chalice with rainbow flame
First Unitarian Universalist Church of Essex County

The Flower Communion Service: A Service of Celebration for Religious Liberals

by Reginald Zottoli

[published as a pamphlet by the Unitarian Universalist Association, Department of Education, circa 1962; excerpts reproduced with permission; full text in PDF on UUA website]


Dr. Norbert Čapek

To find synthesized in one man a love of country, an expression of simple, yet sensitive and symbolic beauty, and a dedication in his liberal leadership of his church so firm and enduring that it does not quail before impending martyrdom is so rare an event as to impel one to learn more about his life and works.   Such a man was Dr. Norbert F. Čapek, Minister of the Unitarian Church in Prague ...

Dr. Čapek was born the only son of a tailor in southern Bohemia in 1870.   He joined a youth organization and then did missionary work at an early age.   Later he studied theology in Hamburg and was ordained a Baptist minister at the age of 25 after working his way through theological school.

Although he became head of all the Baptist churches in the area now known as Czechoslovakia, Dr. Čapek, long a liberal religious thinker, left the ministry, entered journalism and came to this country after articles which he wrote on impending war angered authorities.

.... After his return in 1921 from voluntary exile he founded the Liberal Religious Fellowship.

... Dr. Čapek was the author of some 90 hymns which are still in use in European churches, and of the simple but beautiful Flower Festival, or Flower Communion Service, which has been adapted and widely used in Unitarian and Universalist Churches and Fellowships in the United States.

During the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, the Gestapo broke into the apartment of the patriot and church leader, confiscated his books and sermons, and arrested Dr. Čapek and his youngest daughter.   A charge of treason was levelled against him; he was taken ... finally to the infamous Dachau Camp--where he was executed, one year after his arrest in 1942.   Before his death Dr. Čapek's courage in the face of torture and starvation was a source of inspiration to his fellow prisoners,   At the end of the war, prisoners who survived testified that the Unitarian minister could not have been sent to a place where he was more needed.   Fortified by his words, they held on despite the grim rigors of the camp.

When news of his death reached America, Frederick May Eliot wrote ... "Another name is added to the list of heroic Unitarian martyrs, by whose death our freedom has been bought.   Ours is now the responsibility to see to it that we stand fast in the liberty so gloriously won."


The Czech Unitarian Movement

A brief description of the Czech Unitarian movement and its historical setting will help to deepen the understanding and appreciation of his life and his work as well as to explain why he came to write the Flower Service.

There had been no religious freedom in Czechoslovakia under the Austro-Hungarian Empire.   While a few other groups were officially tolerated, the whole weight of the government was on the side of the Roman Catholic church.   After World War I great numbers of Czechs abandoned the Roman Catholic church, partly encouraged by their first President, Unitarian Thomas Garrigue Masaryk ....

... Gradually there emerged the Czechoslovak National Church, reminicisent of Catholicism in many of its forms and usages but independent and broadly liberal in its thought and message. ... The National Church soon became the major religious body of the nation....

There were those, and they were many, who wanted a greater change than the National Church had made.   When Čapek returned to his homeland in 1921 ... and announced himself a Unitarian, they gathered about him.   The ideas which had forced him out of the Czech Baptist ministry years before, and which really were Unitarian, had matured during the years and dovetailed with theirs.   He was understanding of some of the zeal-in-reaction which colored their point of view; they wanted no gown worn by the minister; they wanted no elaborate ritual, no singing of hymns, no ornate building, no formal and prescribed prayers.   Čapek started where they were to build a church.   The organization was not even called a church at first.   Though everyone knew that Čapek was a Unitarian, the name selected for this first organization was The Liberal Religious Fellowship.

The first services were simple to the extreme: opening sentences, solo music ..., a lecture-sermon, meditation, and again a solo.   Gradually, Čapek introduced some of the more traditional elements of worship, but very slowly and patiently. ... The first step was the singing of hymns which Capek wrote, especially for the meetings. ...

He felt the need psychologically for more, for some symbolic ritual which, while acting as an emotional outlet, would bind people closer together.   And it had to be of such form that former Roman Catholics, former orthodox Protestants and former liberal Jews could all attend and take part without reservations.

Out of these conditions and limitations came the Flower Festival Service (Flower Communion Service).   The organization was barely a year old when Čapek introduced it.   He had hoped that it might be well received but he was not prepared for the great approval and appreciation.   So it became a regular yearly service, always the last before the summer vacation.

