Tuesday, February 12, 2008

For the last two weeks I have been pondering

The discussion of worship at Ms. Kitty’s Saloon and Road Show, here and here . They are actually continuations of a discussion Tom Schade began, but her points and her readers’ comments were what sparked my thoughts. (Don’t forget to vote for Ms. Kitty in the Fourth Annual UU Blog Awards - I can say that without reservation, as she and I are nominated in different categories)

For me, one of the problems with our worship services- and, I think, one of the reasons our numbers are so small- is that in most UU services one feels like a member of the audience, not a participant. Indeed, if you equate a hymn with the pledge recited at many civic organizations, there’s little difference between a service and a lecture series. This is why UUs feel so free to play hooky; unless you’re a needed participant, you only need go to the lectures you’re interested in.

Part of the reason for this is our distaste for ritual, and our contempt for “making a joyful noise”- you’d never hear a shout-back from a UU congregate unless the Minister said something nice about George Bush. Another reason is simple inertia; we come from a rather dour, reserved tradition. Other old-line denominations have the same problems, but at least Christians have communion to make them feel they’re part of the show.

One of the most popular services at my home congregation is the annual Christmas Eve candlelight service. Everyone is issued candles; during the final hymn, “Silent Night”, the lights are put out, the candles lit, and the sanctuary is lit by our candles as we file out in a single file procession, extinguishing the candles at the door as we leave. It’s very moving, but not the most effective worship service I’ve seen.

The most powerful worship service I have ever attended was a Pagan Yule service at UU church of Indianapolis. This was not because of the Pagan theology, but the format. UUI has no built in pews, so the Pagans put the chairs in the round, with the leaders in the center. Everyone was given candles. Near the end of the service, the candles were lit, and they started a spiral dance towards the center, singing “This Little Light of Mine”. When we got to the center, we put our candles in a sand box- not extinguishing them, but setting them upright, still burning. By the time I made it back to my seat, “my little light” had become part of a mighty united blaze... it touched a very primitive part of my soul; I felt as if it was the force of our faith, not blind cosmology, that was driving winter back. I watched others return to their seats and gasp when they turned and saw the spectacle they had helped create; many had tears in their eyes. No one who was there that night will ever forget it.

Why can’t we be more like that? It’s not a question of theology; it didn’t matter whether it was Jesus or Sol Invictus being born that night- most Pagans take those stories just as symbolically as most UUs. It was the ritual and the participation that produced the effect. The leaders of that Pagan Grove were not ordained ministers, they didn’t have Doctorates of Divinity. They merely knew how to worship, how to refresh the soul. They knew how to create a sense of belonging, even if it was your first time. If we could capture those elements, we’d never need worry about attendance again.


Robin Edgar said...

I will remember a shout-back from a fundamentalist atheist U*U congregant of the Unitarian Church of Montreal when Christian U*U minister Rev. David B. Parke was serving as interim minister for this alleged Unitarian Church. His shoutback was, "This church is getting too theistic for my tastes."

Anonymous said...

Oh Gods... I was going to comment until I saw Robin here first. Now what's the point?