'What is Worship?' service 24.1.2021 and contributions from 'Planting the Sacred' workshop 20.1.2021

Opening words of prayer and pause for thought.

God of every stone and pebble, your breath and Voice are in the rolling of every wave. Your hearts song is in every singing bird. The creation of beauty around us, is that we see through your eyes. All the things that you imagined and created are those objects, symbols, places and precious times. We join in worship as we continue to seek out our truth. And the paths we travel to all that is our new, and ever-growing gift of riches, whilst we see the grace shine through the branches of the trees, in the love of the sun.


In my view, worship is coming together for a time of spiritual reflection and exploration and to sing hymns. To me, worship is a time to remember, reflect and rededicate our lives spiritually and morally, through word and song. It should contain comfort and challenge. A worship service should have a subject, theme or question which ties together all elements of the service and it should be built around an address.

Worship should seek to create an atmosphere that reverences the divine. Indeed, I would say that, to properly be described as worship, those participating in it must have some belief in a divine - even if they don’t call the divine God. Whether that divine is seen as a being, a spirit, or an energy is not important; it is having belief in a divine that is important.

At the end of Wednesday evening’s Worship discussion, participants were invited to offer a word or short phrase to sum up how they felt. My word was conundrum. - Why conundrum? – Well, for me the different views which had been expressed about what worship means, and whether we should even use the word worship, provided a fine example of the conundrum which I see as bedeviling modern Unitarianism.

To express the conundrum as a question, I would say: is modern Unitarianism a religion or some sort of non religious spiritual society? - or, it could be expressed as: are Unitarians religious people? I say the conundrum bedevils Unitarians because Unitarians are divided in the answer they give to that question. Yet, without a collective answer being arrived at, Unitarian congregations often present themselves to the world in an ambiguous way as a - “sort of” church or a church “lite”. But, ask yourself, when the identity an organisation presents to the world is ambiguous, can it be surprising that most of the world does not show much interest in it.


Perhaps the word worship has become a little misunderstood by people of this nation in the 21st century – does it get a bit of a bad press these days? Some of our fellow citizens may see it as a bit of a fossil from the past – is it seen as a quaint and out of date notion – this idea of bowing down to a deity. Is worship something you do when you sit upright in a pew, wearing your Sunday best or is worship something that is done to you by institutionalised religion while you sit there passively and behave? I think of the famous Mr Bean episode when he tries to eat sweets during a service and everyone gives him dirty looks as he rustles the sweet papers.

I believe Unitarians have a fantastic opportunity, even responsibility, to nurture a more soulful meaning of worship – creating an inspiring, life affirming and welcoming space to explore the sheer worth and sacredness of life in community. Not to dictate any perfect notion of holiness but to offer a healing, kind and authentic circle of trust for honest inquiry – to look for the divine in all the messiness, and pain, and loss and laughter and wonder of life and living and to be stronger in bringing our voices and our humanity together. Can we offer something that is counter cultural, precious and yearned for in our society? In these times where individuals can end up going on the attack on social media and discussion can become polarised and mean minded, in these times in which communities can feel more and more privatised and commercialised we can work with other like-minded, liberal organisations of social justice such as the Quakers, Humanists and Liberal Jews to build sanctuaries where diversity is celebrated, the oneness of all life is honoured and we meet with curiosity and friendship.

Andrea Clark -Ward

It was so good to hear peoples experiences of worship and nothing was said that I would question. But in a broader sense I do question use of the word worship to describe our Unitarian approach. We want our membership to grow ! So we need to use terminology which attracts spiritual people and those who share our values . People are easily put off by their previous concept of traditional worship which suggests herd mentality. Can we use more modern strategies to find new ways to express what we do . ? e.g. spiritual gathering .....seeking the divine

Andrea said she opposed the word 'worship' because of how others use it - bowing and scraping, using power to dominate followers -

She said "what we do is by contrast eclectic & varied.... What we are all aiming for is just to be always living in faith..... worship could be a sharing, or our deep experiences when we are not together."


