Ritual and Forms of Worship

In The Unitarian Path, Andrew Hill suggests two backgrounds to current Unitarian forms of ritual and worship, being the restoration of the Bible to a place alongside the sacraments and rejecting most Catholic ritual. The pulpit becomes central and the architecture simple.
He recognises that this inheritance is still strong today giving a highly verbal and simple service but some churches moved on to use written material or at least recognise that the atmosphere of worship is important too.
When he summarises trends and tangents, he allows for anything and everything: more or less formal, in a sparse room or ornate church, led by a minister, lay leader or group, using a lot or llttle symbolism, being Christian, theist, humanist or shades of all of them.
 It is in the rites of passage that most flexibility gets shown, with services geared to the users, giving them a hand in their design.
He concludes that people like the familiar but in a changing world people need to be part of this changing world and that good worship balances the two.
I think his presentation is rather insufficient, and the section on trends is meaningless. The dual backcloth he highlights is really one. The Puritan inheritance was part of the Calvinist side of the reformed Church of England. and Caivinists more than Lutherans aimed for a forced simplicity and austerity in worship as in all things, a people who were distinctly anti-art and pro-word.
The industrialised and ideological new Unitarians, liberal in ideology and doctrinally Unitarian in theology, took up the mantle of simplicity and purity because they believed they were biblical rationalists in religion. They denied the broad Church character of the Puritans of Old Dissent. The other side of Unitarianism looked to the Puritans broad Church character but dropped mucn of their emphasis on simplicity and purity and, with Martineau, opposed the liberal rationalists. It is from the gothic side that we even got a fantasy of a Free Catholic movement being a more faithful repeat of aspects of the Anglicans Oxford Movement that gothicism alone. We got the sacraments ahead of the word, without creeds.
Change has been incorporated from outside with additional adaptation. First the long prayer that ended a service was replaced by a sermon derived from the early Anglican practice of a sermon that bridged the Morning Prayer and Communion. And eventually the broad Church side used liturgies heavily plagarising the Book of Common Prayer - and let's face it, it was the Book of Common prayer which ejected the Puritans in the first place. The use of hymns ln addition to or replacement of psalms was a relaxation of severity, a compromise to popular sentiment, as introduced to the Church of England when lt was losing worshippers to the urban churches of new dissent as in the growth of the Methodist Church.
The other cause of an introduction of atmosphere was social and economic. First you have the moderation of the socially rising first Puritans themselves and then the economic and social status rise of the later Unitarians. The gothic movement and adaptation of written liturgies was an invented tradition in that it had very contemporary reasons for digging into a mythical gothic past, just like ln the Oxford Movement. A lot of churches added ornate insides to previously severe worship settings, and others built new grand churches with spires.
 When the Unitarians nearly had their assets stripped in the 1840s it was largely blamed upon the noisy and oppositional vigour of the denominational Unitarians. No doubt the shock to the system, which put the broad Church side back into the ascendancy, led to an even further emphasis on broader Church forms of worship. It was a Tory government in power when this movement's assets were saved, and Martineau, a staunch Tory, who wrote not a few of these liturgies, was a dreadful snob, even checking that his daughters would not marry the wrong sort of Unitarian.
The Hull Church too went up in the world in its self image and had its own Prayer Book modelled based on the Church of England liturgies and other adapted liturgies. So was the 1932 Orders of Worship which Hull later used for a long time.
 Today the Unitarian movement inherits a lot of historical baggage as Andrew Hill suggests. For example, when a minister recently orgnised a four altars Pagan wedding, he was told by the committee in no uncertain terms that theirs is a Protestant Dissenting Church. As he said to me, "they beileve they are rationalists." In other words, they are living in the past.
Today all denominations are somewhat out of synchronisation with modern culture. This denomination still has a worship style formed in the age of industrialisation and urbanisation and out of past denomlnational changes and battles. So why does worship resist change?
First of all, change is always slow in worship because the myth of an eternal nature of God or things religious promotes repetition and sameness. People like me have to recognise that worship must be archaic to some degree. But there are stronger more human forces too.
The trouble is that in-groups like what they know and wish to keep what they know and like. This is particularly true with more elderly congregations. Younger people were alwavs more experimental, but happily returned to a church that kept its formal ways over decades, ways that related to a still general and identifiable religious culture that all people more or less shared. But today that young life does not return in any number if it is there in the first place, and churches are for tiny minorities of very peculiar people. Things get stuck and can easily die away. Unitarian forms are quite unusual even in the Christian liturgical world rapidly losing its hold on the common memory.
The wordy rationalism that formed Unitarianism is dying away. We now live in a time of stories, remythicising, shifting paradigms and radical uncertainties. We attach ourselves to myths and forms that are artistic and musical rather than wordy. We like more humour and less seriousness. Where there is change, and an attempt for renewal, churches of all kinds do become more experimental, like the very different charismatic movement on the one hand or such as the Nine o'Clock service on the other. Or a kind of musical and liturgical archaism takes place which ls treated with a very light touch when it comes to how people believe. Everything in the postmodern world is more visual and less wordy, more ironic and less rationalist. For those few interested in churchgoing in a free liberal setting, it would seem to me to be vital to struggle along, however much in the dark about where to go, with a fair amount of variety and experiment, seeing what works and what does not, and using forms new and old. We should expect some liturgical forms to lose their meaning and be dropped in favour of new, or possibly old archaisms gain a renewed meaning and be transformed in their understanding.
Rationality and worship make difficult bedfellows and we should never be afraid of art in religion. My fear is that in Unitarianism, even ln its modernist ends, the ghost of old Puritanism has not gone away and personally I would like to arrange its exorcism.

Adrian Worsfold


Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful