Tuesday, 3 September 2013

The glory of the sandwich . . .

many layered sandwich

The Joys of Sandwiches*

There’s a discussion running on one of the Unitarian pages on FaceBook just now about the pros and cons of the Hymn Sandwich service.

It is, I should add for those of you not in the know, brought to you by the denomination who are also currently debating the relative merits of and the differences between the macaron, the macaroon, and the whoopee pie.  If we can debate cakes, believe me, we can debate something as central to our being as the form our worship takes. 

The hymn sandwich is that type of service with hymns, readings, prayers, music . . generally something along the lines of:  opening words – chalice lighting – prayer – hymn – story – collection – hymn – reading – hymn – address – musical interlude – address – hymn – prayers – hymn. 

If you were brought up attending a mainstream UK protestant church, or if you’ve attended church much, it’s probably the sort of pattern of worship you’re used to. 

Personally, I love it.

But some people think it sucks the inventiveness out of worship, that it becomes stale, and that it puts people off coming to church.

I think it’s true that it puts some people off.  If people aren’t used to all the standing-up-sitting-down-joining-in-listening-singing-listening stuff, I would imagine it can be a bit daunting. 

I also agree there’s a risk of it becoming a bit dull, a bit of a default position:  sometimes, when I’m leading worship, at the back of my mind I’m half-thinking “I’m not sure I have the energy to do anything different this time.  I’d like to just retreat back to my little safety net of the sandwich.”

Sometimes it’s good to do something new and different and to be invited to change a pattern.  Sometimes doing something in a different way is refreshing, and gives us a new way of approaching something.

But I still love it, and I still there’s a central place for it in our worship.  I definitely don’t think every service should necessarily be a sandwich.  Neither do I think the sandwich should necessarily be in the same order every week. 
But familiarity is comforting.  If I sometimes want to retreat to the sandwich-safety-net when I’m planning worship, I also very often want to retreat there when I’m just worshipping. 

Even if you’re brand new to attending church – and someone attending for the first few times is being braver than we often remember – I think turning up the second week having some idea of what will happen is also comforting. 
I like, a lot of the time, to know more or less what I’m getting (it’s also why I like having orders of service, but that’s another blog for another day). 

And the hymn sandwich has developed over . . . actually, I don’t know whether it’s developed over decades or centuries, and I’m sure some of my more ecclesiologically-minded friends can tell me.  But it’s developed over time.  

And it’s developed that way because it works. 

The overall pattern of the hymn sandwich gives the congregation a good balance of standing, sitting, listening, participating, speaking, not-speaking, singing . . . when the sandwich is made well, you don’t sit for so long that you get too cramped; you don’t listen for so long that you get bored (no, really); you have a variety of voices talking to you at different times; you get to stand and stretch and sing at regular intervals.

And while the format can be mundane and familiar and, yes, perhaps, a bit dull, I think the format is what gives us more freedom for the message to be more complex and challenging.

If I’m in worship and I’m distracted by the form of the service, or put off by being asked to dance,  or chat to a neighbour more than a tiny bit,  or express myself through the medium of drawing (ugh) or wash someone’s feet (these have all come to pass, trust me, though not all in Unitarian services), then I find it far harder to work out what the service is about

I prefer, personally, to remember a service as “that was the one that encouraged me to think about x” rather than “that was the one with the Morris dancing . . . “

I’m not necessarily right. I’m mainly rambling.  I am necessarily rambling. 

I just think ditching the hymn sandwich altogether would be a terrible shame. 

Also, I don’t much like macarons or whoopee pies, but I’m very partial to a macaroon. 

*Other forms of sustenance are available.


  1. Mmm, sandwiches...

    in my version of the hymn sandwich, which i got from Lindy, I always have a story (which is for adults as well as for any children present) and I always have a meditation. People often comment that my services are "different". Is that because they are not used to having a meditation and a story? or is it because of the content of my services?

    I sometimes include Pagan elements like calling the quarters if it is relevant (which it rarely is), but i would not do that in a church i had not visited before. I sometimes have candles of joy and concern, or a bit of audience participation (again depending on how well I know the chapel that I am visiting).

    Can't remember who said it, but it's worth repeating: if you have "weird" content, keep the structure "normal"; if you have a weird structure, keep the content "normal". that way there is a familiar handrail to hang on to.

    The services that fail to inspire me are the ones where the hymns are dirgy, there is no sense of spiritual presence, and the person doing the sermon obviously hasn't bothered to research their topic or think about how to put it into practice (e.g. "you must all love one another" with no hints and tips for overcoming anger, etc).

  2. very interesting blog kate. I like the hymn sandwich although i agree with Yewtree that the hymns have to be good. Although my most spiritual moments have not been in church but then we cant take everyone down to woods every day to watch the sunset.