What are ten things that all Unitarian Universalists need to know about their faith community? Ten things that are distinctive and unique? Each month we’re counting down, from Number 10 all the way down to Number 1, as a way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Unitarian Universalist Association.
This month, we’re looking at item number 2. Here’s a hint. It’s where you would go to find readings like this:
Be ours a religion which, like sunshine, goes everywhere;
Its temple, all space;
Its shrine, the good heart;
Its creed, all truth;
Its ritual, works of love;
Its profession of faith, divine living.
You’d also go to it to find this:
We’ll build a land where we’ll bind up the broken
We’ll build a land where the captives go free
Where the oil of gladness dissolves all mourning.
Oh, we’ll build a promised land that can be.
Come build a land where sisters and brothers,
Inspired by love, may then create peace:
Where justice shall roll down like waters,
And peace like an ever flowing stream.
Number 2 in our Top Ten list of need-to-know things is our hymnal, Singing the Living Tradition.
Several months ago I preached about how it would represent progress in our faith to have a Unitarian Universalist bible to draw from, but there is a sense in which we already have one: our hymnal. Says the Rev. Jason Shelton in his fascinating article “Changing the Words: A Historical Introduction to Unitarian Universalist Hymnody” (available: http://meadville.edu/journal/2003_shelton_4_1.pdf), “our hymnbooks have functioned very much like sacred scripture. They serve as proselytization tools for visitors to our churches by making statements about our common values and beliefs through the theological content of our hymn texts and the variety of musical traditions whence we draw our tunes. Further, we can note the rate of theological evolution in our movement by paying close attention to the longevity of any particular hymnbook – the call for a new hymnbook almost always comes from a sense of the current tome being “out-of-date,” of there being something about the book which doesn’t quite capture the essence of who and what we are anymore.”
In his article, Rev. Shelton tells a fascinating story about Unitarian, Universalist, and Unitarian Universalist hymnals in America in the past 250 years. The first Universalist hymnal was John Murray’s in 1776, and the first Unitarian hymnal was published in 1783 for the use of the West Society of Boston. Interestingly, from the very beginning, Universalists and Unitarians changed the words of traditional hymns to ensure that they spoke to the people in the pews. An introductory note from one of our hymbooks in the 1930s refers to this when it says, “A hymn book intended for continued service by a given constituency cannot be, on the one hand, merely an anthology of the great hymns of the ages, for a large proportion of even the great hymns written by the generations that are gone express other ideas and ideals than those of today. They have their secure place in the literature of Christian devotion as the classic utterances of the soul’s aspiration and conviction, but they often speak a language which we cannot make our own. Such is inevitably the case wherever religion is regarded as a living experience forever taking on new forms with the passing centuries, rather than as a fixed and static revelation to which no man
may add and from which none may take anything away.”
When Universalism and Unitarianism came together in 1961, a new hymnbook soon followed, in 1964. Entitled Hymns for the Celebration of Life, it combined (says Rev. Shelton) “the best of classic and contemporary hymnody with no apparent aversion to making textual adjustments as the hymnbook commission deemed necessary. Of note was the inclusion of a large number of American folk tunes into the hymnbook repertoire, with the accompanying recognition of the expanding pool of musical and cultural resources from which Unitarian Universalists might draw for use in common worship.” However, with all the changes in the 1960s (especially raised consciousness around gender and language) this hymnal could not last long. One supplementary hymnal after another appeared until, in 1993, Singing the Living Tradition, our current hymnal, was born. About it, Rev. Shelton says this: “It builds on the best traditions of previous hymnbooks, is conscious of language issues, and makes a bold step forward in the exploration of words and music of cultures not generally associated with the movement. Though some smaller publications had begun to include hymns or songs from various cultures mid-century, Singing the Living Tradition was the first standard denominational hymnbook to include songs from Unitarians in Eastern Europe, spirituals from the African American tradition, folk and popular songs, music of major, non-Christian religious traditions, and chants and rounds gathered from the various traditions of the world.” This latter achievement is emphasized even more so by our new hymnal supplement published in 2005, Singing the Journey.
So that’s number 2 in our Top Ten things we need to know about Unitarian Universalism. We are “singing a living tradition.” We are “singing the journey.” From the very beginning, that’s what we’ve been doing, and we’ll keep on keeping on. Our hymnal: sacred scripture!
Next month: number 1 in our countdown!!
Rev. Anthony David