Ash Wednesday resources

I was talking to a friend about Ash Wednesday services. They’re not my favorite — the ashes can be ostentatious, and it reflects a particular Western Christian piety that I don’t care for — but the service has become more widely observed in the last couple of generations, so I’d like to revisit three blog posts that might help those who conduct it.

Bleg: Copy of a service book

This is a bleg. A blog beg. I’m looking for a copy of a liturgy.

In Protestant Nonconformity and Christian Missions (ed. Wellings Martin) I learned of a Unitarian-Free Catholic service book: J. P. Oakden’s 1934 A Free Church Liturgy based on the Words of holy Scripture together with A Simplified Latin Rite and Orthodox Liturgy.

If you have access to a library that has this 27-page book, I would very much appreciate a copy or scan of it.

Another source of “red hymnal” liturgical resources

The Services of Religion associated with the red Hymns of the Spirit drew from many sources. One was Devotional Services for Public Worship (1903), an example of English Congregationalist liturgy; it represents a parallel strain to Free Christianity within English Dissent.

To note.

Revisiting worship from 1939

I’m making a historical review of worship at Universalist National Memorial Church, by request, to help worship leaders understand how worship has developed. I’m curious to see what will turn up.

I’ve written very generally about a set of orders of service, saved in the Library of Congress ephemera collection and posted online. Two posts (1, 2) from 2012.

So, what can we tell from the order of service? Some initial thoughts.

  • It’s pretty easy to see the morning prayer format. The Venite, the typical morning psalm, is a pretty big tell, too. The current UNMC service has all of the elements of morning prayer, with some parts more emphasized than others, and new elements (joys and concerns, center aisle greeting) added.
  • The call to worship, invocation and Lord’s prayer are grouped, with the organ prelude and hymn (music) and procession (action), as a unit: the opening sequence.
  • In Hymns of the Church services, the opening sequence may begin with opening words, but the hymn fills that role, presumably. The call to worship is the statement of the purpose of worship. The second service has a prayer for purity, which almost presumes a private and unspoken confession. Or if not confession, then at least a good intent. You see this construction in other published services.
  • With sentences, we hear echoes of this sequence at UNMC today, though the Lord’s Prayer is in another place.
  • The responsive readings are really long. About twice as long as found in the 1964 Hymns for the Celebration of Life and absolutely endless by 1993 Singing the Living Tradition standards. About two psalms worth, but perhaps used in halves, as suggested by the order of service, and the penciled notes in the version of the Hymns of the Church.
  • The prayer after the scripture reading may be a general thanksgiving, a part of a larger sequence from Anglican morning prayer. The “pastoral prayer” or “long prayer” may be implied here.
  • In morning prayer, two major elements can appropriately be put in different places: announcements and the sermon. The announcement placement problem is perennial. In one version of “morning prayer and sermon” the sermon comes close to the end, before an optional prayer, final hymn and benediction. This is what UNMC has now. The printed order of service has the sermon after the reading, which might be a more modern ordering. But that’s not necessarily an endorsement.
  • This service includes communion, a service its own right of course, after the usual morning service. Several years ago, a member of UNMC told me that Seth Brooks, who began his long pastorate the following week, presided over communion from the pulpit. Make of that what you will: better amplification perhaps, and that the thin space behind the altar was never meant for a versus populum service. (I recall getting a shoe wedged in.) And there’s no way that stone will move.

The arranged reading (for Christmas and otherwise)

It’s a given that old hymns may be re-arranged to suit the particular service better, even if it’s just to choose some verses and not others. And responsive readings are often edited from their source documents to better suit the occasion.

Readings for preaching are chosen, and are sometimes edited for inclusive language, but I wonder how often biblical readings are “compiled” — to use the responsive reading idiom — rather than be read in a standard translation, as cited.

But there is an alternative. I wrote about an early twentieth-century service book intended for Unitarians organizing “lay centers,” that assumed the use of a particular compiled book of readings: The Soul of the Bible. Or as its subtitle calls them, “synthetic readings.”

It must have been popular. The copy I found and bought is about thirty years younger (Beacon Press, 1946) than the service book. (Also noteworthy: the editor, Ulysses G. B. Pierce was the minister of All Souls, Unitarian, Washington.)

Here is the 1908 edition.

So, I wondered, would it have been useful for Christmas Eve services? That’s for later. But for now I wanted to raise the idea, surely against the flow of the last two generations of Christian liturgics, but also having its own honesty. The scriptures do not, at last, preach themselves, and we will shape our interpretation of them.

