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Friday, November 4, 2016


In the beginning I was a youngster with a Presbyterian mother and a Prairie Humanist father trying to find my own path through the life mazeway, shadowed by WWII. Then in college I was introduced to the vast opulence of institutional “religion” through classes in Philosophy of Religion and Comparative Religion. The Sixties found me on the Blackfeet reservation, a new world not adequately described by anthropologists. In the Seventies my faith locus was Unitarianism. In the Eighties I became pastoral, ordained. In the Nineties I mostly read and thought. By the 21st century I was ready to return to Blackfeet country to write.
On a July evening in 1975 at a fort converted to a conference center at the mouth of Puget sound, thirty-six leaders of Unitarian-Universalist churches and fellowships gather for a week-long training session. When they sit down for supper, their first meal together, they find 3X5 cards by each place and are asked to write on the cards -- anonymously -- a short description of one of the happiest moments of their lives. The cards are gathered at the end of the meal.
About 9 PM after an orientation and business session, the group is ready for the first worship service of a projected daily sequence through the week. It is now dark outside. One of the three worship leaders asks the group to take hands and to sing “Simple Gifts” as they are led outside into the night and across the wide lawns to the dark gymnasium building. When the group enters the building, they see a huge dark space with what appears to be a candlelit camp in the middle of it. The other two worship leaders sit on a taped-down square of butcher paper, about twenty feet square, with half a dozen fat candles, the only light, clustered in the middle like a campfire.
The group is asked to stand holding hands and sing another familiar hymn. It is pointed out that the statements each person had written earlier are now
printed on the paper with fibertip markers. Each person is asked to sit on one
piece of writing, not the one they wrote. The leaders explain that each person, in voluntary order, should read aloud the writing on which he or she is sitting. It is necessary to pass the candles around in order to hold them close enough to the writing to read. This is done. One man finds himself reading about the experience of giving birth, but he’s game. Some of the moments are dramatic and others are serene.
When everyone has read, one of the worship leaders asks for a moment of silent meditation. Taped instrumental music ends the silence and continues for a few moments. Another leader rises to read a “collect” prayer, which gathers up the ideas of the statements and talks about the “differences that unite us” and the happy times we expect to share now. Then another leader gives a spoken prayer to which the people are asked to respond with the same short repeated phrase.
The people stand again, sing another hymn with hands joined, and then file back out the door and across the lawn. The line is not broken and the song is not stopped until everyone is inside the main building again.

In spite of its apparent simplicity, the three leaders had spent considerable
time and thought on designing this. Everyone present was either a leader with experience or someone who was seen to have “potential” as a leader. There had only been one previous Leadership School, so no one was experienced with this specifically and many had driven a long distance after a full workday. These people are usually verbal, open, and trusting. Still, it was a little bit spooky not to know what would happen. This was “in-gathering”, more like a summer camp game than a religious service. Nevertheless, the principles apply.  We were entrained into the same mindset.
The walk in the night over the lawn holding hands is a child’s sort of thing to do, disarming.  Dark is scary but someone’s hand is reassuring, no one could freak and decide to stay behind. Once into the gymnasium, the “campfire” effect drew everyone together in a natural liminal space. Sharing the writing was both funny and moving. We had a chance to focus on each of us but we had something a little difficult to do — adrenaline producing — while people were looking at us. The “collect” served as a homily. Then the reversal took us back out over the limen again. It was quite natural, like a dinner party.

There are two scripted orders of service (written out) often used in UU services based on this sort of potluck pattern. One is historical, the Flower Communion created by Norbert Capek (1870-1942), who founded the Unitarian Church in Czechoslovakia. Everyone brings a flower to leave in the front of the church during the service, and then after the service takes away a different flower.
The other is “Coming Home Like Rivers to the Sea”, the first Water Ritual held at the November 1980 Women and Religion Continental Convocation of Unitarian Universalists in East Lansing, Michigan. Created by activist Carolyn McDade and UU leader Lucile Schuck Longview, it was a way for women who lived far apart to connect the work each was doing locally to the larger movement. It has come to be used as an ingathering/homecoming ritual for UU congregations. Over the summer people take a little water from a place or event that is meaningful for them. At the fall ingathering the water is poured together with explanations of where it came from, and then each takes away a bit of water to do some symbolic thing at home, often baptizing babies. The same pattern has been used for seeds or earth.
What is missing from the Leadership School Ingathering is the Evil, the broken heart, the tragedy. At no point was there anything but the pleasant summer dark. The sin, brokenness and limitation of humans were not invoked, unless you count the dark itself and the sound of the sea close by.  It is this awareness that the demonstration of community is meant to oppose and overcome to be fully religious. The Flower Communion now derives much of its meaning and poignancy from the fact that Capek was martyred at Auschwitz. When congregations find the historical references to this “depressing” or even “creepy” and cut them out, they greatly diminish the worship experience. A flower might be just a flower, but the symbolized children who died were real.
Likewise, the original feminist “Coming Home Like Rivers to the Sea” begins with the spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” to express the rejection and subjugation of women, their powerlessness and homelessness. If the water is brought in the spirit of offertory, then the statements made by each woman become testimony, witness to both personal losses and sources of strength.
But the In-gathering at Leadership School was not meant to be a complete worship service, only an opening exercise in a week long sequence.
In each of the three “schools” I attended over three summers, on about the fourth day there was always an upwelling of nastiness or some other kind of breakdown when people were tired, pressured, homesick, needing solitude, or had run into their limitations and habitual temperament problems. It was in confronting and overcoming that phenomenon of “hitting the wall” that the real leadership learning took place. This was a specially chosen group of people in an exceptionally open denomination. Their weakness was their unwillingness to fail, since they were already leaders, high scorers, and highly educated. This tended to make them rigid and committed to past successes instead of exploration. The sheltered week among people who would disperse afterwards gave them courage. They could fail and laugh, which freed them to try again.
But some of the dark went home with us.  The example that sticks with me is a night supposed to be themed by play.  One group decided to do “role reversal” in which they staged a beauty contest for men.  The guys were in swimsuits, draped in kelp to look like mermen.  Actually the effect was a little more animal than vegetable.  Not all of them wore cups or athletic supporters, but the moment was arousing.  They were exposed.  They had not understood that women are prepared to be examined that way, because they have to be.  A few went to their room and cried.


My thesis “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

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.  The result is a kind of bricolage or mosaic, where arts from many traditions and languages are brought together by theme.

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

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.  His age was that of the Atom Bomb and the monumental telescopes like Palomar.  His church featured a wall-sized mural of the Andromeda galaxy.

Carolyn McDade

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. 

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.  

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.  (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.

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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