Liturgy and Belief

In 1844 the Unitarian Relief Act laid down the evolutionary principle of belief in Unitarian chapels in terms of keeping the trust funds of former believers. A change of belief over twenty five years continuous occupation was thus accepted for the retention of trust funds from former believers in the congregation. What this did was seal as legitimate the Open Trust argument laid before parliament, which was how the nineteenth century believers understood the Puritans' non-doctrinal open trusts. It was nevertheless a myth because the Puritans assumed a certainty of Calvinism in the Bible alone and not needing the protection of the Church. But new theologies came along, including the Arminian and some cases Arian, and then jumps to Unitarian around the turn of the nineteenth century. Strict belief and living was not secure among wealthy trustees nor when ministers were given the freedom to learn and preach and members simply rented their pews. A general Christian culture without upheld a transient unity of belief within as the century progressed.

Today many Unitarian chapels do not even have a unity of belief within. Some do, perhaps via overwhelming tradition, aided by architecture, upheld by the bias of a minister, or maintained by a clique of trustees or committee people (and the latter quite against the creedless principle in some cases).

A skillful minister will take services pastorally, that is reach out using his or her beliefs to connect with those known in the congregation. There will also be space for change and for the outsider.

The question then arises about how liturgy can work in belief terms. It can work as process of going through stages, and as relating to (or resisting) culture. The liturgies written in the past seem impossible to repeat: they are overwhelmingly Christian in content, certainly very theist, and assume a worldview being lost. They are heavy going even for a liberal Christian. People today are more pragmatic and this-worldly, aware of the necessity of history and the limitations of history. Ethics are becoming detached from theology.

In general Unitarians inherit two approaches to making belief and they make up the belief types. The first is the rationalist approach that created liberal ('simple') Christianity and religious humanism. The second is the transcendental or non-rational approach, that also led to a spiritualised critical Christianity/ Theism and interfaith potential.

These categories overlap and are not sealed. There is a sense in which the competitor Christianities of the past (biblical and plain reading of the miraculous - that was seen as rationalistic and had that ethos - verses the romanticised, critical and individualist) merged and left religious humanism as the new competitor to a more united liberal Christianity. In other words, the running arguments merged and diverged over time.

It is a mistake to think that the broader romantic/ transcendental version led to the use of fixed liturgies because of their lofty sense of the poetic and transcendental. Fixed liturgies were also used by the denominationalists, where they were quite supernatural and biblical. They all derive from Church of England use, and then Arian and Unitarian rewritings. Nevertheless incoming Methodists and Baptists gave an impetus to freer worship.

Also there is a streak of rationalism in creating a liberal Buddhism within the Unitarians, even if the transcendental leads on to the more magical, more artistic, ritualistic, and interfaith aspects of Eastern and Pagan religion.

The suggestion that follows, therefore, is that an attempt now to write liturgies should allow each one to represent a stream of tradition towards a belief set now, if with space for the other considerations. This is not (just) about liturgy books picked up; it is about writing consistent worship that forms a liturgy.

A further suggestion that follows on is writing a book of liturgies of about eight in number that could be given one after the other. In to these would go different readings, hymns and sermons, so that each could vary and broaden still further.

In Eastern Orthodox traditions, liturgy means eucharist, so there are some considerations for communions (thanksgiving ceremonies involving bread and wine and reference to Jesus Christ) as service highlights or add-ons in Unitarian settings, if they have them at all.

The approach here is to consider most variations of understanding eucharists, and see how Unitarians relate to any of them:

  1. The first stance of the mass by persons and liturgy properly ordered is the ritual saving enactment of the death upon the cross, that the breaking of bread is actually of the saving act carried out by the Body of Christ the Church. This is a fully involved, timeless, supernatural, explanation, in which the particular plugs in to the eternal.

  2. By use of a properly ordained priest, representing a bishop, the correct words and actions of the mass bring Christ into the vicinity of the ritual and Christ undergoes the saving act represented in the Mass. This, note, is a magical version of the first stance and as well as drawing upon what is available as timeless is as such repeated in the particularity.

  3. There is an ontological identity of the eucharist with Christ's one saving sacrifice of himself (properly ordered) and yet it is important to stress that nothing is repeated other than the actions.

