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241: Universalist National Memorial Church, Washington, DC, USA
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Universalist National Memorial Church, Washington, DC
Mystery Worshipper: Leo P. Faith.
The church: Universalist National Memorial Church, Washington, DC, USA.
Denomination: Unitarian-Universalist. The Unitarian-Universalist Association consolidated in 1961 two non-creedal denominations, the Universalists, organized in 1793, and the Unitarians, organized in 1825. Universalists tend to have more traditional, less secular liturgies than Unitarians. The service we attended, for example, included the Lord's Prayer, a Declaration of Faith, readings from scripture, and... communion!
The building: This lovely church, built in 1929, is a liberal interpretation of the Romanesque tradition, with an especially fine chancel. The architects, Francis H. Allen and Charles Collens, designed Riverside Church in New York City and the Rockefeller Memorial Chapel on the campus of the University of Chicago. A very nice trio, indeed.
The neighbourhood: The church is located on the corner of 16th and R Streets, NW, in the Adams-Morgan neighborhood of Washington, DC, about half a mile or an easy walk from trendy Dupont Circle. To the west, 17th Street is lined with eating places and coffee shops.
The cast: Vanessa Rush Southern, Minister.
What was the name of the service?
Sunday Service.

How full was the building?
Very Full. It was the minister's last service before moving to Philadelphia and everyone was there to say goodbye.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
A friendly hello from an usher when he handed us the order of worship. The 15 minutes before the service are for meditation; the ushers and others, therefore, try to honor this intent.

Was your pew comfortable?
Very comfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Reverential but still a buzz because of the service's special meaning for the congregation.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning and welcome to the Universalist National Memorial Church. This is a special day for us."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Order of Worship and hymnal.

What musical instruments were played?
Organ and eight-member choir.

Did anything distract you?
As I mentioned, the chancel is handsome. I found myself trying to read the scriptural quotation on the bas relief of the stringcourse or cordon behind the altar. This involved playing an optical trick on myself similar to looking at a picture that has two images depending on how you focus on it. I regret that I now forget what the quotation was.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
A relaxed but traditional service. It was not at all like the usually more secular Unitarian services. First, there was a voluntary declaration of faith, the Lords Prayer, readings from scripture, references to Jesus, and even communion. Keep in mind this is a non-credal denomination. I dont think Anglicans would be uncomfortable with this liturgy; indeed, it would seem quite familiar to them.

Universalist National Memorial Church, Washington DC

Exactly how long was the sermon?
18 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
10 – the minister, a young woman for whom the UNMC was her first ministry, was earnest, funny, nostalgic and close to tears on occasion. Even if we take into account the occasion, we were drawn to her and wished we could have heard her preach at another time.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The sermon was entitled, "Life is a Dickens Novel", but the minister confessed she would ignore it. Instead she talked about her memories of the church and what the members of the congregation meant to her. The most impressive moment occurred when she asked the members of the committees, groups and volunteers involved in the church to stand one at a time. When she was done, nearly the entire congregation was standing. Her point was made: the church was not its minister but its congregation.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The significance of a religious community took a tangible, visible form before our eyes as one member after another stood as asked.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Nope. Not one moment was spoiled this morning.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
As we made our way down the aisle after service, an older gentleman struck up a conversation with me. I explained to him that I was a blue cupper (visitors are asked to take blue cups or mugs at the coffee hour so regulars can identify who is visiting). He then invited me to the monthly BYOT meeting that would be held that Wednesday. Seeing my puzzled look, he explained: BYOT – Build Your Own Theology. I knew then and there I was in a UU community.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was to be a special coffee hour, but we skipped it because the line to say goodbye to the minister was so long that we weren't sure when it would start and if we had the time.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 – this is the first UU church that in my opinion has satisfactorily struck the right balance between a social gospel activism, credal liberalism and traditional Christian liturgy. The congregation was welcoming and the church's architecture a delight. A new building of condominium apartments was being built nearby. If I were closer to retirement, I'd move. The only thing missing is Vespers.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
It made me happy I was there that Sunday.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The lesson that a church is after all a religious community.

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