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Thematic and Liturgical Worship

Psychology of Worship

For most Unitarian Universalists today, worship rests on a foundation that is mainly psychological and not theological, at least in the narrow sense of the latter. This is not because theology and philosophy are unimportant, but because of the tremendous diversity in the language we choose to describe what is ultimate or most meaningful to us.

Validity of Worship

Actually, we are more alike than we think in our basic attitudes and values. We have long assumed that the world is one and not divided into the natural and the supernatural, and that the world which we experience is a true reflection of reality. It is more fruitful to ask what worship forms do to us and for us psychologically than to ask what has been given through revelation and tradition. If tradition is valuable, it is because its forms are psychologically sound. The validity of worship forms and the order in which we use them depend on how well they help us shape and celebrate worthwhile experiences and values and how well they help us make use of the healing and transforming forces present in the world. The psychological dimension opens us up to the spiritual.

Thematic Worship

Much worship in Unitarian Universalist societies is thematic. That is, it develops a single idea or theme through readings, music, collective acts and a major presentation such as a sermon, panel, or sharing ceremony. In the introduction to the Unitarian Fellowship Hymn and Service Book (Beacon, 1949), Vincent B. Silliman defined worship in thematic terms:

A religious service is a diversified and orderly program which culminates in a sermon or address or other event, in which a particular idea or set of ideas is emphasized or clarified and applied to daily life. (v)

Thematic worship may or may not follow a usual order. If there is an order, some elements (such as a doxology, covenant, special offering song, or closing statement) may be repeated each week. Hymns, readings, meditations, the sermon, etc. may follow one another in a predictable order. The frequent use of certain materials or the use of a regular order of service can make people feel at home. A completely innovative service, even though it develops a theme in a logical order, and even though it may be intellectually or artistically exciting, can alienate those who need some familiarity to feel that they are worshipping.

Liturgical Worship

A very different form of worship can be called liturgical. The word "liturgy" comes from the Greek leitourgia, which means "the people's work." Typically, much of the service is read or responded to by the congregation. Familiarity with the material is important. The worshiper enters as a spectator. Liturgical worship usually follows a pattern that attempts to touch certain human needs, rather than to express a theme. The material used gives opportunity for one to give praise, express gratitude, acknowledge errors and shortcomings, experience healing and forgiveness, feel connected with the church community and with reintegrated creative powers, be intellectually stimulated, affirm and dedicate oneself to common values, experience something of the transcendent, etc.

Liturgical worship need not be sacramental in the traditional sense, nor need it imply a conservative theology. Early in this century, two British religious leaders combined a humanist outlook with "high" liturgy. Stanton Coit and Harry Youlden both drew their formal inspiration from the liturgy of the Church of England, but the content of their services was without theistic references. The service was a drama, an orchestrated event—a blending of responses, litanies, and humanistic prayers. The sermon was integrated into this pattern. The repeated elements became for the worshipers a common body of devotional material made familiar through frequent use.

High-quality Worship Engages People

Each kind of worship, thematic or liturgical, or some combination of the two, can be done well or poorly. Each can involve people or exclude them. Worship must not, however, be a mere performance. It must involve people and meet their needs to give praise, affirm common values, acknowledge inadequacies, feel healing power, consider wisdom past and present, dedicate themselves to the future in hope and go forth in strength, as well as challenge them intellectually or ethically. All this, of course, cannot be accomplished in every service. But a worship leader should be aware of all these needs. Worship is a radical openness to all experience, a sensitizing process that exposes us to the heights and depths of living.

Next: The Contributions of Von Ogden Vogt

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Last updated on Monday, April 11, 2011.

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