On Chutney’s morning prayer, part 3

I’m glad Chutney and Philocrites brought up the WorshipWeb resource that Philo . . . Chris Walton led-up a few years ago. (These pseudonyms make me think we each have a sidekick, a nemesis, and a lair.)

It includes three of the sixteen services from the 1937 (in print until 1981) “red hymnal” Hymns of the Spirit. If you’ve been following this discussion and don’t have one, get one. Or at least make a copy of the front service part for your own study. A lot of older Unitarian Universalist churches have a box of them mouldering away; one gets kicked up on eBay every once in a while, too. (A fair price is no more an $7.)

Chutney might have had an easier time seeing a possible progression for his project in some of these services. Services one (my favorite) to five are liberal, broad Christian. Services six to ten are non-theistic, perhaps more Free Religion than Humanist. Here is number seven. Service eleven is a bit of a mystery: very lightly Christian, with a hint that it is used after some disaster or strife. Since there is internal evidence of Unitarian and Universalist “areas” in this hymnal, I wonder if it is of Universalist origin. Services twelve to sixteen are proper to holidays; twelve is for Christmas Day.

The services and supplemental material, including responsive readings, are not without problems. One minister friend says the responsive readings are so dry they dehumidify the church basement. (They are “responsive by whole verse” — which is just enough to leave me breathless by the end of each line. I have been impressed by a half-verse reading, as the local Swedenborgians do. Rather than breathlessness, the congregation seems to be breathing the psalm.)

PeaceBang (calling me in her secret, real-life identity) and I talked recently about whether services like these are used in toto, or are essentially showrooms for elements to be pulled into locally produced service sheets. Both, we thought. I think it’s a shame that the last two hymnals only do the later. Various frameworks would help. (If the Anglicans can do it, uncharacteristically, we might could.) I think the development here is the technology (spirit duplicators, later xerography in lieu of professional job printing) that allowed nearly all churches — or rather, their ministers — to print locally, and thus claim tighter week-to-week editorial control over the conduct of the service. For weal and woe alike. There’s a whole hidden history of five or six decades of American religious history resting on folded letter size paper. But that’s another post.

By Scott Wells

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


  1. Interestingly, these services do work. One year the UU Christian church I was serving decided to hold services in August, without music nor hymns. Those model services in the red hymnal were a godsend. All that I had to do was find the Bible reading for the day and write a brief homily. (The red hymnal was the only one we used. The pews did have the blue one but it was never cracked open during the two years that I served them.) So, I did use the services in the book in toto, without orders of service. Like an Anglican service I told them that the service was found on this page and we went from there.

    After that experience I wished that the more recent UU hymnals had sample orders of service–even if they were more Humanistiic in structure. It would be great to have a fall-back in a pinch.

  2. The little church I supplied in South Carolina would sometimes use them too. Like that dreadful Easter morning when I got caught behind log trucks crawling through the countryside.I was an hour behind — it’s a long drive from Athens, Ga. to Newberry, S.C. via Elberton — and about fifteen minutes late for the service. The church president/piano player had just decided “to do service one” when I showed up.I wasn’t so much embarrased — log trucks are a force of nature if you’ve never driven behind one, especially in an old car, and doing that insane “I don’t have health insurance” mental calculus; as if that would help one bit if you got ran into or off the road by such a beast — as impressed with the back up plan.

  3. Logging and granite trucks are a special force of nature in Elberton–which is where my mother lives. Glad that the book was there for you. Imagine trying the same thing with the recent hymnal. You would have known what was happening but the congregation would have been wondering what was coming next.

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