see that what sets a religious institution apart is the practice of worship. This leads us to ask, "What is worship?"  Perhaps the most familiar worship services, the ones that people go to no matter what else they may do, are the services of baptism, marriage and funerals. In these services, we sanctify, we bless the great transitions of life: birth, growing up, marriage and death. These are the great passages of our lives. Unlike Peter Pan and Wendy who boldly sing, "We won't grow up! We won't go to school;", we know that we do grow up, live, love and die.

Worship is the bold assertion (and I say bold, audacious, because in today's world many don't believe it); worship is the bold assertion that our lives are meaningful, that all this growing up is worthwhile, that each of us has a personal destiny, something to do, a life to live, on this earth. More than that, worship is the practice of giving ourselves over to the healing powers which govern our destinies. In worship we dedicate, devote ourselves to the transforming powers of life. Quite simply, in worship we bow down before the powers of our destiny.

Bowing and scraping is something that perhaps we would like to think we don't do. We are perhaps a little too proud to acknowledge that we do bow down, often, all too often. If we think of our daily lives, how often do we bow down? We bow down to the boss at work. In order to avoid a conflict, we bow to the-wishes of a friend or mate. In order to make the little adjustments which help make each hour go smoothly, we bow down, acknowledge that there is—fate, bureaucracy, taxes— many other people and powers influence us. We can get so caught up in all these little, unseen bowing-downs that we may fail to see, fail to bow before the real powers which govern us. We fail to acknowledge and relate ourselves to the healing  powers of our true self which sustain us in the midst of all the other adjustments. How often have we bowed before truth and, unseen, sacrificed some vain glorious picture we have of ourselves? Often, we think ourselves masters, yet are slaves'.

This, then, is worship: bowing down, giving ourselves over to the healing powers which transform us, and make us whole in the midst of all our tensions, pains and anxieties.

When we worship, we return to the very sources of our true being, what is which we can fully trust. When we worship, we seek transformation of ourselves, that we may be saved. Salvation is often taken to mean whether or not a person will go to heaven or hell. It has nothing to do with that. It seems to me that salvation, conversion, growth, all these words refer to our quest to be true to ourselves, that our immortal souls not be marred and scarred by this world, but rather that the touch of eternity within us shall be revealed in the world about us.

We each have an image within ourselves of who we truly are—king, priest, musician, craftsman. More often than not, this image is not honored by the people who surround us. We then ourselves may not come to know, or may forget this image. We ourselves may fail to honor our true selves and the weeds of emptiness flower in our hearts. When we worship, we give ourselves over to these images of eternity within us. They restore us, heal us, for they are paintings of our personal destiny, of who we would be in the realm of the immortals.

This, then, is worship; devoting ourselves, giving ourselves over to the healing sources of our lives. Needless to say, what actually happens may not match up at all with what I have described. It is all too easy to get lost in the dark weeds. Just as we lose touch with ourselves and our loved ones at times, so we can lose sight of the central healing role of worship in our church life.

excerpted from "Worship As Metaphor"
Ted Tollefson, copyright 1978

Worship embodies the dynamic of metaphor in words, gestures, space, time, and communities. The movement that is metaphor can be depicted as the tension between . . . polarities:

(Apollo)                                  (Dionysus)
repetition ——————————- innovation
maintaining ——————————transforming
comfort and continuity   ————surprise and ingenuity
closure ———————————— opening
dis-guising ——————————  dis-closing
logical connections ——————  intuitive leaps
this is ————————————   what if?
seriousness —————————— playfulness
designing experience —————  discharging energy

Worship re-enacts the drama of making meaning; it creates symbolic linkages which reflect and transform our living connections with all beings.
If worship is essentially metaphor in action, in community, then quality in worship depends upon the linkage of vehicle and tenor, known and unknown. Worship breaks down when the linkage is ruptured, when either pole is detached from its pattern. The failures of worship are the ruins of metaphor:

repetition —————————— innovation
cliche – boredom----------------- avant-garde new nonsense

