Transylvanian Unitarian Liturgy
One of my initial goals for my work in Transylvania was to learn about Transylvanian Unitarian liturgy. Practically, of course, it is very important to know what to do when. The Transylvanian church now has a standard order of service. In the recent past, each congregation had its own standard order of service. Of course before the service even starts there are certain rituals to be observed.
First there are the bells. In our village, the bells ring three times before the service, first at 10am, then 10:30 and finally at 11:00. I try to head to church at the first bell, though most ministers actually live in a parish house and don’t leave their house until the third bell. When I am not in the pulpit on any given Sunday I really enjoy leaving closer to the third bell, when I can see the people of the village walking to church.
Because our village is almost entirely Unitarian it is very pleasant to walk the length of the village with all of the people who will attend church. On Sunday (and on most other days) the typical greeting is “Isten áldj,” or “God bless you.” This is a standard parting and greeting among Unitarians no matter how devout. Once when I was walking down the street I saw an older woman looking out her window. I could have said “Csokolom” or “Jo napot kivanok” (“I kiss your hand” or “Good Day”) but instead I said ““Isten áldj.” Her immediate reaction was “Nem, katolikus.” I apparently had found the only Catholic in the village, so I apologized and went on my way.
At the minister’s house we have coffee and discuss the bible text and sermon theme for the day. If I am in the pulpit we also discuss any words that might be difficult to translate. Once at a special service in another village I was there for a loaf of bread to be cut into pieces for communion. The chalice and special linens also needed to be prepared for this. I watched the minister’s wife work with the silver and linen and the minister’s son help keep track of how many pieces of bread had been cut. On a normal occasion things are a little more relaxed. Often the minister will socialize with the lay leadership or the elders of the church, as well.
When the third bell strikes, the parish house is locked and we head to the office for the donning of a preaching robe. Transylvanian robes have no sleeves. The robe rests on your shoulders and you take a string under each arm and tie them in a bow behind your back. Some robes also have a clasp in the front near the neck. After the preacher is wearing a robe, we leave the office and lock the door. Whoever is in the pulpit that day leads the way. Often we stop and wait for people to arrive or make their way into the church. Usually while the third bell is still ringing we wait for people to enter ahead of us as we walk down the path to the church door. Even in the city I have seen the minister wait on the sidewalk outside while latecomers enter the church.
When the minister enters, the members of the congregation stand up. Whoever is in the pulpit that Sunday enters first and opens the door to the minister’s pew. Whichever one of us is not in the pulpit then enters the minister’s pew. Both of us stand along with the congregation for the opening hymn. At the conclusion of the first hymn, the minister leads the congregation in sitting down, usually by laying hands on the closed hymnal or bible before taking a seat in the minister’s pew.
The minister and the congregation all sit and sing the second hymn. At the conclusion of the second hymn, the minister goes upstairs to the pulpit. The congregation stands when the minister gets to the pulpit.
The minister starts with a prayer for the congregation. It usually lasts 3-5 minutes and is intended to reflect the concerns of the congregation that week. It is important to note that prayers and sermons are not typically read in Transylvania. The prayer is intended to be extemporaneous and unique to that time and congregation. The minister’s prayer is followed by the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13 or “Our father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy will be done, thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this our daily bread. Forgive us in our debts as we forgive our debtors. Deliver us not into times of trial but rescue us from the evil one. Amen) In some congregations the members recite the Lord’s Prayer with the minister, though I have mostly seen just the minister speaking both prayers. Both prayers are closed with an Amen.
The Lord’s Prayer is followed by the middle hymn. The congregation remains standing through both prayers, the middle hymn and the reading of the bible text. The text from the bible is identified and read allowed. The minister closes the reading with an Amen, closes the bible, lays hands on the bible, and with a nod the congregation sits down for the sermon.
Sermons are normally about 20 minutes long, just as in the United States. Liturgically, they are quite different, as the ministers use no printed text and preach from a pulpit above the heads of the congregation. The pulpits are typically ornate woodwork and are decorated with fine Transylvanian lace. (A family member’s initial reaction to a picture of me in the pulpit was, “I thought Unitarian church services were usually very simple?”) Ministers preach in a loud resounding voice. It would be easy to mistake their preaching for some sort of fire and brimstone moralizing because of their energy. The acoustics are amazing. It is a powerful feeling even when I do not understand the language being spoken. I have only seen one church (one of the largest in the old Transylvanian capital of Kolozsvar) that felt the need for amplification.
The sermon is followed by a silent prayer. The short silent prayer is relatively new to Transylvanian liturgy and it has received varying enthusiasm in different churches. The silent prayer is followed by a benediction.
The benediction is much like that in North America. I always try to ask God to help us live out that week’s teaching to better love god and serve our neighbors. In most congregations, ministers hold out the palms of their hands as they ask God to bless the life of the congregation. There is some controversy around this in places, because it should be clear that any blessings come from God and not from the minister. At the end of the benediction, the minister leaves the pulpit and returns to the minister’s pew. While standing at the Lord’s Table (where communion is given and baptisms performed) the minister makes announcements to the congregation. Typically as a visitor, I am introduced to the congregation during this time and the congregation is invited to ask any questions. After this period of announcements, and occasional discussions of church business (particularly during the summer when meetings are less frequent) the closing hymn is played.
At this, the minister goes out the door of the church. Whoever was in the pulpit is first to leave the building and stands immediately outside the door. The minister’s family then follows, leaving first from the front pew. After this, the members of the congregation file past the minister (and family) shaking hands and sharing a thank you or blessing as they look into each other’s eyes. Along the path of the church, the members of the church form a receiving line and greet each other. In the city, people crowd onto the sidewalk just outside the church and along the front of the church building (the better part of a block in Kolozsvar). Typically the minister offers a few words to this outside gathering and then a farewell. At this, we go through the church gate and to the office at the parish house. This is when the preaching robe is removed, and the treasurer counts the offering. A receipt is made and a record made in the church register of attendance, money received, the bible text and sermon theme of each week. At this point there is often socializing with the lay leadership of the church or some of the members. In our village a choir practice sometimes happens at this time.