On Chutney’s morning prayer, part 2

Every once in a while, you get a Unitarian Universalist who says — in so many words — we’re not Christian and never were, so why do we insist on doing X like the Christians. (The letters to the UUWorld sometimes go there.) But what we were (and some still are) conditions the process (if not the content) of what we have today. OK, nothing new said there. Which is my point . . . .
It may be unfashionable to say so — Americans would usually like to make something new than recover the old — but a Unitarian Universalist seriously considering the offices of daily prayer, including morning prayer, has to look both to how Unitarians and Universalists approached the matter, and how the people they drew on approached it.

At this point, I supposed to say how we have Puritan roots and there’s something distinctly New England about how we do our worship and so forth. But a lot of what got filtered through the more refined churches of the late nineteenth century was a better sense of the aesthetic, with briefer sermons, choral music, and pre-composed prayers. Colonial Meetinghouse fell to Gothic Revival, or met halfway, at least. A lot of denominations went through this, and the Episcopalians (among a small set of others) were cast in an admirable light. Which is one reason I refer to them a lot. But this is somewhat obscured because Episcopalians on the whole don’t worship they way they once did. Good ol’ low church Episcopalianism — with Morning Prayer as the default service and ministers dressed more or less like I am in my blog photo — is almost dead. The parish Eucharist and vestments from antiquity have become so common that we’d hardly know there is an alternative. But Morning Prayer was once popular in part because it was easy to learn and participate in, and worked with people of differing theological commitments. It was praise and hearing and prayer, and most commonly learning through a nourishing address tacked to the end, incircled in its own sequence of singing and blessing. The framework is familiar, and is seen — however modified — in many Unitarian Universalist churches today. It is a robust frame; to my mind, a good service of morning prayer should likewise accordion down to a person’s private if complex prayer, or up to the main service of a Sunday congregation of thousands. So a respectible order for morning prayer can be cast as a series of elements as headings. Just a thought.

After saying all that, and following up on what I wrote last time, someone composing a liturgy for both local and “elsewhere” use needs to think about its customs. Who stands where, who walks where, how are candles lit and not lit — which options for the physical “performance” are use and which aren’t. That says a lot about what’s accepted or rejected; perhaps more than the theological content. Take notes at a service you like and “works” and you’ll know instinctively that the customary is important and what it can involve.

Now, a word on what is ordinary and what is proper.

Ordinary elements — in rite (words) or custom (actions and physical resource choices) — occur at every service or nearly so. Standing at the hymns, the unison recitation of a particularly-worded covenant, the closely-enunciated exhortation-as-greeting when the chalice is lighted (in its own particular way), the bright singing of “Go now in peace” when the church scholars leave, the unpretensious reception of the offering with two church members with wicker baskets — these are ordinary to several real-live Unitarian Universalist congregations I’ve seen. They get inside of you and allow you to participate in all the weather of the human condition, and you change them at someone’s peril.

Proper elements change from service to service, often keyed to an occasion or schedule like a lectionary. They provide variety, interest, color, and focus. Hymns and readings are proper. The choice of prayers is proper. Some liturgies are themselves proper to an occasion, like the customary Ash Wednesday and Good Friday liturgies.

OK, this posting is a mess but I’d better publish it or I’ll never stop. Have at it.

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.

1 comment

  1. No, please go on. You’re giving me the liturgical education I didn’t get in my one, disorganized seminary liturgy course (and by one of the creators of the Common Lectionary, no less). You’re making the implicit explicit, something the perverse Nietzschean in my adores, and about something I’ve never understood why I like (liturgy, I mean). Please keep at it.

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