An Introduction to UU Circle Worship

An Introduction to UU Circle Worship

Draft, 8/10/98, by Sharon Hwang Colligan of San Francisco UUYAN


  • What is UU Circle Worship?
  • Getting ready: intention, boundaries, and love
  • Making it happen: structure and surrender

What is UU Circle Worship?

UU Circle Worship is a form of spiritual communion that originates in the youth conference culture of Unitarian Universalism.

It usually takes the form of a gathered community that meets for an evening hour, outdoors if possible, sitting or standing in a circle, with a single candle flame at the center, to share song, poetry, and rituals drawn from a variety of sources and affirming the human experience. It invites participants into an experiential place of greater openness, trust, and spirit. It builds community though a profound acceptance and celebration of each individualÕs unique experience. Its intention is to affirm the spirit (body/mind/spirit) of the individuals, of the gathered circle, and of the larger universe.

It differs from UU pew-and-pulpit style worship in that it allows for greater equality, intimacy, embodied experience, and spontaneity. Its central event is a communion, not a sermon; its choir is the body of all worshippers. It differs from Wiccan ritual in that it places no higher value on the Wiccan symbol system (Four Elements, Triple Goddess, Cone of Power) than on Zen, Sufi, Humanist, Civil Rights, Quaker, or Jewish elements. It has its own collected body of songs and rituals, passed largely by oral tradition at UU camps and conferences. Its ecstatic moment is not necessarily a high ejaculatory Cone of Power, but rather a deep affirming Self-awareness, loving communion with the gathered community, and joyful reverence for the Spirit of Life. If sitting beneath a pulpit expresses our will to be changed, and Wiccan ritual expresses our will to cause change, then UU Circle Worship expresses our divine, liberating will to be ourselves.

Getting Ready: Intention, Boundaries, Love.

Find a place, a time, a body of willing participants, and a few volunteers who want to help lead the worship. If the worship is to take place Saturday night, then the planning group might meet Saturday afternoon to choose, invent, and arrange the worship design. Bring to the planning meeting some worship resources: maybe a copy of the UU Hymnal, the YRUU songbook, a favorite poetry anthology, a copy of New Games or Rise Up Singing. See who has a guitar, a beautiful piece of cloth, or a really cool rock that might be woven into the worship. Find something to use for a Chalice, and a candle and matches to light it.

A Circle Worship planning process is based in three essential elements: Intention, Boundaries, and Love.

Intention.

What would you like the theme of the worship to be? Where is your group coming from, and where would you like to bring them? Maybe the group is mostly newcomers, and you would like them to begin to feel bonded as a group. Maybe the group is sad because a much-loved member has departed, and you would like them to have a chance to share their sadness, honor the past, and look to the future. Maybe you want to honor the beginning of Spring, or the spirit of Dr. Suess, or the historical struggles of union organizers.

A guiding phrase for shaping your intention might be ÒWe would like to create greater permission to…Ó …to feel sadness in front of the group, to enjoy our bodies, to express a love of trees, to make noise, to sing in Hebrew, to resist stereotyping, to trust each other…

You may find that you have more than one intention or theme, and that itÕs possible to blend them together into a unified theme or an interesting collage.

Let everyone hunt through their books and memories and imaginations and suggest poems, songs, activities, etc., that might support the intention of the ritual. You might want to write the title of each element on a scrap of paper, and then arrange the papers in sequence from the opening of the worship to the close, re-arranging, adding, and substracting elements until it feels right.

Boundaries.

ItÕs key to honor the diversity of experience, and the simple dignity of human privacy. The spiritual power of worship comes from going a little beyond what we might otherwise do or feel comfortable with; but it is not powerful to force people to act or feel a certain way. This worship design challenge might be expressed as: Go Deep, Gently.

For example, if you are going to ask every person to share with the group one thing they feel afraid of, make sure you remember to affirm that some people might want to pass or to just share silent thoughts. Or choose a design where people write their fears on anonymous bits of paper, mix them, and then read them aloud randomly.

Choose poems and readings that invoke a diversity of experience. For some people, Springtime means joy and rebirth; for others, it means the terrible anniversary of their childÕs death, or the looming fear of graduation from school. Invoke a variety of images; allow space between the lines. Make room for every person to have his or her true experience, even if it is not ÒnormalÓ or Òcorrect.Ó

Affirm that we live in a world of many different cultural heritages, sexual orientations, gender experiences, economic possibilities. It is not possible or necessary to ÒsanitizeÓ every poem; but do make an effort to honor our diversity. Be aware, for example, of assumptions about the gender of oneÕs lover or oneÕs God; of metaphors that equate dark/light with bad/good; of readings that presume a certain level of economic power or university experience; of prayers that presume a certain historical relationship to Jesus; of celebratory references to ÒourÓ conquest of the ÒprimitiveÓ life. ItÕs often very easy to change a pronoun, or to balance one poem with another. The goal is not to be paralyzed by perfectionism, but to deepen our connection to our shared humanity.

When boundaries are truly honored and affirmed, magic and intimacy can happen.

Love.

The most important ingredient in the design of a worship service is the genuine loving care we feel for one another. One of the greatest services a Circle Worship can do is bring us into greater connection with each other, with our world, and with the Spirit of Love.

Design experiences to affirm that our human experiences not only exist, but that they are precious and beautiful.