In cliche and boredom, old meanings are repeated far too long; we fall asleep in the drone of centuries. In the new nonsense, the living linkages with tradition are shattered: the avant-garde artist pissing on the sidewalk makes neither art nor anti-art but puddles. If boredom is the failure of the Old Guard, new nonsense is the failing of Young Turks. We must do more than chant old names, or piss on the sidewalk. Observable links must be forged or suggested.

closure —————————————— opening
exclusive --------------------------------- esoteric

Closure run amok is radical exclusiveness: the closed door, the meanings so secret they have been forgotten, the cult so esoteric it ceases to exist. Aesthetically, radical closure means that worship becomes a mechanism, and machines invite no living participation. The dissolution of opening is chaos: the rules are changed or abolished so quickly that disorientation results. So, too, dis-guising and dis-closing deviate into the opacity of many-layered meanings, or a naked flux of experience which means nothing. The first tendency is illustrated by the piling of commentaries upon commentaries upon commentaries until the original text is lost. The latter failing is mirrored and overcome by the Zen saying: (when practicing meditation) First there are mountains, then there are no mountains, then there are mountains.

logical connections ————— intuitive leaps

Logical connectedness without intuitive leaps becomes mere computation, deadly repetitions, cognitively a closed circuit, psychologically an obsessive-compulsive patterning. This is indeed death in the prison of selfhood. Intuitive leaping without linkages to the known takes on the trappings of schizophrenia: one is a slave to the associative meanings of words, not their master. One keeps leaping into the unknown with no known reference points.

seriousness ————————— playfulness

Seriousness falls into tedium, inhibition; playfulness degenerates into hokum, exhibition. In the first case, the trappings of religious drama prevent us from dancing; in the second case, we become so enamored with the dance that we forget that we are clothed in robes of our own making.  The first bores; the second embarrasses.                                     -

“Where We’re Coming From”
1978 UU World Insert
Christopher Gist Raible

Our Unitarian Universalist worship is (almost totally) open-mouthed. We chat (despite pleadings not to) during musical preludes. We sing (perhaps with diminished gusto) hymns and carols. We are quiet (if at all) only when a minister or leader is speaking. We "talk-back" informally (sometimes formally) following services. We commune via coffee and carbohydrates during fellowship hours. When we congregate for worship, apparently all our gratifications are oral.  Some religious traditions worship in quiet.  Mind is focused, body is disciplined, breath is controlled to enable the worshipper to experience a sense of the infinite which is inexpressible. Confronting the indescribable, the response is silence.  Other religious traditions worship through babble. Mind is freed, body is loosed, breath flows as the worshipper feels a spirit and expresses it in strange sounds. Confronting the indescribable the response is "speaking in tongues."

Our religious tradition knows that the divine mystery is indescribable, yet we constantly attempt such description. Ere it get stale, we incessantly seek fresh expression to articulate our experience. No phrase or formula, no sermon or sentence, can ever quite convey the import of what we feel; nevertheless we keep talking.

Our worship is thus vocal. We invoke tradition, provoke response, advocate action, evoke feelings. A congregation is also a convocation, at joining of voices (though we rarely speak in unison or with unanimity).

To put such a serious cast on our worship does not mean that our gatherings are solemn. A speaker—tongue-in-cheek or foot-in-mouth—may evoke laughter. A. coffee-cup conversation May provoke a party. Voices may join in joy as (much as in argument.

Two hundred years ago, when North American Unitarianism and Universalism developed, worship was psalm and prayer, but centered on the sermon. The "Word" was preached in words.-God's truth and light were best revealed (it was thought) not in sacrament or structure, but in the community of free men and women together. A people's covenant with God and with each other was weekly renewed through parson to person expression.

One-hundred years ago, when Unitarianism and Universalism flourished, worship emphasized music (especially singing) almost as much as preaching. Few Universalist hymns have survived, but Unitarian hymns—by Longfellow, Hedge, Howe, Holmes, Adams—are found in hymnals of almost every denomination.

