Wednesday, November 30, 2011

ABRAXAS: A Worthy Worship Experiment At this url is an essay written by a group of ministers and lay people who belonged to the Unitarian Universalist Association. Now it is part of the UUA website called “Worship Web,” which is particularly needed in this denomination because many of the small congregations are lay-lead and don’t have a trunk full of things to read or any real certainly about how to go about organizing worship. They may have come from places where it just wasn’t done by laypeople. Sometimes even as a professional and experienced minister, it really helps to be able to find something specific.

One of the main leaders of Abraxas was the Rev. Vern Barnet, now working at (Community Resource for Exploring Spirituality) though the formal organization may have tuckered out. It appears that even the indefatigable Vern is now “emeritus” and writing. Here's Vern:

I admired this organization and liked Vern, but in 1978 I didn’t quite know how to approach this group. Abraxas, named for an early god-idea, thought of itself as a monastic order in a joking way. They were very earnest and yet jocular, which I know doesn’t mean they weren’t serious, but it seemed like a cover for what I finally decided was -- on the part of some members -- simply arrogance, a wish to know more and be better and keep secrets. They declared themselves “spiritual” but seemed to define that as “interfaith” among the major religious institutions, including those that were Humanist. Vern still writes his religion column for the Kansas City Star. Here’s the most recent column:

Abraxans loved paraphernalia, vestments, smells and bells, secret names. They were very traditional, but would mix traditions within their prescribed ceremonies by using a reading from Hinduism, or a little ritual from an obscure corner of Christianity. It’s a style that came from the Sixties/Seventies comparative religion studies. Things can get a little confused with such an approach. I remember a time at the UUA general assembly, when some Buddhist priests had been invited to perform their liturgy. The audience, wishing to do the right thing, imitated the priests by standing and sitting or whatever, (paper fans were involved so the people used their programs) as they would have in a Catholic mass. This disconcerted the priests, who came from a tradition where the important people do the stuff while the congregants merely observe. This ten minute YouTube vid is a little service to view privately. The UU Chalice is there, with a double-circle for the Unitarian-Universalist overlap, the music is gospel and a well-known contemporary song. The sentiments are inclusive, so that the martyrs include Harvey Milk and many others, plus ringing spaces to indicate that there are more and more of them than we know. (I expect there was a gong bowl rather than a bell.) Many religions are mentioned. It’s hard to see how anyone could be offended. But to me, that’s sort of what’s wrong. It’s so generalized that it is -- forgive me RevWik (Erik Walker Wikstrom) -- bland. It’s over-familiar, very Sixties and Seventies.

But then, that’s probably who’s there in that congregation, what they know, what they have used as an operating principle for the last decades, and what helps them keep their bearings. If a person came along and started challenging the idea that love conquers all (which is not very hard to do) they’d be considered a trouble-maker and if there were too much trouble, love would pitch trouble out the door -- and that’s what they SHOULD do. As it says in Robert’s Rules of Order, a person who is not in sympathy with the purpose of the meeting may be excluded.

The Roman Catholic Eucharistic Mass is from the same liturgical patterns as Abraxas except for sticking to prescribed historical words that have been used for thousands of years. In the Sixties and Seventies they too “loosened up” by including guitar players with the organist, unscrewing the pews so they could be put in a circle, and using an English translation of the Latin mass. The result was uproar and residual resentment -- now reversal. Just a few days ago another new English mass was introduced and there was less emotion, but it was NOT comfortable for people who were used to the memorized words rolling out in a litany. Here’s an interesting blog about what is called “Circle Worship” which kind of riffs off of Starhawk. The actual order of service is familiar, not far from what people kiddingly call a “hymn sandwich.” Daniel Harper is a Minister of Religious Education, which has a special concern for children and that shows up in this service. Again that same “nice” sort of “arty” context with a lot of earnest idealism. Familiar, pleasant. Quite like a concert attended with friends.

Such a context can be an oasis for some people but it does not exactly change lives. There’s not likely to be a spiritual breakthrough into other worlds or an epiphany of new understanding. Halfway between the Masonic Lodge and Bahai, but always in a familiar pattern laid down long ago, content wobbles between therapeutic counseling and post-WWII social action. The stream bed is wide in some ways, but the people attracted by tolerance and plurality are not likely to be cutting edge. On the other hand an amazing life-changing experience every Sunday would only wear everyone out. This is the problem of the whole United States “experiment,” as some call it: that it is meant to include everyone but doesn’t always (it DOES sometimes) or dare to power change even when the status quo is cooking the frog.

Abraxas was an admirable experiment in re-invigorating the medieval models by reaching out for world-wide words and practices, something like the New England Transcendentalists realizing what Buddhism and Hinduism had to offer and pulling it into their Christian thinking. But they are never going to kill roosters in church because Santeria might do that. They are never going to use Sun Lodge ordeals in which chest muscles are torn. And they are never going to throw up their hands and speak in tongues and fall on the floor. Worship styles are almost always class-based and so are denominations. Even the more radical experiments like those at UU Leadership School stay within UU culture, elastic as it can sometimes be.

I’m just the kind of bear who wants to go over the hill to see what I can see. Which is why I left the meeting.


Mary Strachan Scriver said...

Vern Barnet tells me that the url for his video doesn't work properly. In fact, I'm not getting it to work either. The alternative is to go to the YouTube website and enter "Vern Barnet" on their search bar.

Prairie Mary

Art Durkee said...

The blandness of the generic is an issue, indeed, as it doesn't activate the imagination or the deepest levels of self, down near the archetypes, where religious sensibility is born. Again, I recall reading in Matthew Fox' books about how the creativity used to make an inclusive "Earth Mass" was so strong, and fulfilled such a need, precisely because so many artists were involved in its making. I don't think you can have a moving liturgy or worship being made unless some of the makers are poets and musicians and artists. I've seen some Lutheran worship services, too, that were as deadly dull as the UU ones you describe here. And it's the same problem, coming from the same sources: the emotional deadness of ritual that has lost its ability to activate the liminal forces within. At its worst, it's all just going through the motions. But it doesn't have to be that way, I agree.

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

I think I've finally gotten things straightened out a little except that RevWik's service on YouTube has disappeared. I've sent him an email.

Prairie Mary