April 23, 2004

Welcome to my church . . . .

I was blogging off-line while my host was having crashes. I've been waiting to post this for four days.

Note, this church does not (yet) exist, and it isn't the first one I'd plan because some of the structures in this mock-up assume a functioning regional partnership (the "parish"). Feel free to add your wishes and ideas in the comments.

Welcome to St. Lawrence Universalist Church

A church at home

One of the ways our church is different others you might know is that we meet in the homes of our members. Nearly all our members live or work in the Logan Circle neighborhood of Washington, D.C., and we meet in a different home each three months or so. See the calendar page for the current meeting location. With rare exceptions (again, see the calendar page) we meet for worship at 7:00 p.m. on Tuesday evenings wherever we meet.

Churches worshipping in homes have been found across history. The earliest Christians met in their homes, and unauthorized churches meet in secret in China today. The first Universalists in America met in homes, but today our reasons are more practical: the high cost of space makes us choose community and mission over real estate.

Don't live or work near Logan Circle? There are currently a dozen churches like St. Lawrence in metro Washington.

Don't live in metro Washington? Contact us and we'll put you in touch with someone who can help you organize a church in your area.

A church of friends

The next thing you will notice is how small this church is. Most churches in the United States are small, but we deliberately choose to keep our membership between ten and fifteen. This way we can keep the focus on personal growth and spiritaul maturity, and worry less about "numbers." We can also build friendships, and where important, have a special-pupose outreach church to groups of people that don't have a place to worship, grow, or visit with one another.

After welcoming new people, and getting close to the "upper limit" we enter a time of understanding, and find a group of two or three leaders to start a new church. In this way, we hope, in time, to have a church with in ten minutes of every person in metro Washington. That'll take hundreds of these small, simple churches, but it can be done!

A church with tradition

Ours is a Universalist church. This means that we share the conviction that all beings will ultimately be brought into harmony with God. The name comes from a believe in "universal salvation" or that "all will be saved." There are two affirmations that come from this. First, there is a underlying reality that binds together all living things (and in particular, all people) that is more powerful than our personal opinions, ethnic or personal origins, or religious affiliation. Second, that God is a creator who cares and has power to effect this harmony. In other words, we affirm that God is greater than chaos, death, hate, deception or evil. Accordingly, we try to live in a God-like way and try to overcome those same forces in our lives.

Ours is a part of the larger Christian church. We share with about a billion living Christians, and "the company of the faithful who have gone before us" an indentity as the Body of Christ. Though we are plagued by divisions, we rely on Christ's living spirit to guide and lead us. We continue those traditions and practices (like the use of the Lord's Prayer, baptism as the means of entering the church, and interchurch cooperation) that bring us closer together as a global family of faith. We also welcome those wholesome practices that Christians in other times and places have found valuable. For instance, we use icons in our worship. Likewise, we have traditions and experiences to share, including:

  • the Universalist witness described above
  • an understanding that Christ's governing spirit works though groups and unlikely situations (and not just individuals in authority and socially-acceptable sitations)
  • a sensitivity to those who feel the words and practice of worship should relate positively to the people's experience and ethics.
  • a resistance to using worship to manipulate or coerce anyone's emotions.

In short, we try to be egalitarian and reasonable. In this way, we are a church with a grand tradition, without being becoming a museum of traditionalism.

First time here? Welcome!

Please note, we try to keep jargon to a minimum, but there are are a few terms in italics. We've given a working definition for each one in the text. But if the meaning is vague to you, let us know and we'll improve this text.

When you arrive, after removing your coat and signing the welcome register, you might want to visit the icon station. This is a table with candles to light and an icon. We pray through this image, usually of Jesus Christ, some event about him, or of an important saint. Icons have been descibed as "windows to heaven" and are an aid to our devotion. The candles are witnesses to our prayer, and may "keep watch" for prayers we wish to hold in silence, or prayers for which there are no words. In certain times of the year, the icon and candles are joined by an Advent Wreath (the four weeks before Christmas), a nativity scene (before and after Christmas), or some other representation to aid in worship.

