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The central act of a religious community

Unifying features of Unitarian Universalist worship.
By William G. Sinkford
Summer 2006 5.15.06

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The Rev. Marta Valentin lighting chalice

The Rev. Marta Valentin, minister of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans, lights a chalice at the 2006 General Assembly. (Nancy Pierce/UUA)

As I visit our congregations, I am detecting an exciting change in the way Unitarian Universalists are worshiping: A sense of celebration is growing in our Sunday services, and so is a sense of awe and wonder, and a sense of gratitude.

I’m excited that many congregations are singing two or three hymns before Sunday worship begins, just to set the tone—and in the process unleashing a dynamism that carries over into the service. I hear many hymns as I travel, of course, but I’ve noticed that some hymns clearly resonate with almost all our congregations, and lots of us can sing them without looking at our hymnals. It’s as if UUs everywhere, no matter how much geography may separate us, are worshiping together.

And I’m excited that the ways we worship, while hardly identical, are moving forward and coming together. In Salem, Massachusetts, the historic First Congregational Society, Unitarian, has been careful not to rush to change its approach to worship. This year the congregation celebrated its 375th anniversary, saying together the covenant that was pledged at its very first service, while lighting a chalice for the first time. The congregation has since lit one every Sunday, as do almost all UU congregations today.

Although Unitarian Universalist worship is still far from the ritual-rich services of Episcopalians and Roman Catholics—and although we struggle to find unifying ground for our theological pluralism—I am sensing an emerging UU liturgical tradition. If I’m right, this would be fitting for our democratic faith. In the words of one of my favorite thinkers about worship, the Rev. John Wolf, minister emeritus of All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, “Liturgy is the language of the people. Ritual is the language of the priests.”

Worship is the central act of the religious community—not committee meetings or coffee hour, despite jokes to the contrary. The root of the word worship is the Anglo Saxon for worth, and worship is the way we celebrate what we hold worthy. We UUs together hold many values worthy, so the emerging common elements in our worship may simply be the way we express our faith community’s common ground.

The changes in UU worship are not coming from the top down. Word is spreading from congregation to congregation. The idea of singing two or three hymns before Sunday worship, for example, got a boost from the new Sunday morning worship service introduced at General Assembly two years ago. Members of the aptly named UU Musicians Network talk among themselves, and ideas spread. And our clergy and religious educators are networking more.

Over the centuries since the Puritans settled in Salem, many ideas have spread through what today are Unitarian Universalist congregations. Of course, we have not changed in lockstep with one another—lockstep is not in the UU skill set—but we have changed. After the rise of humanism a century ago, for example, many of our congregations dropped their prayers, and sermons gave way to addresses. But now the pendulum is swinging again. Sermons about real-life issues are becoming more common, appealing not just to our minds but also calling us to be our best selves as we go back out into the world and face another week. People are coming to church to be part of a community that affirms their humanity and value, to get their spirits nurtured; a recent survey found that “Spirit of Life” is the hymn our congregations sing most often.

In many congregations I visit, the sense of awe, the sense of reverence, are growing with the sense of celebration. And my sense of excitement is growing as our worshiping communities live out the promise of what our faith can be.

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