Blue Christmas/Longest Night rollcall

“Blue Christmas” and “Longest Night” services are related phenomena that respect the worship needs of mourners, depressed or distressed people. Or more generally, those for whom the cheer of the season brings more pain than joy.

But it’s not easy to find these services if you’re not looking for them, and some are well before Christmas.

If you know of a service (or are hosting one), feel free to note it here. Not that this will create a catalog, but perhaps will attract people to the idea and prompt them to plan for next year.

An Advent daily reader for mixed generations?

Well, after writing yesterday that I had no comment about Advent… well, a conversation at church changed that.

Do you know of a family — that is, appropriate for use by adult and school-aged children — daily manual for Advent, appropriate for Universalist Christians? Ideally, something with a Bible passage for the day, a meditation and a prayer.

For daily prayers at the Advent wreath?

Anyone have a suggestion? (Intergenerational resources aren’t my strong suit.)

Please join us after the service for …what?

I’m used to controversy, but I’m really wading into deep water now. What is the appropriate food to serve with coffee after church? I ask out loud to combat snack inflation and to make the task — if it needs to be a task at all — easier to overtaxed church volunteers.

Let me paint a picture.

Two church services. Two different places. Two different approaches to food. Let’s review.

The first is New Harmony Universalist Church, Loganville, Georgia. Don’t look it up at; it left the association in the 1980s, and had “gone dormant” before that, when that part of Georgia was open country and not in the exurbs of Atlanta. Today, it meets once a year in September for a homecoming service and de facto family reunion. And the food comes out. Homemade food: salads, various preparations of chicken, cornbread, congealed salads plus barbecue and a vat of Brunswick stew deep enough to baptize an adult, if so inclined. Homemade food to celebrate the church and the family. Dinner on the church grounds under a large shelter build for that purpose. (There is no church hall; there is, however, an outhouse.)

The second is St. Andrew’s Church of Scotland, in Rome. My husband Jonathan and I visited St. Andrew’s for the Christmas Eve service a couple of years ago. We had just flown in that morning; so did the family we shared the pew with! This is a lively in-town parish, with a multinational congregation, and no doubt a large number of tourists. Christmas Eve in such a setting is no more typical than the reunion at New Harmony, but the refreshment options have be handled differently. The parish hall is in another part of the church complex. There we found simple but well-chosen refreshments. A choice of drinks — tea or mulled wine — served by members from trays rather than at a station, if I recall correctly. (When I visited in 2003 for an ordinary Sunday, it was tea or juice at a table.) At a long table, the church set out generous slices of brioche-like pandoro and fresh mandarins, some with their leaves attached. I think the children got small gifts of candy, and possibly a different drink option. This wasn’t a family reunion, and many of us were strangers, but the Christmas cheer (and jetlag) inclined us to sociability, and the well-considered and straightforward offerings left a lasting positive impression.

A question for wedding officiants

Legislative and court successes have expanded same-sex couples access to legal marriage; my husband and I have benefited from it. It’s exciting to see the couples line up on the first “legal” day. Some of these will then get married on the courthouse steps, or some location nearby. It’s particularly encouraging to see Unitarian Universalist ministers take their place there.

And these often long-awaited, but surely quickly organized weddings make a visible challenge to the now-normal way of getting married, with expensive jewelery, elaborate arrangements and a cast of thousands. I usually advise couples to elope, and these courthouse-step services look only a short step away from an elopement. Not only do I approve, but I’m glad to see the option depicted so joyously.

But then I recall another norm, or former norm: pre-marital counseling. I’m not really qualified to do it, and I’m not convinced it’s necessary. So, for those few weddings I do these days, I don’t offer or require it. And I wonder if that was part of the arrangement that lead a couple and minister to meet on the courthouse steps?

Do you, dear wedding officiant, offer or require pre-marital counseling? Any particular reason, either way?

Today is Universalist Memorial Day

As we lope to church, let’s recall that the Universalist General Convention commended so many years ago

that the first Sunday of October, in each year, be set apart as Memorial Sunday, for commemorating those friends who, during the year, have been taken away by death.

I think it’s place there to anticipate the great and general thanksgiving and memorial — All Souls Day — a month later. Few, if anyone observes the day (also called the Sunday of the Commemoration) today, and some of the Universalist Christians who might chose it would rather observe the ecumenical World Communion Sunday, which is also today.

This service, from the extinct Church of the Redeemer, Chelsea, Mass. — a fountainhead of liturgical innovation — offers hints for its observance, and the date makes me suspect that many of the dead remembered died in the Civil War.