Saturday, June 28, 2014


“The Bone Chalice” started out as a simple proposition: that worship services didn’t have to be the same old “hymn sandwiches” even for the Christian-based religious groups like the Unitarian Universalists.  Indeed, the whole idea came out of the Pacific Northwest District’s workshops at Leadership Schools designed by Peter Raible, Rod Stewart, and Ord Elliott in the Seventies.  In seminary I began to run into issues that I couldn’t quite grasp and then lately issues so amazing and new that they seem to change everything, except that they don’t.  They confirm what I thought from the beginning.  Indulge me while I make another inevitable list.  They help me very much.

Alan Deale, Peter Raible, Rod Stewart at Fort Worden, WA

1.  Historically, the Unitarian movement has always been a “thought” game:  principles, logic, academia.  Services are exercises in words.  They come from the Jewish root of the Middle Eastern source: the study and prayer groups.  The Universalist movement is Jesus-based, focused on compassion, forgiveness, women.  It values the Communion, an act of giving and nurturing.  This usually hidden schism affects the design of ceremonies.

2.  Mostly it has been UU men who have gotten interested in liturgical design and they generally have seen it in a priestly light: that is, a primary figure directs the event and a supernatural overtone is not discouraged.  In the UU context in America, there have been several experimental sub-types:

Vern Barnett

A.   ABRAXAS, a group, on the one hand picked up the English Vespers pattern (Rev. Duke Gray) and on the other the use of materials drawn from world religions.  (Rev. Vern Barnett, Center for Religious Experience and Study, Kansas City.)  There was also strong input from Rev. Fred Wooden and Rev. Mark Belletini, who both entered through music, both traditional and newly composed.

Dean Willard Sperry

B.  Dean Willard Sperry at Harvard used the syllogism of thesis/antithesis/resolution as a worship pattern and was mostly sermon-centered.

CRev. Von Ogden Vogt used traditional European Christian structure in both worship and building but filled them with industrial images, which to him were the cutting edge of modernity.

D.  Rev. Kenneth Patton, a Universalist, kept the structure but went to science: the cosmos, anthropology, and a steady flow of compelling human images expressed in words.

Carolyn McDade
3.  The feminist movement brought in a new concern for words, since English is so gender-linked, but also an entry point for lay people and women who were less interested in being “priests” than in organizing cooperative experiences; a wave of new music composed to be inclusive  (Carolyn McDade); more openness to the “enthusiastic” emotional Christian denominations and the folk element in the Catholic context; sharing of space (sometimes members) with the Metropolitan Community Church congregations; Starhawk; Third Force Psych exercises. 
Alan Deale and Harlan Limpert, First Unitarian Church of Portland, OR

And they expanded Norbert Capek's flower communion into a whole family of communions, most notably the Ceremony of Water Mingling, which had universal precedents.

4.  Meadville/Lombard Seminary, where I began work on this subject, was a blip attached to the University of Chicago Divinity School.  It was the most conservative of the three possibilities I considered and the most academically stringent, which is what I wanted though I had to struggle.  The new theories of Foucault et al were just taking hold.  Though much of that work comes out of language, esp. semantics and semiotics, it was trying to access “meta” language, primal thought.  

Dean Barnlund

Since my undergrad School of Speech work at NU had included Dean Barnlund’s “Language and Thought” classes (mostly based on S.I. Hayakawa at that point), I was still interested but had no guide.  Likewise, since childhood I’d read fairy tales and mythology, which should have led me to Eliade, but he was inaccessibly in residence.  I mean, I nodded hello but couldn't get into his classes.  His "discipline" is called Comparative Religion.  (Joe Campbell is a "cousin.")

The important point is that my faculty advisor, John Godbey, wanted me to have a faith standpoint but I didn’t.  I had an experience standpoint.  He wanted me to have "God", though he understood the idea that “He” could only be accessed through a mask.  He didn't want to confront my dismissal of God because we were supposed to pluralistic.  Nevertheless, to him, a conservative man, a liturgy that was not based on formal philosophy and words, was not worship.  At least it was not academic and academic was the route to ministry. Thesis paralyzed.

Missoula UU Fellowship, formerly Leslie Fiedler's house.
"Montana Gothic" was invented in the basement bedroom.

5.  A challenging and therefore valuable parishioner in Missoula balked at the cost of having a minister, as well as the role itself.  Sunday morning services, which I provided two Sundays out of the month, were not worth his pledge of $100 a month.  He could go to a movie or read a book to get the same ideas.  He valued only the sermon, which is pretty typical of many UU’s.  He had been a lawyer and could do handsprings with our principles.  He recognized that the UUA is an institution but could not see any “spirituality” in it.  Even our social justice programs were limited and self-serving.  (They buy considerable respect and influence.)  All denominations are socio-economic.  I agree.

6.  Is a religious institution irreligious?  That is, religious institutions ennoble, accompany, and justify wars on every hand.  What is the difference between all that and the deep power of somethingorother that makes us value and love our lives, even in the face of death?  Or give up our lives for what we love?

7.  What is reality anyway?  IS there a reality?  Is spirituality access to reality?  Do religious institutions support spirituality in any way, or do they prevent and destroy it?

8.  The experience of sacredness seems real, but isn’t it a phenomenon of the human brain?  If so, how do we get to it, evoke it, and what are the consequences?  If you can just drop acid to get to it, how spiritual is it anyway?  Is there a way of designing a sacred experience -- rather like a sexual act that is skilled rather than instinctual -- that will “call the sacred” and if so, what does it mean?  Is morality involved?  If so, isn’t a morality that excludes sexuality in all its forms destroying sacredness?  I've been rescued by Lakoff's "embodiment philosophy."  When you strip the fancy stuff, what have you got?  Bodies.

Rev. Bob Horrocks  (Church of England)  Naturist

9.  “What is man?”  You know what I mean.  What is a human being in the animal sense? When a person stands before you, what are you looking at?  How does the body work?  How does the brain make human beings different?  We’re able to look at the functioning of individual neurons now.  What’s amazing is that the most sophisticated thinking at present is that human thought is a function of everything from the sensorium that lets in information from the world, how the brain organizes itself to interpret and act on that information (metaphor and mapping), what the person does to act on what the brain thinks is “out there,” and how it participates with other humans and whateeveritis in which we are all embedded.  Now the feeling of the sacred is less about being personally chosen and embraced, and more about being woven into participation, which may be the same thing.  Judgment of each other is too partial to count.  Sin is irrelevant.  Limits are highly relevant.

10.  My theories of how to design an experience that immanently evokes the sacred for human beings have drawn on contemporary science and my memories, including those of Blackfeet ceremonies. I’ve been aware since 1988 that I have no congregation.  I’m acting as a single prophet which is a great way to get into trouble and wander into the swamp.  

But I’ve had a virtual congregation, though people might scoff and argue.  They are not the prosperous, privileged, educated, ethical, adult people of the UU constellation, but rather stigmatized lost boys whom I never meet.  I’ve never designed ceremonies for them.  I just listen and watch the images they make, their "moves," and try to think what would have meaning for some country kid from El Salvador, trying to cross the border, hungry, hurt, doing whatever he must to survive, maybe thinking about suicide.  It's a stretch, but that's the point.

Survival is the key to all this stuff.  In the end everything else falls away.  In fact, none of us will survive except in our impact on the world, often through group survival rather than that of individuals.  But what does survival mean if we’re only a process, movements in a dance.  Doesn’t the point become moving as well as we can?  No words.

1 comment:

northern nick said...

Well done. Great synthesis. It all means somethingorother. And what a story you write. Certainly a legacy beyond the power of one. Thanks.