A few thoughts...

To me, the word “worship” means giving worth to something...something you believe in...to pay respect to, to open our hearts to, to beauty, kindness, to whoever or wherever we see divine love, the Beloved.

This for me must include gratitude....and an open mind to the views of others…

So what should a worship service include...what is it for?

Some of the elements that are important for me:

A welcome for everyone, with no assumptions as to belief, or prior experience of “church”.

A “ritual” that holds the community for the worship hour: eg: chalice lighting/opening and closing words etc.

A time for singing, prayers and reflections with words and also a time for quiet contemplation.

A time for shared experiences [candles of J & C]

Address/readings/individual thoughts to challenge and open our minds and hearts... to inspire..

Inspiring music.

A time for communion/community [coffee and cake !!]

What is the wider purpose of “Sunday Worship”?

To build a loving inclusive community of friendship...where we can share our thoughts, lovingly challenge and be open to each others views, support each other in times of difficulty, and celebration...

To promote thoughts and actions for social justice, locally and globally.

To encourage creative thinking and a generous heart and growth of understanding.

Ray Raitt, one of our past members, said Sunday worship “Set her up for the week” It was like a nourishing meal!

A few challenges!

When people enter a Unitarian Church for the first time, we do not know either their expectations, or previous “church” history.

We too are so varied our services can range from broadly Christian to agnostic and include the wisdom from other beliefs and great literature.

Hence the language we use can cause difficulties for some, and not give a true impression of who we are etc.

This a huge topic subject and worth exploring together at some time.

I would also like to share an extract from a piece about Black Worship which I read recently. This might not be appropriate for this “discussion” but hopefully might help with understanding a form of worship which may be difficult for us to embrace/understand.

Black Worship.

Black worship is a liberating event for those who share the experience of the people who bear witness to God's presence in their midst.

Through prayer, testimony, song and sermon, the people transcend the limitations of their immediate history and encounter the divine power thereby creating a moment of ecstasy and joy when they recognise that the pain of oppression is not the last word about black life.

It is not unusual for the people to get “carried away” with their feelings making it difficult for an observer to know what is actually happening.

But the meaning of this event, according to the people, is found in the liberating encounter with the divine spirit.

In this encounter they are set free as children of God.

To understand what this means for most black people, we only need to remember that they have not known freedom in white America [or Britain!*]

For black people, worship is grounded in the actuality of God's freedom to be with the oppressed.

Taken and slightly adapted from:James H. Cone, God of the Oppressed.


Worship is experiencing one’s connection with the sacred.

So the role of the Service leadership* is to deliver something of spiritual worth in a way that gives or nurtures possibilities for worshipful experiences in people who have come.

(Note, though, that what anyone gets from a Service is sometimes different from what the leadership put in it, because it is filtered through the other person’s mind.)

If the connection with the sacred is a feeling, it is likely to include awe, reverence, deep peace, or contentment.

If it is a thought, it could be, for example, a profound insight of Truth, or an ‘aha!’ moment of realisation.

For me, a worshipful experience necessarily includes connection with Spirit, a.k.a. the Divine, God/dess, a sense of the transcendent – the sublime whose source is beyond the material realm – the Perfect Harmony.

For others it may come through something of this world, such as Nature or beauty or poetry.

The spirituality of the leader(s) comes through in how they are.

The ‘Address’ can evoke or inspire people towards a more-spiritual understanding and appreciation of how Life is.

I mention also few examples of things I know have been done in Services that, for me, do not inspire worshipful connection to the sacred:-

Reading a script monotonously, or never looking out – to the people listening.

A geology lecture combined with a mountaineering memoir.

Talking politically about political issues, with no overt spiritual focus.

* those taking the Service and playing the music


What is worship? - Dictionary Definition - To express much adoration and love for God/ something/ someone.

My wider definition - Act of Sharing Love and Discerning Truth.

