Writing Liturgies and Service Taking
at Hull Unitarians

Submitted for publication in the Hull Church bimonthly Calendar

The Hull Unitarian Church relies and benefits from a variety of people from outside and inside to take services.
One Sunday in February 2010 a booked preacher failed to turn up. As it happened, my signature plastic larger shopping basket contained in it some old services, some previous In Depth papers (on theology I present to an Anglican group), a booklet of liturgies used in Sheffield, and a variety of CDs with hymns and other music on, some of which had content additional to the services used.
It was strange that I had been writing emergency services and had one completed, and yet it was not printed (waiting for at least one more) when I arrived to find it could have been used. So I decided to jump up and take the service, using my material at hand. Also, because I had been studying liturgical structures, I had a structure in mind and thus attached to this both available material and ad-libbing. Hymns could be sung from the used and unused. Another attender came forward and chose a hymn he knew was on an existing choir CD.
There is a long liturgical tradition within Unitarianism that, with the exception of Upper Chapel Sheffield, has become neglected, and it is fair to say that many of the prayers in Orders of Worship (1932) represent a theology with belief assumptions that people simply do not express any longer. Those services were derived from, and developed after, the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. The first named Unitarian Church used an Arian rewrite of the Book of Common Prayer and Unitarians have revised many and often. In several traditions, including the Unitarian, the written liturgical and psalmic tradition evolved into and in some cases has been replaced by the hymn sandwich. Traditions of long prayers, short prayers, biblical expositions and sermons along with sung psalms were incorporated into a sandwich structure with psalms becoming hymns and more hymns being sung, the sermon becoming the highlight beyond further prayers.
In my own case I rewrite services by rewriting from the 1932 liturgies, and also I have a 1917 Unitarian booklet of Seven Services. It is also interesting to rewrite directly from the present Church of England Common Worship (2000) as a guide to structure and some content. The rewriting is thoroughgoing but it helps to have the book open.
I once used the Manual of Ethical Devotion from Liverpool Ethical Church, published in 1917. It was a humanist rewrite of the Book of Common Prayer, and very strange it is too in places. Unfortunately I only had access to it during 1989-90 at Unitarian College, and so only have a few examples of use since. But if the Lecturer Harry Youlden (sometimes with Rev. in front) could do it then, so can I now.
In effect, then, I write outwardly using these books of liturgies, and bring them back inwardly towards the hymn sandwich. If I want some sort of symbolic ceremony I can use the Eucharist as a structural model, where the ceremony is the highlight towards the end of a service, with just a hymn and benediction afterwards, or I can reverse matters around with the sermon so that a ceremony happens just after the middle.
The standard service structure in my mind is something like this. Chalice Lighting, Hymn 01, Prayers that say sorry and resolve to move on, and say thanks (although the thanks may be moved to a ceremony). Here there could be the Lord's Prayer or a faith alternative. Then comes hymn 02. There follows a first reading, that may be scriptural in some sense. There can be meditational words after this, or responsive material. Hymn 03 might arrive quite quickly. The second reading should follow, in that I think we can still observe the notion of the 'ministry of the word' in liberal form coming in a package (despite the sermon moving away). There may be music or silence prior to intercessionary prayers. Some people think that intercessions are redundant because they involve the idea of an intervening God having to listen and respond. Actually (and you realise this when Anglicans choose their words), they are about concerns other than your own here and now, and I follow the Common Worship (2000) structure of faith and Church, world, sickness and death. Then hymn 03 comes before a sermon, the collection, notices, and hymn 04 follows with a Benediction and blowing out the chalice flame.
Of course, as indicated, there are a number of possible structures, and I have placed some suggestions on my website - being some of those I have used.
In the service I took at no notice, I had the structure above in mind and followed it, including the order of the ad-libbed intercessions (which should have last minute relevance anyway), finding the written content during the hymns from all that I had with me. I also ad libbed the sermon, because in my mind I was thinking about the theology group. So I told people about it. Of course I knew my CDs, and having made one audio CD where hymns 1 to 20 in Hymns for Living are tracks 01 to 20 helped me a lot!
The services we are asked to take once every few months are opportunities to express our own voices. However, on the principle of dialogue and that a Unitarian Church changes to meet its new attenders, I changed my booked service after my no notice service, to fit one to the other, having mentioned In Depth, and deliberately expanded the material in the resultant sermon about Ibn Sina, the Islamic Iranian theologian, philosopher and early scientist, a more complete and rounded figure than Thomas Aquinas (who also reused Aristotle when he reintroduced a developed reason into mediaeval Christianity). I think we all accept that a sermon, like the service itself, is produced for an implied conversation with the congregation as it is; in my view, the sermon is also a place to develop a wider Unitarian theology. I had one (still very liberal) piece on Aquinas (and Ibn Sina) written for the In Depth group as in an Anglican setting, but the sermon was clearly written to be Unitarian in conversation: the fact that the In Depth group asked for the "simpler" Unitarian sermon was then their choice (and they were curious about a Unitarian sermon). Both service and original written presentations are, again, on my website, where they can serve wider constituencies.
So far I have deposited for use two emergency services with matching audio CD material. They are indeed designed to run at no notice, with internal choices. One is traditional in feel, which does not mean only liberal Christian as it includes it and other faith choices, but largely assumes theism and some hot-button well known pieces. One is radical in feel, which lays off the theism and bends towards appreciating science but still draws from liturgical forms. I have material for at least two more emergency services and therefore one more audio CD. Of course the services can be used ordinarily, or as resources, but I will write fresh material for my booked services. The emergency services are also on my website [first second].
Whilst it is useful to have a theme throughout a service, usually focused upon the sermon, I take a view that any theme should be treated only loosely. This lets other themes arise, which may be developed more consciously as the writing and editing process goes on in the production of a service. This is especially so with the emergency services. There are themes within, but others can emerge, and optional ad libbed sermons can develop one theme over another.
Normally services take me a long time to prepare, but this is because I write a lot of original material including the prayers, as well as the sermon, and I build up stocks of material by trying to use them just once. So I write something new whilst having those same liturgical and other books open. The time taken extends because I also like everything to be printed out for the service in one created book of turnover plastic sheets, including hymn verses, and have these in front of me. I make sure all readings and other sourced material is fully referenced. Also I want everything on one CD (with a back up) so that I can simply pause between the tracks as I go along and not change CDs for different hymns. This is where the emergency services have no choice: if you do change hymns you have to change CDs. I find this discipline of preparation helps to go towards a more professional presentation, as well as the booklet in all detail acting as a guide to length.
It is important when we have a variety of service takers, and when new people come in, that the services are as professionally presented as possible. As those who take the services know, this means both continuous flow and the right pauses, varieties of delivery speeds and even different postures (for back reasons I also sit down for some prayers, but I might anyway), and the use of quality recorded music. It does not always come right, however, and each service is an opportunity to make changes for next time.
My view is we can encourage those who haven't taken a service before and want to do so to in fact do so, and those who have taken a service might offer first timers assistance. There is also opportunity for sharing so that first attempts can be alongside someone else of more experience.
http://www.pluralist.co.uk. Click on Spiritual (top menu). Unitarian material predominates where unstated and there is a dedicated Unitarian section with all 1917 services, one 1932 service, some services and sermons by me, and some sermons by the late Rev. Ernest Penn.


Adrian Worsfold