The church calendar, liberal Christians and the sanctoral cycle

Three guiding principles for Second Universalist’s worship. It should be, where possible and principled, in union with the ecumenical middle of the Christian church; its liturgical resources should be commonly owned, liberally licensed or in the public domain; and the cycles of the church year should be publicly stated and approved.

As a collorary, would be no room in worship for events of a purely national or social nature. What, exactly, is the Christian significance of the Fourth of July, save it being evidence of churches being co-opted by patriotic respectability? And how comfortable are we with Mothers Day if — as I’ve seen in some churches — the definition of motherhood has to be stretched out to accommodate the childfree and men?

But perhaps a more conspicuous change from Unitarian and Universalist Christian practice is a richer sanctoral cycle than has been commonly used. The Christian church year recounts the life, mission, death and resurrection of Christ, with Christmas and Easter as its two poles. On top of this, Christians have a calendar of saints and observances — independent of Christ’s life — that is the sanctoral cycle. Normally, we associate this practice in its most elaborate form with the hierarchical churches: Orthodox, Catholics, Anglicans and to some degree Lutherans. One sign of Protestant reform is to pare away the saints, perhaps removing all but the saints mentioned in the New Testament. Or, dropping the sanctoral cycle, leaving only the observances related to Jesus himself. Or taking it down to just Easter and Christmas. Or at the radical end, seeing Sunday alone as the only observance.

But, we have seen, with the vacuum this creates other observances creep in, like the Fourth of July and Mother’s Day, or quasi-Christian ones like Bible Sunday. In this way, ironically, mainline Unitarian Universalism has then re-filled a secularized sanctorial cycle with observances that seem saintly. Consider the United Nations Day (October 24) observances that were so common until recently: functionally, a secularized version of (itself modern) World Communion Day? And how many UU churches have a Martin Luther King commemoration in January? And the surviving practice of All Souls Day fits in this scheme. (Some, however, are just ghastly. Consider Chalica. Or don’t.)

All in all, I think I’d rather go back to the traditional approach, if somewhat more reformed than even the Episcopalians have. (And Martin Luther King would be remembered in April; death dates, not birth dates, are the norm.) Here’s the article that several years ago introduced me to the idea of a modern Protestant sanctoral cycle revival.

And hold on to your hats, for I think the Eastern Orthodox and conservative Lutherans have something to offer: the commemoration of Old Testament figures. So the dates and some resources (Bible readings, prayers, hymns) wouldn’t have to be invented from whole cloth.

And last, add in very judiciously a handful of Universalist observances, including some commended by the Universalist General Convention itself. That is, were selected and voted upon by our spiritual ancestors.

Now that I’ve presented the concept, I’ll soon recommend a calendar.

By Scott Wells

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


  1. Scott – Which observances are the rare Unviersalist ones you would include?

    The only ones I’ve ever seen in historic Universalist churches were the Commemoration of Clara Barton, and the Commemoration of John Murray’s First Sermon in America.

    Ohhhh! And what lections to choose for those blessed occassions?

    – Derek

  2. One possible lection to commemorate John Murray’s first sermon in America might be Ezekiel 1: 1 – 3.

    The edition below is NKJV.

    1 Now it came to pass in the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I was among the captives by the River Chebar, that the heavens were opened and I saw visions[a] of God. 2 On the fifth day of the month, which was in the fifth year of King Jehoiachin’s captivity, 3 the word of the LORD came expressly to Ezekiel the priest, the son of Buzi, in the land of the Chaldeans[b] by the River Chebar; and the hand of the LORD was upon him there.

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