Sunday, November 27, 2016

What if we've got worship completely backwards?

What I believe now more than ever is that we Unitarians need a radical shift in our worship. Through our own strange path from Protestant Non-Conformity to postmodernism we have developed a style of worship that is seriously damaging our spiritual health.

We have developed the strange idea that worship is essentially a thematic presentation. We believe that worship is fundamentally "about" something, some theme, some idea. We say "today's service is about compassion" or some such thing. We advertise it thus. And then we gather together for a time when one person (almost always only one person) has curated a presentation on this topic. They've collected thematic readings, poems and hymns on this topic. And they present it. Sometimes it's quite good. Sometimes (perhaps more often) it isn't, because actually it's a fairly difficult thing to do.

But actually this isn't even the point. The point is this: it's not worship. It just isn't. We have gathered and listened to a presentation about a topic. We have not worshipped.

The biggest problem, the biggest biggest problem by far in Unitarianism is that we don't actually worship.

Worship is never ever "about" anything. A sermon is about something. But "worship" is not synonymous with "sermon". Worship is not about anything. Worship is about worship. It does not have a theme or a topic. It is about the same thing every single time: opening the soul to God.

Worship is the spiritual practice of a community. It is people drawing near to one another and to God. And it is primarily non-rational. There may be a bit of explanation, exploration, thinking in it, but that is a secondary purpose. The primary purpose is to create a first-hand experience of the numinous through bodily acts. Such acts may be singing, meditation, dancing, ritual, feasting. But they are bodily before they are mental and rational.

We can be scared of such things because we tend to be people who get a feeling of safety by living in our brains, with all the defences of doing so. Worship breaks down those defences. That is the point of it. Worship is something fundamentally silly. It is fundamentally a strange and silly thing to do that makes little sense if approached externally, because it can only be understood internally. But it is good for us. It is good for us to move out of our brains and dance and sing and bow and eat a little wafer and spin around in circles and talk gibberish. It is a time-tested method of replenishment and connection. If we don't do it, if we make worship "safe" we cease to worship, and worship ceases to "work". This is what we Unitarians have done.

Unless and until we make this kind of shift in our worship, things are going to look dire for us, because we're fundamentally not offering that which quenches the thirst of the spiritual seeker: a genuine connection to God.

Ministers can make this shift. What is more difficult is congregations who have different worship leaders every week. They are much more dependent on the "worship as presentation" model. What I would like to say to such congregations is - it's OK to just pray, mediate or sing in worship. This is I think a better path for such congregations. It would be so much better to develop a local liturgy, songs and prayers that the congregation like that they sing and say every week. A simple way of being open to one another and to the divine with a basic liturgy and plenty of silence. By all means have a cycle of inspirational readings to stimulate your thoughts. Don't worry so much about sermons. Don't worry about guest preachers.

What might be more useful to us right now than training preachers is training liturgical musicians. Although I am a preacher I would say a good musician is much more important to a small congregation than a good preacher. A musician that is liturgically and pastorally sensitive, that understands worship, that knows how to lead people in participatory music and singing. That's someone who can make a bigger difference to worship than a preacher.

And when we do train "lay preachers" the priority needs to be much more in teaching people to pray than in teaching them to preach. In fact I'm tempted to say the priority should be a deepening spiritual life, retreats, a spiritual director, a deepening connection to Life, before anyone should think about preaching. And people need to be taught to be liturgists much more than preachers, to understand the flow of worship and what it means before they think about giving any kind of message.

In short we need to understand what worship is, and start actually doing it.


Blogger Allogenes said...

You'll be happy to know that since you left First Church Boston, every two or three years Rev Kendrick and the Worship Committee introduce some new ritual (in the broadest sense) to the service - now we all say together "Love is the spirit of this church..." etc at the chalice lighting, we have both a unison reading and a responsive reading, and my favorite, a "Greet one another" section which is like the passing of the peace in Christian churches...

8:42 pm  
Anonymous Nick. said...

This is all well said, Stephen. I can only agree with the need for religious experience as well as having the theory. We are people who like to talk about our faith a lot, putting it into practice is not so easy now we are in effect a multi-faith religion. This is where the skill and intuition of the ministers is so important, balancing the needs of the existing congregation with the necessary outreach.

Our local evangelical church in Sheffield has a slogan outside on a board: "Meet friends, meet God, live better". A neat way to sum up the vital work of a church: community, religious experience and personal transformation.


8:46 pm  
Blogger Roy Clark said...

You make a very important point very well. However individual Unitarian congregations are often very different to each other. It is sometimes hard to believe they are all from the same outfit. With Christian ministers and lay leaders in some places and atheist clergy in others, it is hard to see how your idea of returning to worship will be taken up.

7:49 pm  
Blogger Glen Marshall said...

Good thoughts Stephen and, if I might, as a non Unitarian, a v pertinent comment from Roy. It seems to me that worship presupposes engagement with deity or at least an openness to and teaching after deity. This is not to deny that there is value in the spiritual practices of non theists but I think such practices are not the same as worship.

2:05 pm  
Blogger Stuart Abram said...

The problem you've identified in Unitarian worship is fairly widespread among Protestants and even more liberal Roman Catholics. The tendency for Sundays (or other high days) to become a "theme day" (whether on race, the Holy Family, etc.) is fairly ecumenical.

May I suggest that this might be due to the loss of the sacrificial element in worship? The "four ends" of Christian worship, my handy old hand-missal taught me, were adoration, thanksgiving, atonement and petition, summarised in the old phrase, "the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass". I know Unitarians get jittery about sacrifice and its language, but it can be a helpful guide. Let us put to one side conventional Christian notions of the Cross as an expiatory or propitiatory sacrifice. I would rather look to the Old Testament, as it happens. The unbloody sacrifices - the firstfruits, the incense offering, the peace offering, etc. - have always had a strong emotional appeal for many. They were quite the opposite of the "themed services" you describe, being more "Godward" or theocentric than a more didactic service can be.

Arguably, this tradition took the form, in later Christian tradition, of the monks' offices, themselves descended from the synagogue service. A "sacrifice of the word" has its own beauty; the utttering of the psalms with all those mixed purposes. Yet their words often comforted or harmlessly perplexed. It seemed very natural to combine evening prayer with burning a small amount of incense. "May my prayer ascend as does the evening sacrifice", to paraphrase the psalmist. It's a beautiful way to end the working day.

While this could never be the dominant or sole form of worship in a denomination like the Unitarian Church, it seems a pity it hardly seems present. Many Anglicans, of every theological stripe, value the forms it takes in their own tradition and many young Catholics desire its restoration quite ardently. I wonder if the same will be true in Unitarianism.

3:04 pm  

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