This represents to me expressing and exploring the acknowledgement that there is something 'bigger' than us. Although we are individual and diverse, worship is where we leave ego separation behind, listen, give space//listen to the other, recognise what we hold in common, that we are one in community and with nature. Although our truth is our own, we are growing in our wisdom and curiosity together as people or in nature.

Worship space is created as part of the spectrum of real world experience: from self to other, from quiet peace to loud music, from the selfish to the selfless, from what we feel in fear to what we can aspire to in love, from ritual space together to individual reflective/creative space alone inside, from celebratory, positive and joyous to the sadness and pain of life. Like a theatre director the celebrant creates the theme and the scenes that the congregation then enact their own play in, weaving together the individual threads of their own stories inspired by the words. Individual insights seem to intermingle in the shared space and we each leave nourished and hopefully refreshed by what we needed on that topic.


Contains some ritual but mostly common space stimulating individual thoughts around a subject.

Involves expression of words/language, music, prayer or mindful space for insight.

It reveals how we fit in with the universal energy that some might call God or nature force.

Is done in love and truth, without ego attachment to thoughts or beliefs, or actions.

It is usually open, inclusive, simple, creative and loving as well as being in the present.

Creates Feelings of being more whole, more connected, more joyful, identifying with &relieving our pains (selfcare aspect), but also feeling inspired &challenged (growth aspect).

It increases our Knowledge - seeing the wood for the trees (the light) better. It helps people open to their inner world of feelings and make links to the outer world in action.

It can Reveal the unknown to us and Undo our false beliefs made in fear.

It can be an Emanation of the Divine - showing in the Beauty of a poem or music/hymn.

Poem: Worship Re-formation

We are all broken with pieces on the floor.

Harsh words to a child

Promises broken

Hopes ruined

Friends hurting us

Our giving unseen or rejected

Stories that were untrue

Beliefs that separate us from others

All we wanted was love

and nourishing space to play and understand the world.

Growing in a world of competition

Where we are only seen for what we do

Can we feel the voice of loving

Or do we fear what they can do

Do we start to blame the other

Do we feel ourselves less good

Do we sink into the doldrums

Do we feel it can ever be good.

If we know a person's full story

It is not surprising what they think and do.

Coming together in worship

We share joyous expression of wisdom

Words of truth and tuneful music

Beautiful stories and images of love.

We create a nourishing Space together

where we can unravel past pains

leave aside our exclusive beliefs

and find threads that can build us up again.

We need inspiration to question who we are

The strength to let go and be born again.

We can find our true belonging

We can be who we should be

We can grow our sense of enough

We can know when others hurt

We can help each other heal

We can act in love together

We can provide support for others

And grow some good here now.

Just listen to your pure intuition

and feel no gap between day and night.


As Unitarians it seems to me that what principally unites us is a shared search for meaning in life, and an openness to all sources of wisdom, be they from specific religious and philosophical schools of thought, or from our own experiences and insights, or from those of each other.

We gather together with our questions, and to acknowledge our doubt and unknowing.

But in the term ‘worship’, there seems to be an idea of celebration, of celebrating life, of giving thanks for life, of celebrating the wonder and sacredness of the Universe, of the Spirit of God in humanity, in creation. To worship seems to implicitly suggest that we feel that life is good and that life is beautiful.

But what if we don’t feel that way? What if we’re far from sure that life is good or beautiful? What if on balance we feel that life is awful, cruel, shocking? Maybe we should be meeting to lament or despair rather than to worship?

Could it be that the very act of worship contributes to making life good and beautiful. Could worship be the act of coming together to spin the strands of the world’s pain into gold?

When we worship together on a Sunday we are consciously and deliberating creating a space for the divine to enter. We are consciously stepping into the divine. We are deciding to corporately awaken the God that is in our hearts; to pool our God energy; to allow the mystery of the possibility of goodness, of beauty’s potentiality, to change and transform us.

When gather together to worship, we have the chance to do something radically counter-cultural. We are casting off the habits of cruelty, jealously, fear and withholding, which the godless would conveniently have us believe make up our human nature, and we are reaching up and out to a higher nature of kindness, sharing, understanding and care-taking.

