Saturday, May 14, 2016


“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.  

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

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.

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

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

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

Rev. 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: steamships and locomotives.  His ideas were used to create the First Unitarian Church of Chicago, which is patterned on an actual European cathedral, but embellished with industrial images

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.

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

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

Meadville/Lombard Seminary, where I began work on this subject, was a tiny seminary 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 and no faculty member had studied them.  Though much of that work comes out of language, esp. semantics and semiotics, it was trying to access “meta” language, primal thought.  

Dean Barnlund

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).  Likewise, since childhood I’d read fairy tales and mythology, which should have led me to Eliade, but at Meadville he was inaccessibly in residence.   His "discipline" is called Comparative Religion or History of Religion.  (Joe Campbell is a “cousin,” a popularizer of the same concepts.)

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.

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 to him were limited and self-serving.  (They do buy considerable respect and influence.)  All denominations are socio-economic.  I agree.

Headquarters of the UUA

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?

In the struggle between the individual and the group, a religious institution is clearly on the side of the group, even if it explicitly states that the individual must be protected and honored.  Institutions pretend to be based on new visions of truth, but to use the Biblical metaphor, they put new wine in old wineskins.  Like Von Ogden Vogt, they only replace the symbols in the frieze around the sanctuary.

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