Care deeply about the happiness of your people.

There is sometimes a shyness or a temptation to design worship that focuses just on the individual and her or his introspection, therapy, or private experience; or worship that takes the feeling of community for granted. But community spirit needs conscious nurture and attention, just as our individual spiritual development does.

Design experiences to increase permission to be vulnerable, to be imperfect, to need one another, to help one another, to ask for help, to make mistakes, to be different, to be the same, to fail, to trust.

Design experiences to affirm the joy and honor of meaningful service to the community.

Design experiences to increase awareness of interdependence, communion, collective Self, union with the spirit of of the whole circle of us.

If you hold these three principlesÑ worshipful intention, respect for human diversity, and love for your peopleÑ then even a single song or the lighting of a candle will be an effective worship.

Make your design, then let it go, and trust what happens.

Making it happen: structure and surrender

Circle Worship takes on many different creative forms, and prefers freedom to definition. ItÕs sometimes helpful to have a structure to work with, however. One way to shape a UU Circle Worship is in a sequence of five general stages: 1) A processional or ingathering, 2) chalice lighting and invocations, 3) communion, 4) closing gifts, and 5) afterglow.

1) Processional

When possible, it is traditional for participants to enter the worship space together, holding hands, and singing. A worship leader teaches and begins a processional song, then leads participants as a ÒsnakeÓ into the worship space (chapel, field, empty room, etc.) and around into a circle, holding hands and singing. One well-loved song is #188: ÒCome, come, whoever you are: wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving! Ours is no caravan of despair; come, yet again, come.Ó

2) Chalice Lighting and Invocations

The worship is formally begun when the Flaming Chalice of UU tradition is lit. The Chalice is traditionally a stemmed glass with a broad, open bowl and a candle inside; but it may take any of a variety of forms: votive candleholder, pewter candy dish, ceramic kitchen bowl. It is waiting, unlit, in the center of the circle as the worshippers arive. When everyone is fully present, someone steps forward and lights the candle. The hymnal offers a variety of suggested readings (#416-#455) to be done during the lighting of the chalice. For example, #439: ÒWe gather in reverence before the wonder of life…Ó

After the lighting of the chalice, there may be another song, or another inspirational reading, to help continue to create a sacred space and worshipful mood. Songs, poems, and small rituals may continue as long as desired, deepening the spirit of the circle, and suggesting a theme for the worship. An favorite song for this beginning time is #389, ÒGathered here in the mystery of the hour; gathered here in one strong body; gathered here in the struggle and the power; Spirit, draw near.Ó

The worship leaders are scattered anonymously around the circle and take turns reading, teaching a song, leading a ritual, etc. Longer poems can be passed around the circle, each participant reading one line or verse. Throughout the worship, someone will emerge from the circle to lead a particular element, and then melt back into the circle when their turn is over. The suggestion is that the worship is something the circle creates spontaneously, together.

(The leaders, who are generally volunteers from the larger circle who planned the worship together earlier in the day, sometimes have a sheet of paper with the planned course of events written on it, but they try to be discreet about this. The general participants do not receive an ÒOrder of ServiceÓ of any kind at the door. The trust the planners and the spirit of the group to take them where they need to go, and afterwards they seldom know or care if the worship went Òas planned.Ó)

3) Communion.

When the circle is warmed and ready, a deeper ritual gesture forms the center of the worship. Sometimes, it is a guided meditation, a journey through the spiritual territory of dream and imagination. Often, it is a go-round the circle, where each person speaks to the group about a certain experience or question. It may be a ritual of gently stroking and cleansing each circle memberÕs aura. A rite of passage for a particular member might take place. Fears may be written on bits of paper and burned. Scented oil may be used to annoint one another. There may be chanting, dancing, embracing, laughing. Meg Muckenhaupt describes this center as Ò…the emotional high point of the service: this is the time where the blessing, the healing, the casting out takes place, where some people see new truths, and others start to cry Ñ or just feel calm and at peace together.Ó

For simple worship at a weekly small-group meeting, this center piece might just be the ritual of ÒCheck-inÓ or ÒPass the Chalice,Ó where each person takes a turn holding the candle and telling the others about his or her feelings and events of the week.

At longer worships, there may be more than one ÒcentralÓ event, with smaller transition elements in between.

4) Closing Gifts, and Extinguishing the Chalice

After the Communion (or whatever mystery it was), it is time to begin to bring the worship to a close. This can be done with a simple puff on the candle, but most often there are one or more songs, poems, and small rituals, similar to the way the worship began. While the opening elements may have focused more on invoking the particular theme of the worship, the closing elements can focus more on blessing, comforting, celebrating, gaining perspective, connecting to a larger whole, preparing to move back out into the world. The hymnal suggests #456 for extinguishing the chalice: ÒWe extinguish this flame but not the light of truth, the warmth of community, or the fire of commitment…Ó A favorite and familiar song is #413, ÒGo now in peace, may the spirit of love surround you…Ó

5) Afterglow.

The time just after worship is special. After the chalice is extinguished, the group may choose to just remain together, holding hands and singing song after song. They may break into intimate clumps and talk. Some people may seek a time of privacy to savor and integrate the experience. Some may start playing a silly game together and laughing.

ItÕs just a time to be together. Go in peace.