Unitarian lay leaders 'surprise and inspire'

By Jim Corrigall [Dec 2008]

Innovative worship was the theme for a weekend conference of the Unitarian Association of Lay Leaders, held at Great Hucklow from 31st October to 2nd November, which drew 22 lay leaders from across England, Wales and Scotland.

It was a weekend to inspire, not least because several attenders themselves produced and led innovative worship at the start and end of each day - and because the formal presentations were of a very high standard.

But it was a weekend of surprises too: one (for me at any rate) was the stout defence offered by a number of participants for the so-called 'hymn-sandwich' format - which is often held up as the 'villain of the piece' in discussions on stale forms of worship. (A 'hymn-sandwich' typically consists of: hymn, followed by a reading, then another hymn, etc).

Its defenders made the following points: all services consist of some kind of 'sandwich'; hymns offer congregants a chance to participate in the service together; that people enjoy singing; and that singing gives folk a chance to stand up (after sitting for long prayers, readings or sermons) and stretch their legs, backs and lungs!

In fact one of the main speakers, the Rev Linda Hart (Richmond and Putney), pointed out that the term 'hymn-sandwich' is often used as a convenient shorthand for routine worship. The real sin, she said, was to be boring, and hymns were not necessarily the problem.

Linda said a clear concept of structure would make it easier to lead lively worship. She outlined the main elements of a service as: Entering (creating welcome); celebrating the community; centring; engaging; and affirming. She discussed the strands making up each of these elements - suggesting that, once structure is grasped, it becomes easier to shuffle 'the bits' around and create unpredictability.

But above all, she said, people who lead services must wrestle with things that matter deeply. "If worship leaders do not reach into the depths of themselves, they will not be able to touch the depths in others."

Earlier, Martin Gienke (Lay Person-in-Charge, Bury St Edmunds) had posed the question: what is worship? He began by quoting the answers given by a variety of Unitarian ministers.

His next question was - how is worship different from other spiritual activities? Effective worship, he suggested, contains wonder and awe (the 'wow' factor); it can be seen as a metaphor for approaching the divine, the 'mystery beyond'. All our forms of worship are metaphors for helping us understand the Unknown. But, he warned, we must beware of getting stuck in metaphors.

So how is Unitarian worship different? At best, our worship is unpredictable, varied and diffuse - it takes place in congregations free to choose their own patterns. But, Martin asked, is our worship too word-centred, do we lack symbols, do we contain enough emotion?

Sue Woolley (Lay Preacher in the Midland Union and District Facilitator there) rounded off the main presentations with a most useful account of worship materials available to worship leaders. These included a host of publications, from books on Unitarianism and world religions to anthologies, prayers and handbooks. Sue also highlighted Internet sources, not least the web library of the American Unitarian Universalists.

The weekend included a session on training courses available to lay worship leaders - principally the General Assembly's Worship Studies Course (and Unitarian Studies Course), which several of those present were undertaking (or had already completed). Liz Shaw, the administrator of this course, Dawn Buckle of the Joined Up Education Panel and two course tutors, the Revs Ernest Baker and Alex Bradley, attended for this session - as did the Rev Dr Ann Peart, the Principal of Unitarian College Manchester.

A good social time was held, with a customary final evening of merriment in the Great Hucklow tradition.