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The Community of Common Worship

Despite ever-changing theological opinions and shifting theological majorities within our congregations, Unitarians and Universalists and Unitarian Universalists (UUs) have worshipped together in the presence of the holy, bound together by our covenants on this continent for more than two centuries. We have a common denominator of understanding that worship is done in community. Increasingly we understand that while individuals may have private spiritual devotional practices, and individuals and groups may have mystical experiences of awe, wonder, and beauty, these are not worship. Worship is a communal and intentional event, constructed from the building blocks of the liturgical arts and intended to be practiced over time.

Our most widely understood definition of worship, cited by theistic and non-theistic UUs alike, seems to be: We gather together to hold up those things of ultimate worth, meaning, and value. It follows from this definition that any elements arranged in any order or form that calls to mind things of ultimate meaning and value should work as a component of our worship. We lack a common understanding about the value and meaning and the power of liturgy, which we would define as: the artful and intentional creation of devotional and inspirational experiences intended to transform the self.

The covenantal foundation of our Unitarian Universalist worship tradition handicaps our ability to appreciate the way liturgy sustains the community of common worship. We come from the American Congregational Puritan tradition, and although most Unitarian Universalists would have a hard time describing how our Puritan ancestry influences our worship today, it undoubtedly does. Our Puritan heritage is rooted in the Calvinist conviction that the key sacrament in worship is the interpretation of the word of God, found in the Scriptures. Although we have transcended the Calvinist understanding of where Scripture can be found and what its interpretation means, we continue to be People of the Book and People of the Word. Most of our members believe that the holy will truly be found in the sermon, first of all, and in the literal prose of the readings and affirmations heard and spoken. This belief contributes to minimizing our interest in the other liturgical arts: music, hymn and song, poetry, ritual, dance, and drama.

Our evident aversion to icons also stems from our Puritan heritage. The simplicity that was part of the Puritans’ faith has influenced our architecture and our attitudes towards aesthetics. As inheritors of the Protestant reaction to Roman Catholic symbolism, and as people who believe that redemption comes from personal experiences of insight and grace rather than the offices and rites of the church, we are skeptical of the power of icons, symbols, and rituals. Exploring them feels like a betrayal.

At West Shore Church, we are reminded of this Puritan influence each week when we gaze at the large, usually empty wall behind our pulpit. While at times this wall has been decorated with commissioned art or other temporary artistic innovations, the majority of our church’s members feel comfortable with the emptiness of that space. One person told us that it gives her permission to fill it with whatever is going on in her body and mind in response to the service.

We were intrigued with how the congregation might respond to an opportunity to purchase and permanently mount a digital projector in the sanctuary ceiling, allowing us to project images, hymns, and words onto the empty wall during services. Many members donated to a special fund set up to make the projector possible. Those who expressed concern largely responded to the frequency of projected images, rather than the validity of using them at all. We believe that the impermanence of the projected images and hymns, and discretion in their use, minimized any outcry that the empty wall was being overthrown as an element of our worship space.

Our aversion to rituals and symbols has reinforced our non-creedal stance with regard to both membership and worship. We have an underlying fear of creeping creedalism. Many of our members see fixed symbols placed on the walls or experienced through rituals and ceremonies in very literal ways that fail to appreciate the flexible metaphorical possibilities for the meanings they might contain.

There is one more element of our UU tradition that comes from our Puritan ancestry: our powerful belief in our first Source. Contained in our 1985 Unitarian Universalist Association Statement of Purposes and Principles, this Source is the “direct experience of transcending mystery and wonder.” We believe that the individual apprehension of the holy is the first wellspring of religious life. It doesn’t come from any traditional single source like a holy book or a founding teacher, and it doesn’t come through collective devotional or spiritual practice. The emphasis on the individual in that first Source overwhelms all the other Sources we claim, which arise from collective rather than individual experience. When we view our worship life primarily through the lens of the first Source, minimizing the influence of historic traditions and their liturgical expression, we risk treating worship as thinly disguised self-improvement.

Despite the fact that we will never rest our faith on a foundation represented by a single holy book or prophet, our liturgy has the potential to share a critical common characteristic with the liturgical traditions of other world faiths: Our worship life tells a saving story. Our task as worship leaders is to exegete that story, and weave together the threads of our tradition in weekly works of art that tell us how to live a Unitarian Universalist religious life. The liberal religious tradition and way of life is not circumscribed by our Judeo-Christian heritage, yet that is the strongest of the threads that we follow back through time. It is woven with others into a tapestry of sources and possibilities, but there is no question in our minds that our congregational life resonates most strongly with the church forms, language, and culture of Protestant Christianity. The culture and traditions of a congregation’s life are critical in shaping their worship.

Next: The Role of Culture and Tradition

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Last updated on Monday, April 11, 2011.

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