Friday, February 25, 2011

Wondering About Worship

I've been thinking a lot about worship lately.

That may not seem like such a surprise, given that my job at the headquarters of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations is Director of the Office of Worship and Music Resources.  If I'm not thinking about worship . . . well . . . then . . . what am I doing?

Yet recently three things have come together to get me, perhaps, not so much thinking about worship as wondering about it.  Pondering.  First, I've just finished reading a fascinating book by Laurene Beth Bowers, Designing Contemporary Congregations:  strategies to attract those under 50.  This book has both affirmed some of the things that I thought -- and did -- while a parish minister and challenged others of them.  (I like that in a book!)  It's got me wondering about this thing we do week after week and how/why we do it so that it is both meaningful and relevant to folks living in the world today.  Not just its content, but its form -- its location, its time, the liturgical elements, who participates and how . . . everything.  If we were creating it today, rather than continuing it from yesterday, what would it be like?  (Next on my reading list, Emerging Worship:  creating worship gatherings for new generations by Dan Kimball!)

And then, thanks to my serving on the editorial board of Skinner House Books, I've also just recently read the manuscript for a book on the theology of preaching that's being considered for publication.  The author uses Ralph Waldo Emerson's well known Divinity School Address of 1838 as a touchstone, and essentially asks what it could mean in the twenty-first century to be a "newborn bard of the [Spirit]"?  There is a lot to chew on in this manuscript -- it was the author's D.Min. project -- and it's got me pondering, too.  What makes Unitarian Universalist preaching and worship distinctly Unitarian Universalist?  And what makes it, again, meaningful and relevant in this day and age?

These aren't, of course, new questions.  One of my favorite expressions of it goes like this:

“Is it possible to create a form of worship so wide in its humanity, so inclusive in its symbolism, its resources in art, literature, and music, that it can encompass the whole drama of [humankind’s] religious quest?”  The author goes on to note, “We are a very young religion, without the rituals and traditions of most of the other religions of the world.  We are still seeking our true voice and rightful manner in celebration.  This we cannot find without experiments in worship.”
These words were written by the Rev. Kenneth L. Patton, and come from his book A Religion for One World:  art and symbols for a universal religion.  [I don't want too digress too far, but I feel it important to note that Patton was careful in his use of language.  He was not interested in creating "a one world religion," which would be a syncrtistic religion supplanting all others.  Rather, he was interested in upholding what he understood Universalism -- and, then, Unitarian Universalism -- to already be:  a religion for people who understood themselves to be "citizens of one world," members first of the same human family.]

The picture above is a view of the sanctuary of the Charles Street Meeting House in Boston, circa 1960.  This was the congregation that Ken Patton was called to lead, and it was designed as something of a laboratory to address the question -- what would authentically Universalist (or Unitarian Universalist) worship in the modern age look like?  One answer was found in their renovated sanctuary, which placed the congregation in a circle around an inlayed map of the earth (because their concern encircled the whole world), and between the painting of the Andromeda Galaxy at one end of the sanctuary and a mobile of the atom that hung at the other (because humans reside between the atoms and the stars).  The pulpit was moveable -- because there was no single locus of authority -- and the sancturary was literally surrounded by symbols, sacred texts, and art that reflected humanity's on-going search for meaning.

This picture hangs on the wall in front of the desk in my office.  It reminds me of what is possible, even while the majority of our congregations still look more or less like the churches of the Protestant tradition from which we sprang and, if we're being honest with one another, act more or less like them too.  (Although the content may be different, the forms are so often nearly indistinguishable.)  Patton's question hangs there too -- what makes Unitarian Universalist worship specifically, uniquely, Unitarian Universalist?

The third thing that's got me pondering on all of this is that, as I noted last week, I'm looking to return to parish ministry in the fall.  My time thinking about worship -- and helping others to do so -- is drawing to a close and it'll soon be time to be doing it again.  Now, I know full well that wherever I land will already have its own patterns and practices, its own structures and forms, its own history and culture.  These will have helped to make it the congregation that it is -- and the congregation it is will be, after all, what will have attracted me to them and made them think that I would be a good fit.

Yet I'm hoping that this congregation -- wherever it turns out to be -- will be willing to see itself as a laboratory, will be willing to ask the questions and explore the answers, will be willing to risk seeing what the future might really be holding.

So I find myself pondering . . . what is and what could be; the answers we've already found and the questions that still want asking; the needs and desires of the people who are here and those of the people who are yet "outside;"  the intersections of the potential, the possible, the problematic, and the promising.

I'm looking forward to the fall.

In Gassho,

RevWik Print this post


Anonymous said...

When you get to TJMCUU, carry your thinking forward. It is almost ironic that you mention the traditional look of UU Churches. TJMC is the ultimate traditional church. I served on the Long Range Planning Committee there as well as the Search Committee that did not land a candidate. My hope was for a minister that could bring "change." I firmly believe you can do that and will be keeping you and TJMC in my prayers. I would also suggest you look at the well developed plan for expansion. We thought too big for a church that was not ready. But spirit filled worship is the place to start. I am so excited by the prospects!!! Dave Dawson

RevWik said...

Thanks, David, for your encouragement. I am so excited about candidating week when I'll get to meet the rest of you. (Your search committee did a great job of representing you!) I see such possibilities at TJMC, and would love to be a part of them.

See y'all in a few weeks!


Tree hugging said...

I was once far more active at TJMC, but Sunday Services never appealed to me. I completely agree with Dave on desperate need to rethink/revitalize worship at TJMC. I think many of us have known for a decade what is needed, but there just hasn't been a strong enough push to actually DO it. For me, one of those changes would be making services more interactive, including more movement, and making the experience more creative and collaborative.