Today our worship has lost much of the structure and symbolism of our past, but certain elements persist. We may be breaking out of the pattern at the "hymn sandwich" and we are more and more calling on other forms of artistic expression—dance, drama, graphic arts—to  increase our sense of celebration. But we still sing, we still speak, we still preach, we still meditate or pray.

We sometimes think of a worship service using the metaphor of the theater. The minister or leader is seen as an actor putting on a performance; the congregation is an audience watching. The Danish theologian, Kierkegaard, pointed to the error in such a view. The spectator or listener (he thought) is God. The members are the performers or participants expressing (not necessarily out loud) their feelings and aspirations. The minister (in his view) is not center stage, but is a sort of stage manager in the wings, as it were. Whispering for them the words, prompting their responses.

We need not agree fully with Kierkegaard (he was no UU) to see a truth in his thought. When we gather for worship, we are called to consider what is of worth. We congregate in a context—of a precious heritage, of shared values, of sacred truth, of hallowed ground, of ultimate or infinite mystery. We may (and do) disagree over what to call it, but when we worship we are in some sense responding to—answering to—something "more than ourselves, which we cherish in common, which is wholesome or holy.

We need not sense this whole as person or power (though many of us do) to worship. We may simply sense that we are significantly connected to a world we did not make yet on which we depend. We are in a community and part of a history of humanity, of life, of existent.  We worship to testify to our connection to that community and that history.

Our worship is thus in essence communication.  Whether God or anyone or anything is listening, we are expressing. We sing to voice our joy and -praise. We pray to express (confess) our thanks and hopes. We read aloud to enable ancient and modern truths to be renewed. We speak to make clear our concerns and commitments.  A sermon (if successful) is less a lecturing than a sharing of some aspect of life that has been found, worthy—it thus reinforces a faith already felt. A speaker may often speak for people as well as to people, putting into words their inspirations and aspirations and our message, "made flesh."

“We Want Some Changes”
1978 UU World Insert
by Clark Olsen

Religion is an activity basic to us as humans. It stems from experiences and questionings, which all human beings know.

We all experience feelings of 'mystery.' For instance, all of us experience' time passing, and with that come questions of origin and destiny.  We also experience dread, awe and wonder. And the question of purpose. No one escapes these experiences. We may differ on the appropriate label, but it's something like 'mystery'—acknowledging with feeling—that we can ask more questions than we can find answers to.

We also experience questions about values.  What shall I do with my life? my time? my resources? It is part of being human to face those questions, plus questions about good and bad, beautiful and ugly.

Experiences of mystery and value relate to one another. How we respond to one affects our response to the other. The answers we feel to one help shape answers to the other.

Religion is the human activity which results as we experience this interrelationship or intersection of mystery and value. The world's cultures are fascinating for the diversity of architecture, music, dance, myths, codes of behavior, etc.  Much of it is expressly labeled 'religious.' All of it can be looked at from the religious perspective.

Most religions develop a clear set of symbols which convey their answers to mystery-value questions. The Cross, the Torah, a statue of Buddha. Those symbols are at the center of worship.

Each Unitarian Universalist, as each human being, must develop and come to understand his or her own responses to mystery-value questions also. But we do not consciously put a clear set of symbols at the center of our worship. Instead, we come together on Sundays to share our responses, without requiring that others accept our private understandings.

Worship, for UUs is the act of elucidating, encouraging and affirming our responses to mystery-value questions and experiences—without requiring assent from others. Instead, we actively encourage diversity in order that we may be enriched in our own understandings, and that we may contribute to others

While we have traditionally prided ourselves on being individualists, claiming that there are many more millions like us—"Unitarians without knowing if—a different understanding seems to have grown up among us. I learned during my sabbatical that being together on Sunday mornings is vitally important to us. We seem to be saying that the development and understanding of our responses to mystery and value questions is best done in community. A UU is one who takes so seriously the need to be in community that he/she moves to be with others. One cannot be a UU by oneself! Because we know our worship to be universal in its roots, and because wo actively seek insight from others, we can consciously relate our religious enterprise to all human activities, not just those commonly labeled religious. On Sunday mornings, we can utilize all music, all dance, all poetry, all literature for our worship. All cultural manifestations of the human spirit can be our working material.

