“The Church Has Left the Building” is a book of essays with the subtitle, “Faith, Parish, and Ministry in the Twenty-First Century.” It is published by Cascade Books in Eugene, OR, which is one imprint gathered in the publishing company called “Wipf and Stock.” This is a remarkable group of people, distinctively linked to the West Coast body of thought. It’s worth going to their website just to see the banner photo of the Cascades and read their description of who they are.

I came to them through which sent me the brilliant essay by Nicholas Denysenko called “Awe, Joy, Adaptability and Sausage: Liturgy and Ecclesial Revitalization.” which is from the above anthology. Denysenko is a Ukrainian Christian who enters the context of congregational religion through liturgical singing. (YouTube provides samples of what this is like.) He is addressing the phenomenon of people leaving the pews in recent decades — the true church being the congregation rather than the building — and has two proposals for reasons which apply to the Unitarians as much as to the Orthodox.

He feels that two vital aspects of worship have been lost: awe/wonder on the one hand and joy on the other. At first they were linked to the culture of Ukraine and emerged from the complex and sophisticated rituals everyone knew and loved. When he was dismayed by the shrinking congregation, Denysenko asked his grandfather. a priest of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in America, what the cause might be. “People have too much sausage,” he said, relating smug prosperity to the abandonment of church. Denysenko, like me, approaches the specific (Ukrainian) in a search for the universal. What is it that people are looking for in the churches that they are not getting, prompting them to leave?

Denysenko stayed with the church, progressing through liturgical singing and choirs (which reminds me of the strength of Black churches who do the same) up through various levels of responsibility to ordination and then professorhood as a specialist in liturgy.

He says, “My essay presents two liturgical principles that can contribute to the building up of the life of the contemporary church. . . .my aim is to articulate principles that are ecumenically relevant so other Christians might adapt them to their own circumstances. The liturgical principles are awe and wonder, and joy.”

The premise is that liturgies that offer awe/wonder and joy will call people back. I do not think that this is confined to Christian churches, but nearly defines the kind of events that I began to collect in seminary, though they were labeled phenomenology, too emotional to be legitimate.

Choosing liturgy, which could be considered as a form of theatre, as my defining ground, I constructed a sort of Venn diagram that I explored, calling it the “The Bone Chalice” meaning the thought fire in the brain, where cells literally metabolize oxygen in a slow fire of genome making its connectome. It was also a reference to the UU emblem of fire in a chalice. I was looking for something this assortment had in common.

I included indigenous ceremonies that I knew or had read about, accidental situations like the Uruguayan soccer team that resorted to cannibalism, or the bride whose intended was killed on the way to the wedding. As well, I noted reports of people who without intention had felt great harmony and meaning for a short time. And I noted the writing of Saints.

Changes since I began this project have been necessary in order to accommodate the evidence for whole-body thought (embodiment) and the minute knowledge of structure and function produced by neuroresearch. A basic principle has been a continuous shared relationship horizontally through all living entities building on DNA. This locates basic morality in sharing. What happens to one also happens to all. This means moving across disciplines, inventing new ones and dropping old ones. Social hierarchies and assumptions about traditions resist.

Present conversation about religions usually defines religious identity by names of institutions: “denominations”. Some institutions going by the names of their place of origin others by the content of their dogma. But these are matters of politics, not relevant to my core work. New thinking creates openings and possibilities for a new consciousness arising, based on science at its most mathematical as well as felt experience in the world, because the senses (which are far more than five) are the substance of our understanding. Metaphor is always our grammar. It is the senses that take us to the dimensions of awe/wonder and joy. They are the substance of liturgy.

Creation of feeling through ceremonial experience is meant to be relevant for all cultures, no matter how primal or elegantly convoluted. It is not intended to exclude Christian ideas though it may be excluded by them, given their strategy of claiming exclusivity.

In a weeklong subgroup of UU’s that we called “PNWD Leadership School,” we lay people were given the freedom to invent liturgies. A brainchild of Peter Raible and Rod Stewart, at first it stumbled and later was re-aligned with midwestern style through Russell Lockwood where it lost some of the awe and wonder it had at the edge of the Pacific Ocean, looking across at Canada. The surf’s roar was always with us.

Deep experience of the force of life acting through all things, unfathomable time and infinite space, came through best at an “experimental” service that had no content of dogma. We were led with eyes closed into a big room, placed on cushions, and told to empty our minds. When we opened our eyes, we were in small circles. There were readings and we were invited to feed each other fresh strawberries in a kind of communion that demanded close attention to the other person. Then in a room above us, a cello began to play a solo of such beauty that some of us were pushed over the edge into tears. Again we sat in silence for a while with eyes closed — full of sensations and memories. We left with eyes closed; many went apart. No one mentioned God.

The “joy” element was a little harder and we had to get a little drunk on champagne to let down our scepticism and arrogance enough to achieve it. It involved water balloons unexpectedly dropped on us from the top of a building — childish and freeing baptism by bushwhack. It was a lot of fun, but was it really “joy”?

Maybe I have it wrong. Maybe that first liturgy was about aesthetics and community, caring for each other. Maybe THAT was the joy. For Christians the “joy” is meant to be realizing the love of God. What it is for we who subscribe to the gospel of David Attenborough? (“Testament” on Netflix.) Isn’t it the joy of being alive at all? Participating? The exuberance of existence? Poetry is required.

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Mary Strachan Scriver

Born in Portland when all was calm just before WWII. Educated formally at NU and U of Chicago Div School. Clergy for ten years. Always happy on high prairie.