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Introduction, Workshop 3: Communal Worship Practices

In "Spirit in Practice," a Tapestry of Faith program

The miracles of... church seem to me to rest not so much upon faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near to us from afar off, but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there about us always.

—Willa Cather

In most Unitarian Universalist congregations, the central activity of the week is the Sunday service. It is the time when the greatest number of people are together in one place for one purpose.

Or so it might seem. In truth, if you asked any twenty people in a Unitarian Universalist congregation why they come to Sunday services, you'd probably get twenty answers—or more! Some people are looking for intellectual stimulation, wanting to learn something new or to see things in a new way. Some are there for a feeling of belonging to a community. Some want a liberal religious education for their children, and some seek solace during hard times. Some want encouragement to continue working to bring more justice to the world. Some want to see their friends; some want to hear great music; some want a little quiet in their week; and some aren't sure why they are there.

Not only do Unitarian Universalists have different reasons for worshipping, we have different understandings of what worship is. In 1983, the UUA's Commission on Common Worship wrote:

Worship is a human activity. Though it is often defined as reverence given to a divine being or power, worship need not have supernatural implications. The origin of the word "worship" is in the Old English weorthscippen, meaning to ascribe worth to something, to shape things of worth. We worship, then, whenever we ascribe worth to some value, idea, object, person, experience, attitude, or activity—or whenever we give form or shape to that which we have already found to be of worth.

A worship experience can occur at any time: while one is alone or part of a group. Whenever something beautiful is perceived; whenever there is a deep sense of connectedness with other persons, with the natural world, or with the transcendent (however you might define it); whenever one gains insight or a new sense of wholeness; whenever one perceives an ethical challenge; whenever life is deliberately focused or ordered—in all these situations one can be said to be worshipping.

Some in our movement don't talk about Sunday worship, but instead of weekly "services" or a "Celebration of Life." The latter phrase is intended to bypass the question of what "worship" means while providing a unifying core. You and I may come on any given Sunday for our own personal reasons, but we—the whole community—have gathered in celebration of life.

Whatever we choose to call it, communal worship is, in and of itself, a valuable part of one's spiritual growth. Time spent alone in nature can be transformative; time spent meditating or in prayer is valuable; time spent in service to and with others is important; but none of these can replace the act of coming together in community with others on a regular basis.

The inherent value of gathering with others in communal celebration might be a new idea for some Unitarian Universalists, whose faith tradition has so often touted the importance of the individual. The traditional Unitarian values of freedom, reason, and tolerance, as well as past prophets such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, are often interpreted to esteem the individual more than the community. But Emerson, as well as his reputedly solitary friend Henry David Thoreau, was in constant contact with his own community of learning and spiritual growth.

Being among other people—truly being with them—can be a profound experience. The Trappist monk Thomas Merton described a powerful moment of spiritual insight he experienced while standing on a corner in New York City . With hundreds of people hurrying past him, he suddenly realized that he was connected to each and every one of them—all were members of the same human family, living on the same fragile planet. Communal worship gives us the opportunity for the same realization, week in and week out. We can see that our own personal lives exist within a larger context. This cannot be done in isolation.

In a Unitarian Universalist context, when we come together in communal worship we remind ourselves that our own lives exist in a wider context, and we join with others in a celebration of life—our own lives, the life of our community, the lives of other species on our planet, Life itself. We come together to explore the "Big Questions" we humans have always wrestled with, as well as the particular questions of people alive in the twenty-first century. We come together to celebrate the joys of life and to commemorate life's sorrows—our own and each other's. We come together to tap into the wisdom of those who have gone before and to leave our own markers for those who come after. This, my friends, is a deeply spiritual practice.

For more information contact web @ uua.org.

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Last updated on Thursday, October 27, 2011.

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