This marks another shift in our self-understanding. Whereas we have traditionally seen ourselves as on the left-wing religiously, we can more importantly affirm that we are exactly in the middle in our culture—neither on the one side with traditional religionists, nor on the other with the secularists who choose not to actively engage themselves with the mystery-value questions which it is in our nature to perceive. Because we are "in the middle" we have much to say to our culture.

But we need an attitude about worship and how we organize for it that reflects this potential.

Instead of confining ourselves to one of our typical fellowship or church-style forms, we could be seeking from all of us the materials which best express what we know and understand, stretching our imaginations and deepening our feelings. Instead of delegating the responsibility for worship services to just one person, or a small committee, we could all be engaged with the task and privilege of saying what we know and bringing together that which others have understood in other times and places.

There are stirrings among us about worship.  We want far more than most of us now get on Sunday mornings. People in every church and fellowship could well explore the question of what they are trying to do on Sundays, and how it could be done better. Keys to that exploration, for me, are:

1) the universal experience of mystery and value questions;

2) the nature of worship as an act of elucidating, encouraging and affirming our responses to mystery-value questions;

3) the appropriateness of a wide diversity of materials and forms for worship; and

4) the involvement of the entire church or fellowship community in the development of worship services.

I believe that in the last few years we have jut begun to see where this might lead us. For certain, many of us want to help make some changes in what is typical today.

Edited excerpts from a sermon
   by the Rev. James P. Dace of the Unitarian Church of Ventura. Ca.
UU World  1975 September 15

In the spring of 1627, the Pilgrim settlement at Plymouth was scandalized when a rather unusual new American named Thomas Morton decided to show the New World how to celebrate.  At nearby Merry Mount, Morton erected a maypole-80 feet high of sturdiest pine—and by his own account "brewed a barrel! of excellent beare" to be distributed with "other good cheare, for all corners of that day."

(Other "good cheare," as it turned out, included Indian girls, according to a song written by the host himself: "Lasses in beaver coats, come away; ye shall be welcome to us night and day.")  But, alas. Merry Mount was not to "make merry" that day:   Miles Standish-accompanied by America's first vice squad-interrupted the revelry which was subsequently described by Plymouth Governor William Bradford as "the beastly practices of the mad Bacchanalians."

Morton was busted, placed in the stocks, and eventually returned to England in a state of near-starvation.

The devil had been unmasked as the imp of play, the demon who made song and dance the pulse beat of life. And so the men in their gray Pilgrim suits went on their un-merry way: sober, thrifty, industrious, and starkly Protestant ... and with absolutely no use for maypoles.

Maypoles, you see, meant not only unrestrained festivity but something of much larger significance: rituals. And rituals meant not only feelings and passions but coded repetitions of the past, things that New Man had come to the New World to escape.

So, on May Day of 1627, the cool, clear American voices of Reason said a firm "NO" to all of that.

By being so busy conquering Nature that they had no time to celebrate it—by insisting with prim spiritual pride on the virtue of reason (at the expend of other virtues)"did the first Americans cut us off from the more-chaotic yet far-deeper rhythms of life?

When his first child is born, an American father finds out how completely inadequate it is to celebrate the meaning of" all existence by passing out cigars; when his father dies, an American son discovers that the national habits of grief are even worse.

It is at the life-and-death occasions that the common-sense "I can do it myself American is hit hardest with the humbling truth that we need ritual.  It is to teach us-and allow us-to behave naturally (humanly) at the best and the worst moments of our lives.

If one has no acceptable way (or only a superficial-way) to behave, then the meaning of those moments-the meaning of life itself—hangs in jeopardy.

