I am liturgy geek and deeply despair of the lack of attention to our (sparse) Unitarian Universalist liturgical tradition,* and therefore obsess about the words I use to call the community to worship. Call them what you will: Invocation, Call To Celebration, Call To Worship. I never use them without serious critical reflection about what they communicate, and over the years have collected, revised and jettisoned opening words for a variety of reasons. Here I will enumerate some of those reasons, with the hope that you will contribute your own favorite Invocations or Opening Words in the comment section. I am looking for new selections for my worship archive and hope you will provide some of that inspiration!
1. Too bloody wordy!
Spare me the kitchen sink Invocation, with its endless, droning phrases and promises. Opening Words should have a rhythm and energy to them that draw the gathered community into something. Get it said, get it lifted up to God (the Highest) and get on with it!
2. Triumphalist Trumpetings have got to go.
Oh, how I repent of the times I repeated triumphalist words written by illustrious predecessors now deceased, whose assessment of the gloriousness of our tradition I once agreed with (until I got some experience, ecumenical perspective and humility).
“We are the tradition that ____________.”
“Ours is THE FAITH that ______________ (fill in “saves the world,” “cares about justice,” “rocks the Casbah,” etc.).
How about “we strive to _________?” Or better yet, “May we be led here together to ___________ (works of love/grow compassionate hearts/ receive healing and wholeness)?
No more “we’re AWESOME” Invocations for me. I want the opening words to be beautiful, stirring and hopeful. I want them to point us toward something in the spirit of reverence and awe, not to be a Pepsi commercial for Unitarian Universalism. The Opening Words shouldn’t differentiate us from the rest of the religious world but articulate and crystallize our most beautiful and cherished values.
3. High-falutin’ vocab that means nothing to the too many worshipers.
This point was brought poignantly home for me when I was discussing a covenant affirmation (the old Griswold covenant) that I loved with a Unitarian Universalist woman who did not like it:
Love is the doctrine of this church
the quest of truth is its sacrament
and service is its prayer.
I thought it was the theology that she had a problem with, but it turns out that she didn’t know what the word “doctrine” or “sacrament” really meant. Fair enough! I am grateful to her to this day for sensitizing me to the fact that most folks do not speak “theological.” Make it accessible.
4. This is not a group therapy session.
Need I say more? I cringe at Calls to Celebration that make it sound as though the ushers might come around any minute and cuddle everyone in a big blankie. Certain phrases (“Circle of caring” is one — it sounds cutesy and even culty to me, and I don’t like the image of a circle, which is closed) need to be jettisoned from our language of invocation to public worship.
5. Don’t make dramatically impossible claims.
“Here we will find ________”
“Here we will experience _________”
“Here we will transcend __________”
Wording is important. Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Revise Opening Words that make ridiculous claims for what one hour together in a church sanctuary can do (see: triumphalism, humility).
6. Too informal is off-putting and confusing.
“Hi, welcome to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of East Overshoe. This morning’s service is ________________.”
Huh? Are you a flight attendant or a worship leader?
Nothing stomps my anticipation for a worship service like being informed by a pleasant minister what’s on today’s agenda. This isn’t a theological issue: I served under a Humanist senior minister for two years who opened every service with a stirring Call to Celebration that never invoked God specifically, so I know this is possible and even common among us. This is a cultural issue, and an issue of religious and spiritual authority. Ministers and worship leaders who hesitate to stand up in front of the gathered community and bring them from ordinary time to sacred time need to deal with authority issues, or more specifically, to address the lack of permission they obviously feel from the community to lead worship, and not just a meeting with hymns.
When I attend services (that’s fine: call it a “service” rather than “worship” if you like — the issue isn’t going to change) that begin with a tepid announcement of welcome, I wonder what the community thinks it is doing, who it is, and what it is offering. I want to gather my things and depart with these words,
“Let me know when you figure it out.” If I want to attend a program, I can seek that out. If I want to attend a lecture, I know perfectly well where to find many of them. If I want to attend worship, I’ll go to another church. Unitarian Universalists need to make decisions and know who they are and what they’re offering. A murky hybrid of church and college lecture that opens with a “Hey, howya doing?” is neither fish nor fowl, and reveals serious community identity issues.
With that, I’d love to hear your favorite and most beloved Opening Words, Chalice Lightings and Invocations. Sharing time!
I’ll go first.
Holy and beautiful is the custom
which brings us together,
in the presence of the Most High.
To face our ideals,
To remember our loved ones in absence,
To give thanks, to make confession,
To offer forgiveness,
To be enlightened, and to be strengthened.
Through this quiet hour breathes
the worship of the ages,
the cathedral music of history.
Three unseen guests attend,
Faith, hope and love:
Let all our hearts prepare them place. – Robert French Leavens
*I used to teach Unitarian Universalist Worship and Liturgy at Andover-Newton Theological School, but funding is an issue. Believe it or not, lay folk, your minister very likely graduated from seminary without one class in leading Unitarian Universalist worship. They had a UU preaching class, but it is highly likely that they were never formally instructed on how to develop and conduct the rest of the service. We hope that internships will provide that training, but that isn’t always the case.