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The Contribution of Von Ogden Vogt

Worship as the Celebration of Life

Von Ogden Vogt, for many years minister of the First Unitarian Society in Chicago, used the phrase "celebration of life" to describe the worship experience. Vogt was a liturgist who believed that form, far from restricting freedom in worship, actually made freedom possible. For him, worship was celebration, essentially aesthetic experience, but with strong social and ethical overtones as well. He believed that both the religious and aesthetic consciousness of human beings alternate between inner and outer, a sense of the many and the one, the ideal and the actual.

Form Makes Freedom Possible

Worship, to be true to human psychology, must touch the bases in a particular order. A worship service is an art form, a drama with a clear direction. Vogt found a scriptural precedent in the story of Isaiah's call to prophecy in Isaiah 6. Following the psychology behind this ancient story, Vogt held that worship begins with some commanding vision or ideal, before which the worshiper feels humble, awe-struck, or otherwise moved. The focus moves within as one relates oneself to the vision. Very quickly one is empowered and is ready to be challenged. The challenge having been given, the worshiper responds with new dedication and commitment.

Worship in Five Acts

Vogt expressed this theory in a five-act drama. In his various books he differed slightly on what each act included, but the basic structure and direction of the service were the same:

Act 1. Attention/Vision 
We state and affirm our ideals and aspirations.

Act 2. Humility 
We are humbled by the realization that we fall short of our ideals.

Act 3. Exaltation 
We regain our strength, feel empowered, give thanks.

Act 4. Illumination 
We consider wisdom from the past and present.

Act 5. Dedication 
We reaffirm our ideals, resolve to act responsibly.

Clearly this model of worship is activist. The purpose of the activity is to celebrate the process by which our consciousness and will are shaped and changed. It takes us from the actual world into a world of ideals and transcendent reality; then it takes us back again to the outer world renewed and dedicated to the realization of what is beyond. Unfortunately, Vogt failed to integrate the sermon into the body of his five-part liturgy. First came the five parts, then the sermon, a hymn and the benediction.

What would a Vogt-inspired liturgy look like? Many of them are found in the front of the 1937 Unitarian Universalist hymnal, Hymns of the Spirit. Some are simple; some are complex. Some use theistic language; some do not. The basic form of all of them, however, is the same.

Contemporary Unitarian Universalist Liturgy

Most Unitarian Universalists interested in liturgy today draw their inspiration from Von Ogden Vogt. Some have changed the number of acts or the emphasis in each. Most include the sermon in the Illumination section. In all of them the shifting of psychological moods is the ordering principle.

Here is a typical modern liturgy derived from Vogt. Not every service would include every element. Some of the possible elements are listed to show the wide range:

Act 1. Centering 
Entrance Song, Call to Celebration, Invocation, Opening Words, Processional Hymn, Doxology, etc.

Act 2. Embracing the Limitations 
General Confession, Acknowledgment of Struggle to be Whole, Poetry or music touching the depths, Reading illustrating human folly, Silent Meditation, etc., followed by Doxology, Gloria, Words of Assurance, Hymn, Psalm of Praise, Litany of Thanksgiving, Hand clapping, etc.

Act 3. Declaring the Possibilities
Readings, Sermon, Dramatic presentation, Dance, Dialogue, Panel, etc., perhaps followed by congregational discussion.

Act 4. Community-building
Peace Greeting, Sharing of Concerns, Offering, Affirmation, Covenant, Communion, Signing a Petition or other Social Action Commitment, Hymn, Closing Words, Benediction, etc.

Neither the names for each section, nor the specific elements in them are sacrosanct. A service based on this model may be starkly simple or very complex. What is important is that each section be a unit that expresses a single mood, and that the sections follow one another in a logical sequence. Participation by the congregation is the main aim of such a form of worship.

Next: Other Models of Worships

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Last updated on Monday, April 11, 2011.

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