After a brief time of greetings and welcoming, we begin our weekly service of Vespers. A bell rings, candles are lit, and most worshipers move towards the common lecturn and continue the twenty minute service from there. Others take a personal copy of the worship book and follow along from a nearby seat. (Either is correct, and you are free to move during the service.)

Vespers, or "evening prayer", begins with sentence of scripture. It continues with a prayer for the evening, and a variable prayer for the week. Everyone then joins in with the Lord's Prayer. After a brief pause, the service continues with a dialog between the worship leader and the rest of the worshipers; its theme is "get ready to give God praise." The praise comes in the form of two psalms or poetic selections from the Bible called canticles. These are read in unison or alternating with the worship leader, as announced. At the end of each, there is a prayer appropriate to the psalm or canticle, and a pause.

The service continues in one of three ways. First, on special occasions, a gifted prayer-writer may offer a set of prayers. Second, the worship leader or some other person enters into a dialog form of prayer called a litany, and this will be printed in the worship book. Most of the time, we use the third option: the collects. These are prayers that "collect up" a range of concerns in a short paragraph. There are usually about six to eight collects, and the worshippers say Amen after each one. The first ones are more general, the latter ones will focus on a specific pressing matter or a commemoration. There are a few places in the collects where we break in and add specific names to the prayers, to keep them personal and timely. These are the petitions. It may take a few times to get the rhythm of the collects do know when to add a petition, but you'll get the hang of it. (Before you know how to jump in, you can give your prayer concern to the worship leader and he or she will know where to insert it.) The last collect is the "general thanksgiving" and everyone says it.

We then pause in silence, sing a simple hymn, and hear the final prayer and blessing. The we greet one another again.

After Vespers, we take a short break and begin a half-hour Service of Readings. In most churches, readings from the Bible, and a teaching from it (a sermon, for instance) would be built into the service of prayer, but we feel we can give both the prayers and the Bible better attention if it is treated apart. We sit and hear three selections (some read along) and then the worship leader reads a selection from a Christian author or contemporary minister that illuminates a reading them. Sometimes we watch a potion of a documentary instead, and other time one or more members being prepared remark about how one or more of the passages have affected them. On occasion, a minister will come to preach in the more conventional sense. Although we hope all would stay for the Bible readings, some members take the "sermon time" to pray and meditate on the texts by themselves. Small children are given a project with the same theme as the Bible readings, and accomplish it with or near the adults.

Then we rise, and if there is no service of the Lord's Supper, also called Communion, which we share about six times a year, we share refreshments and either catch up and visit, break up into smaller groups to discuss the Bible lesson or sermon, or accomplish some other project. On occasion, the refreshments are a full meal.

Thus strengthened in body and spirit, we return to work in the world until the next week.

Why St. Lawrence?

He was an early leader (deacon) and treasurer in the Christian church in Rome. The civil authorities wanted to plunder the presumed wealth of this illegal religion, and demanded Lawrence turn it over. Instead of gold, he brought the poor of the church, saying, "This is our treasure." In response, Lawrence was tortured and executed, but never lost his faith nor, if the legends are to be believed, his sense of humor.

St. Lawrence is also the name of the river that divides the United States and Canada in the northeast. Near this river, in New York, the Universalists established a college and theological seminary which produced many of the leading ministers of the Universalist Church. The seminary was closed in 1967, and St. Lawrence University is independent of denominational affiliation. This church honors the man and the school.

Posted by Scott Wells at April 23, 2004 09:52 PM | TrackBack
Comments

Scott: Just curious--I have given some thought to the creation of a new plant Universalist Congregation (more after the model of The Charles Street Universalist Meeting House than other U churches). My question is this: who would one affiliate with nationally? Given my overt criticism of the UUA I doubt I would want to head off in that direction. Thought seriously about using the Center for Progessive Christianity as a National "place." What do you think?

Posted by: Roger Kuhrt at May 13, 2004 04:39 AM
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