(This material was written in 1982 for our thesis seminar at M/L. I found it "assembled" from cut up pages and Scotch tape. I’m not sure I agree with all of it now. We were pressed -- or at least I was -- to be “christian” in some assumptions. Mostly, it’s just not very clear. Too many variations, too undigested.)
The forward progression of worship can be worked out in terms of logic, convenience, custom, story or the natural sequence of feelings. But it must be focused and empowered on the level of “felt concepts” which are the way the worshippers feel the meaning of the worship. This does not mean that the order of worship any more than music or poetry is written that way. But does mean that the worship leaders and planners must be very aware of the level of “felt” concepts and govern their decisions accordingly.
The image of the journey through life -- the rhythm of stasis, imbalance and catching one’s balance again that causes the impetus of something so simple as walking -- should model the progress of worship through a time set apart. Worship should trace the progress of the past and then point the way to the future. Search, quest, pilgrimage are all basic and dependable structural forms. Search and quest might be distinguished on the basis of whether one knows one’s goal. Pilgrimage is something that can be done alone or in company, but it has a goal.
Vern Barnett has taken pilgrimage as a model for worship and has embodied it repeatedly, so that it became the norm for at least one of his congregations. These are the steps he used:
- APPROACH: Gathering together in a particular time and place
- CONNECTION: Realizing our connections with one another and with transcendent values.
- EXPLORATION: Exploring ideas together
- RETURN: Turning again back to everyday life as an individual.
These approaches use an abstraction of life to symbolize and guide the form rather than the content. Content might echo form -- say, a pilgrimage pattern that talks about the life journey -- or it might not. Many different images can be used to derive a justification for form, and since images always come from human experience, the chances are good that the form will have some validity and coherence, but this is not automatically so. The form should not be allowed to impose something arbitrary and Procrustean on the content, and form that is too highly derived from the content could become precious and silly.
Group theory, such as discussion leadership or organizational development, proposes many sequences for guiding people with some common interest from choosing a topic, gathering information, isolating an issue, deciding on a course of action. These form-follows-function approaches intend to end in action and business people or social action people are increasingly sophisticated about them. Teachers also approach classwork this way, developing some natural progression of understanding. As a source of worship order. these sequences are valuable, but it is even more more important when using them to take human feelings into consideration, so as not to get overly goal-oriented and narrow. The best group theories do not take into account that if people have not “felt” and internalized each step, all the work will be ignored in the end anyway.
THE DRAMATIC NATURE OF WORSHIP
When worship begins to have a content, especially a literary content, it is not just poetic but also dramatic, because the emphasis is on the mediation of the remembered past with the potential future. Literature is always derived from the rhythmic crises and resolutions of life, but drama is “a virtual history in the mode of dramatic action.” It is using one’s knowledge of what has happened as a guide to fulfilling the promise of the future. “It has been said repeatedly that the theatre creates a perpetual present moment; but it is only a present filled with its own future that is really dramatic.”
Worship, then, is a time set apart by special signals, during which poetic means are used to invoke the past, enact a virtual (abstracted) symbol of it in the present, and project that understanding into the future. It preserves human knowledge and insight. “This tension between past and future, the theatrical “present moment”, is what gives to acts, situations and even such constituent elements as gestures and attitudes and tones, the peculiar intensity known as “dramatic quality.” Will being prevail or will non-being overtake the moment? Our lives are essentially dramatic as we strive to shape our future.
If worship is essentially dramatic, an isomorphic section of life that shapes the future, then there are essentially two kinds of drama possible: comedy and tragedy. Langer’s use of these terms is idiosyncratic but very useful. Her insight is that the salvation of our being and our end in non-being can be defined two ways: by one individual life or by the life of the community. If the focus of life is on the trajectory of one person through birth, growth, maturity, aging and death, then life is essentially tragic because it always ends in non-being. But if the focus of life is on the community -- either the close community of friends or the larger community of country or all human beings or even the extremely expanded community of all living things -- then life always goes on and the individual is part of a greater flow which ensures comedy, not in the sense of being funny, but in the sense of returning on another day. The future of tragedy is fate which requires a high sense of individuality; but the future of comedy is fortune, which implies a picaresque series of events. When the tragedy of an individual saves the fortunes of the community, then the human drama reaches great intensity.
THE ROMANTIC NATURE OF UU SYMBOL STRUCTURE
Particularly appropriate for Unitarian Universalist groups are myths that are romantic: valuing of individuals, emphasizing the supernatural in the natural, and responding to change in the world. The German reaction to the Enlightenment (German philosophers like Schleiermacher and English literary critics like Coleridge) has a lot in common with the roots of American Unitarianism. Even the very utilitarian, scientific, atheistic kind of UU generally has a form behind the “dry” content that is very like the romance of Faust, the search for knowledge. This ur-form may be the most unifying element of our denomination and it can be most clearly addressed in the context of worship. Worship has the potential of unifying a radically diverse group of individuals by joining them in the experience of a satisfying form.
The romantic form of the individual’s quest or search after a fall from grace is explored provocatively by Joseph Campbell in “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” where he suggests a nuclear unit of separation, initiation and return -- sort of an inversion of the in-gathering -- an out-sending.
“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
Campbell calls this a “monomyth” (the term is from James Joyce) and he is able to fit Jesus, Buddha, and many other religious leaders into it. A great many UU’s who tell their religious stories will give a variation on this theme without knowing it even exists.
Because worship intertwines so thoroughly with literature, the latter is an inexhaustibly rich mine of ideas for form as well as content. The great mythic archetypes of death and rebirth; romantic love; the fall from paradise; leaving home; seeking enlightenment; losing virginity; going to battle; searching for the grail; overcoming some handicap or disaster; all are sources of form because each of them is a variation of a dichotomy or conflict that must be resolved by a transformative dynamic.
WORSHIP AS A CONCATENATION OF LIFE
Once the people are ready to move forward into a projected structure, whether or not it is based on the potluck metaphor, there are basically two aspects to the task of designing that structure. One is to choose the overall pattern, like the coming-together-going-apart of the in-gathering. This is the controlling trajectory of meaning, the arc of thought, the transformation of feeling.
The other aspect is the joining of the sub-units of worship, elements such as hymns, prayers and act, which are sequential; and elements such as the architecture of the building, the placement of the people, the light, and the decoration which are usually consistent and settled. Coordinating all these elements is very much like creating a symphony or a movie. A strong drive and an intense focus must be found first, and then the elements seem to take on a spirit of their own and weave together almost by themselves. Without preparation and focus everything will conspire to confuse the issue and lost the point.
In both art and sports when a driving harmony is achieved it can be felt, not just intellectually or even emotionally, but actually FELT in the body. The only way to describe it is experientially: “being hot,” “in the groove,” “going with the flow,” “flying by the seat of the pants,” and so on. What it seems to mean is congruence, balance, a kind of synergistic sum of the whole that is greater than the parts. An actor can feel it from the stage when the audience is really “with” him or her. Sailors claim they can feel it in the tension of the deck and the taut lines of their sails.