The order of service remained always the same and the prayers and sermons, though different, were always on the theme of Brotherhood.   In later years, the pupils of the Church School (about 300) took part, but it was never primarily a Children's Festival.

At the gatherings preceding ... the First Flower Communion Service which took place on June 4, 1923, the people were told that everyone should bring a flower of his choice--from garden or field--or even a twig, if preferred.

...[A] large vase was placed on a table in the vestibule.   Two Sunday School girls, dressed in their summer fineries, flanked the table and attended to the arrangement of the bouquet as more and more flowers were added.   Every participant was asked to place his own flower in the vase himself, to signify that it was of his own free will that he joined the others.   All the flowers held together in one vase were the symbol of the church body.

Later, the girl attendants carried the vase down the middle aisle, up to the platform, placed it on a pedestal (table) near the preacher's rostrum, and seated themselves in the front row.   This action was followed by a prayer, after which Čapek walked over to consecrate the flowers while the congregation stood.   Upon the completion of the consecration, with the congregation still standing, the girls again took charge of the vase and carried it back into the vestibule.

In conclusion, as the congregation left the church auditorium, its members slowly--one by one--walked up to the table and took a flower other than that which each had brought.   This was to symbolize firstly that they accepted one another and secondly that not only did they give, but also they received from the treasury of grace.   It was only by giving that this treasury became possible, that the empty vase became filled with beauty for the enjoyment by all and that each received from it.

First Order of Service

The order of service used by Dr. Čapek at the first service (as well as in later ones) follows:

Dr. Čapek's Prayer at the First Flower Communion Service

"In the name of Providence, which implants in the seed the future of the tree and in the hearts of men the longing for people living in brotherly love; in the name of the highest, in whom we move and who makes the mother, the brother and sister what they are; in the name of sages and great religious leaders, who sacrified their lives to hasten the coming of the kingdom of brotherhood--let us renew our resolution--sincerely to be real brothers and sisters regardless of any kind of bar which estranges man from man.   In this holy resolution may we be strengthened knowing that we are God's family; that one spirit, the spirit of love, unites us; and endeavour for a more perfect and more joyful life leads us on.   Amen."

Consecration of the Flowers

"Infinite Spirit of Life, we ask thy blessing on these thy messengers of fellowship and brotherly love.   May they remind us, amid diversities of knowledge and of gifts, to be one in desire and affection, and devotion to thy holy will.   May they also remind us of the value of comradeship, of doing and sharing alike.   May we cherish friendship as one of thy most precious gifts.   May we not let awareness of another's talents discourage us, or sully our relationship, but may we realize that whatever we can do, great or small, the efforts of all of us are needed to do thy work in this world."

Adaptations of the Service

The beauty and significance of the Flower Communion Service has led to its observance annually in adapted form by many Unitarian and Universalist Churches and Fellowships.

The First Parish (Unitarian) in Cambridge, Massachusetts introduced this service in 1940 into the program for both the old and the young, so adapted to carry the message of fidelity and devotion to all united in the fellowship of the church to God, and to symbolize the communion with brethren abroad.   The basket of flowers symbolized the gathering strength of the church, with each person contributing to and receiving from the union of strength, fidelity and devotion.

The Second Universalist Church in South Weymouth, Massachusetts has used an imaginative adaptation of the service for younger children, employing "The Language of the Flowers" to convey a message of Love, Sympathy, Hope and Friendship, with a Junior Choir taking part in the service,   As each child brings his symbolic flower to the vase and explains its meaning, the bouquet is formed and the children's teacher or class leader helps further to explain their message and to point out that the Oneness of the bouquet expresses and symbolizes the universality of human experiences such as joy, love, misfortune or illness which at sometime all persons have.   As the flowers which have been gathered are distributed to the assembled children, the giving out of Love, Sympathy, Hope and Friendship to all is symbolized.   At the close, the leader says, in part " . . . . we will need one more flower to complete our banquet . . . . the flower of Memory.   This flower will be a plant, which will be the gift of our Church School, as we leave . . . . for the summer.   We will take it home and plant it and watch it grow.   When it blooms, it will remind us of a good church school year together and it will also remind us that in September we will again be together to learn of the beauties of nature and the love of God for all people.   Then again we will have the common experience of worshipping and singing and leearning the lessons of Brotherhood as children of Love and Truth."   The Junior Choir then leads the processional of children from the church or assembly hall, as all the children join in singing a familiar hymn.   Potted plants are given to the children at the door of the church or assembly room.