  4. Christ sacrifices himself but in the Church's responsive obedience to the one sacrificial atonement on the cross he made, by which the Church is integrated into that original event. God is pleased only when the eucharist is made through its representation of Christ.

  5. Having made his sacrifice, Christ continues eternally to plead its merits to the Father, and the eucharist carried out by a minister is part of the pleading of its merit. This was the view of English Presbyterian Richard Baxter.

  6. The sacrifice was made once, from which all subsequent eucharists are memorials that participate in the thankful benefits of that sacrifice.

  7. Properly ordering and arranging the eucharist allows the participants to appreciate its identifying drama as satisfactory to their spiritual needs. This is the postliberal explanation of communion where the world cannot offer objective explanatory support.

  8. Any gift-exchange ritual of persons with food and drink or close substitutes constitutes a communion by which people are strengthened in their fellowship. This is an anthropological view that has multi-faith potential in content and all connections are relatively agnostic.

  9. In all cases, the sacrifice or communion is treated with thankfulness, in other words the other side of the self-giving (however connected, if at all, between Christ, Church and congregants) is the spiritual gift for which the congregants give thanks.

Now one may well ask what Unitarianism has to do with any of this. There are two answers: that where the eucharist takes place it is usually a communion or memorial where any benefits are direct from the ceremonial itself and (somewhat agnostically) derive from any spiritual gifts of the life, teachings and service (as in his death) of Jesus.

The second answer is to be aware that any ceremony of remembrance is to some extend the drama of representation and re-enactment, and that one ritual or even packaging together of words relates to an original form of perceived reality. So there is a special responsibility in writing worship as to know to what the words relate and how they enact original experience or perceived reality.

For example, I wrote a (false) four elements ceremony that related us to our space and time and involvement in the life of the world. One of the members told me after the circle had not been closed, and who believed magical powers had been generated. So I said, "Close it then," and she did. Of course I did not share her belief, in that I was using a means of old beliefs to connect us with the material and climate driven world, but she took a more participatory view in the magical sense. I should have closed the circle as a proper ordering of the ceremony.

There have been high Church Unitarians, both as Free Catholics intermixing with Liberal Catholics. The Free Catholics with a 'creedless' approach to ritual allowed the ritual to have mystical properties for individuals and the group, whereas the Liberal Catholics took on a magical tradition that allowed an expansion of meaning into some Hindu and Buddhist beliefs. (And the Church of South India, orthodox and ecumenical, creates its sense of place by responding to Hindu views on sacrifice and using the Upanishads for baptismal wording (Tovey, 1993, 71)). They pushed the transcendental and romantic traditions of Unitarianism further than they could go in a Christian sense and the movement was short-lived.

My own view is to start with the position that absolutely nothing happens in any supernatural or magical sense with ritual, and that it is all a form of art and drama. But it is right to have art and drama on top of all those words, whether spoken or sung. One could have a real elements ritual, for example, but it is difficult to handle quarks and gluons, so one engages in a form of ritual play with water, stones and incense and candle lighting. This is how I understood the eucharist too. It is just playing with discs and wine, and there never was a one sacrifical offering. This is mythology. One is using an example of service to the point of utimate sacrifice (if this is historically sound, and it is not free of questions) as a means to draw on the giving and receiving of the congregants.

The fact is that the equivalent, ritualied, ceremony now for Unitarians is the collection of money after the sermon. It is often carried out to music and has a kind of dignified placing on a table. The problem is it happens at the wrong point, and can become a payment for a decent sermon and service instead of a gift by which one hopes for spiritual benefit. The lighting of the chalice that starts the service is a ritual of beginning (and so hope) and connectedness with other Unitarians: the cup of covenant and flame of spirit.

Gover, David (1993), 'Liturgy and Doctrine: Recent Debate about Eucharistic Sacrifice in the Church of England', in Bradshaw, P., Spinks, B. (eds.) (1993), Liturgy in Dialogue, London: SPCK, 50-67.

Tovey, Phillip (1993), 'Liturgy and Ecumenism: Three Models of Development', in Bradshaw, P., Spinks, B. (eds.) (1993), Liturgy in Dialogue, London: SPCK, 68-85.


Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful