The worship at the church down the street…

It’s 1920, and you’re in a large market town east of the Alleghenies. You’re looking for a church and your options include an Episcopal church and a Unitarian church. (Make it a small city or larger, and you might add the Universalists to this formula.) Ask the rector of St. Alban’s or the minister at First Unitarian if each has much in common with the other, and you would probably be told “no.” Different polity, different theology, different piety. The two have nothing in common.

But if you ask parishioners to describe how worship was worded, you might pick up on more similarities then you would have expected. Yes, Unitarian worship has changed, but so did Episcopalian worship, and in 1920 they were closer in style. These were the days before the Liturgical Movement, so an every-Sunday, main Eucharistic (Communion) service would be unlikely; Morning Prayer (with Sermon) would be more likely, and if it was old-fashioned, it may be followed in an odd rhythm by the Litany and then Ante-Communion; that is, the first half of the Communion service. And the Unitarians would have Morning Prayer and Sermon, by that or another name. A big litany would be an option, and if you’d shown up a generation or two before, even Ante-Communion.

Small-town Universalists, Western “fiddle and lecture” Unitarians and Anglo-Catholic Episcopalians would have fallen outside this spectrum, but Theist and even early Humanist Unitarians appreciated the rhythms and internal logic of Morning Prayer. You ask: so what?

In the next couple of weeks or more, I will blog on:

  • what the contemporary changes Unitarians and Universalists made to common worship styles say about their assumptions then
  • how traces of those forms persist, even in unlikely settings
  • how these forms are based on centuries of developments
  • how these forms can be the basis of lay theological education and mission
  • how movement, habits and artifacts shape worship
  • what adaptations and alterations by those who used those forms (Epiccopalians mainly) say about how these forms might be re-reformed and re-adopted

Should be fun! Thought? Please add them in the comments.

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. This was an era in which Unitarians won praise for the prayers. Why? Because although we used traditional formats for most elements of the liturgy, ministers poured their souls, their educations, and their life experience into writing what liturgy lightly describes as “The Prayer of the Day.” Many calendars of other religions had elaborate “Prayers of the Day” (some of which can be seen in the KCPBs you’re examining), according to various appointed saints, events, and occasions. Through this calendar, when fully employed, the faithful worshiper would have all the pastoral boxes ticked off over the year. However, at any time, major events in the world, the neighborhood, the congregation, even the family, would all have been lying on the cutting room floor.

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