Rituals are society's unwritten permission for civilized persons to express primitive, basic emotions: grief, compassion,  fear, joy.

Other people's rituals tend to release them, to set them free to invite them to be more human in public, more themselves.  But Americans smile their fixed smile that tries to mask their legitimate-but unacceptable-emotions; we insist on trying to "out-grow" our need for ritual and applaud the apparent decline of traditional religious rites (especially in our own overly-rational religion).

Humans have always expressed their deepest joys, fears and longings in movement: in acts, jumps, shouts, gestures, dance. But that does not immediately make them rituals; such responses only later develop into a patterned ritual with mythic meaning.

Until a movement achieves special significance-that is, until it is felt or appreciated by others—it remains something less than a fully-human ritual. Ritual, therefore, provides the set of social connections through which our emotions can be expressed (rather than being repressed).

So, if we want to express our deepest feelings, then ritual must have a social dimension; and if we want to carry on our experience into the future, then, ritual must have a historical dimension, as well.

To express our deepest emotions (even only to ourselves) __ we need ritual ... just as we need language to talk (even only to ourselves). Just as language transforms basic sounds into something intelligible, ritual transforms our basic movements in the world into something creatively expressive.

Our ritual celebrations no longer relate us (as they once did) to the parade of cosmic history of which we are a part, nor do they relate us to the great stories of the human spiritual quest.

Because of this our dreams and fantasies are cautious and shallow; our festivals and celebrations are sporadic and compulsive. Because of this we are not inspired to either a genuine transformation of our society or the rediscovery of our own personal identity.

And because of this-especially at this time of ritual celebration of special moments in the continuing story of our religion and our country-I propose a Unitarian Universalist Bill of Rites, universal in scope.

Considering the above as the Preamble, Article I would proclaim the right to the rite of celebrating, whether organized collectively or spontaneously private, all of life: in special occasions and ordinary occasions; in moments of joy and moments of sorrow; in public places and private spaces; in quiet contemplation and frenzied abandon ... you are permitted (encouraged!) to celebrate!

Article II would insist that everyone be free to fantasize; everyone is urged to fashion future visions and daydream impossible dreams and remember past delights.

  While this might seem to be selfishly hedonistic; nothing i could be farther from the real truth of fantasy: that particular element of ritual moments (especially when liberated by action) not only gives rise to our own   personal   perspective (essential to the development of private identity) but fantasy also is the start of social criticism stemming from our dreams of a letter place (essential in developing a current social identity).
Article III would put that great American ethic of "work" in its proper place, emphasizing (that (no matter how rewarding) work is not the highest end in life and furthermore, it must contribute its share to a total human fulfillment.

We need special times of non-work to remind ourselves that not even an astronomical Gross National Product or even full employment can bring a people salvation.

On occasions of non-work (proclaimed or spontaneous) we would be free to stop our busyness and enjoy the traditional gestures and times of togetherness without which our lives would be incomplete.

Merely being means that we need not always be doing; festivity, play, contemplation, making love ... are all ends in themselves, and we have a right to these rites every bit as much as we still experience the too-often dehumanizing "wrongs" of work.

Other Articles would spell out the primacy of the whole person; give further permission to experience and express our emotions-our fears and longings as well as our nonsense and joys; allow the feelings of the body to be as acceptable (and as appreciated) as the thoughts of the mind; have the ideals and quest of the human spirit be acknowledged and honored ...especially in that special place which, above all else, should give permission for humans to be wholly (holy) themselves: the church.

Rituals, then, give us permission to be ourselves; they are composed of moments of celebration—quiet or boisterous—and shaped by fantasy, our memories and our visions.

Rituals are not just tired old traditions, they are renewing, recreational experiences that joyfully and meaningfully say "Yes!" to all of life's experiences (including the tragic); they end-up by allowing us to live-it-up.

In festivity and celebration we affirm our place in space-even in spite of the inescapable facts of failure and death; in fantasy and imagination we affirm our moment in time-even in spite of the unknowable mysteries which surround and engulf us.