What can we do together for an hour on a Sunday, which helps us to collectively take that step from scarcity thinking into a mindset of abundance – an abundance of love, care, change and miracles?

Surely we must start with an acknowledgement of where we are, of the doubt and the pain, of the world’s cares – we mustn’t turn our back on them in this worship space – but we must carry them through, lay them at the altar of God, and offer them up to God’s transformation in recognition of our own helplessness… surely that is what we come together to worship – the possibility that there is an alternative to despair, that change and healing are possible, that there are forces at work stronger than pain and cruelty, that there is a transformative love close at hand, as difficult to tap into as it is simple…

So what can we do to get us there on a Sunday?

We can sing about it, we can pray about it, we can engage in rituals which tune us into each other and foster a sense of togetherness, we can reflect on the wisdom and writings of poets, philosophers, gurus and sages, we can develop theses for how to look at life through the eyes of God, and how we can do God’s work in the world; we can sit together in silence, and wait for the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to speak through us, we can use music and other creative expression as portal to divine perspective. We can each tell our story and take the leap of faith to be vulnerable with one another...


What is worship - what am I hoping to find.

Worship is my time to take a while aside of all that is everyday life, to sit and be a time to look at the journey I'm making, a time to look at the things I feel to know if I believe they are there.

It's a place I arrive to when I look at the same things I may have seen before to get to know them better. It's a place of relief to know I can not only serve, but be served.

Worship is a a place where I hope to find the leader ready to receive people at the place they are, as they arrive to the place where worship is. This is the place where you arrive to be understood by those already there, and to understand them.

I hope worship is a place where the space is creative and you can create your worship in. I hope it's the place in listening within is heard and ritual is seen. I invite worship to be the place where we share the communion of souls and holy manna together. The place where we are feeding with bread and wine.

Welcome to worship welcome again, come you're not welcome once. You are welcome time and again, every time coming is a new paintings. Every time coming is to sing joyfully together, as well as singing the hearts own song. This is the place where you write your poem and prayer. The place where peace is your legacy. And love is the journey.

This is our worship our relationship with each other and our own named God. Take my road and my words. They’re yours.


Spirit of living and sacred presence, be with us and all those who call to you in prayer.

I invite you to respond with the bidding, after the petition: Loving spirit and soul flame of holy hearing. Gracefully receive our prayers.

We pray for all those who suffer in body, mind and spirit. For those who are in pain and discomfort. We give thanks for all those in caring and providing vocations. Give them all the light and strength needed, in all the working days and resting hours.

Loving spirit and soul flame of holy hearing. Gracefully receive our prayers.

We pray for all those in positions of leadership in our governments, nationally and locally. Each face the difficult decisions, conversations, giving the bad news and the good. May your light be there to see them through the twists and turns of this very sad journey.

Loving spirit and soul flame of holy hearing. Gracefully receive our prayers.

We pray with thanks for all those in charities who are keeping the giving and understanding going, as each one listens and sees the plight of all who are to receive, we give thanks for those who are unconditionally generous in the giving by material goods and money.

Loving spirit and soul flame of holy hearing. Gracefully receive our prayers.

We pray for those who have lost loved ones through the very difficult times of the year, may the weight of grief and bereavement with time become lighter, and the light to come again. We give thanks as they are supported, with family and those in work who called in the work of support.

Loving spirit and soul flame of holy hearing. Gracefully receive our prayers.

We pray for ourselves to have the strength we need as a joined community of faith and care, as we also pray for our individual selves, as we walk each step of this journey in all we search for in the hope of finding answers.

Loving spirit and soul flame of holy hearing. Gracefully receive our prayers.

Closing prayer.

Allow us love of God in life and stillness, to walk outside the sanctuary walls, be with us when we know, with when we don't, with us when we question. Hear us when we don't have the strength in the small thin hours, bring us wisdom when we're to tired to give.

May we return again in free and honest meeting, be the heat in the candle flame. As you light the way to this church window, with an open door to welcome us as we come nearer from the miles away we were.