Tag Archives: ritual

Ritual is Your Friend

Prof. Geoffrey Wainwright, British Methodist theologian, liturgiologist, and ecumenist.
Prof. Geoffrey Wainwright, British Methodist theologian, liturgiologist, and ecumenist.

Most people, and many Christians especially, think they dislike ritual.  In reality, we are doing ritual all the time.  Whether we go to the mall, brush our teeth, or go to church, there are almost always elements of ritual, whether recognized or not.  The liturgical and ecumenical theologian Geoffrey Wainwright describes ritual like so:

“It must be made clear form the start that I am not using ‘ritual’ in the pejorative sense of ‘mere ritual’ which it sometimes bears among Protestants. I mean ritual in the descriptive sense of regular patterns of behaviour invested with symbolic significance and efficacy. On my sense of the word, even those communities which pride themselves on their freedom from ‘ritual’ will generally be found to use ritual; only they will not be aware of it, and so will be unable either to enjoy its pleasures to the full or to be properly vigilant about its dangers.  Similarly it may be important to state that liturgy (and, much less often, cult) is here used of the public worship of the Church, with liturgical (and cultic) as convenient adjectives. Liturgy leaves room within itself for those spontaneous or extemporaneous forms of worship which some Protestants favour as an alternative to what they class as ‘liturgical.’ If the word liturgy is allowed to retain from its etymology the sense of ‘the work of the people’,  it hints at the focal place and function which I ascribe to worship in the Christian life as a whole. Into the liturgy the people bring their entire existence so that it may be gathered up  in praise. From the liturgy the people depart with a renewed vision of the value-patterns of God’s kingdom, by the more effective practice of which they intend to glorify God in their whole life.”

imagining the kingdomAnother of my intellectual heroes, James K.A. Smith, has given new force to recognizing the power of ritual not just in religious life but in culture as a whole.  In addition to his many books on the subject, his lecture “Redeeming Ritual” is worth your time.

So the question is not a simple, “ritual: yes or no?”  but whether or not we are conscious of the rituals that make up our lives, the liturgies which form us each day.  Charles Duhigg has written of The Power of Habit, which describes how rituals, when made intentional, can create new, healthy patterns of life and behavior.

And that’s what it comes down to with the church.  Are our rituals effectively making us saints, or reinforcing the individualistic, shallow, consumer liturgies to which we are constantly exposed? Ritual is our friend, because there is no escaping its shaping influence in our lives.  But the constant question to ask is: to what end is this liturgy forming us? Because remember, even this is a liturgy:

 

Source: Wainwright, Doxology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 8.

Self-Negating? Roger Scruton on Protestant Worship

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        Scruton at the Organ, Courtesy The Telegraph/John Lawrence

Baptism of the Lord Sunday is upon us. In many United Methodist congregations, this day is marked by a somewhat unique service: a reaffirmation of the baptismal covenant. (For any interested parties, this year I am using this new service from the General Board of Discipleship instead of the service in our hymnal.) The basics: insofar as United Methodists are sacramental Christians (an identifier that varies much from place-to-place, despite official teaching and worship materials), we baptize both infants and adults, by any mode possible (it is God, not the amount of water, that provides the grace) but do not rebaptize. From time to time we do “reaffirm” our baptism; sometimes this is through a highly ordered communal ritual, and others – as in several services at my seminary’s chapel – a simple bowl of water is present as one enters the worship space and one is invited to touch the water and “remember your baptism.”  I do this service myself annually on Baptism of the Lord Sunday; it is, after all, one of those rare occasions when the church calendar lines up nicely with the world’s calendar (and who doesn’t love a fresh start at the beginning of a new year?).

Of course, baptism is an oft-misunderstood sacrament among the people called Methodists, especially here in the Bible Belt where many of our neighboring churches will happily rebaptize anyone willy-nilly and insistent low-church Protestants will inform their sacramental acquaintances that infant baptism “doesn’t count.” Misunderstanding is also rampant for the Reaffirmation of the Baptismal Covenant services. I’ve had both family and church members tell me about being “rebaptized” on this particular Sunday, despite what I thought were clear teachings in the ritual itself and from my mouth in describing the service. This year I’ve actually included a FAQ on the cover of our bulletin that covers these questions so that this ghastly heretical accusation can be avoided.

All this reminds me of some rather cutting remarks by the British philosopher Roger Scruton. Never one to mince words, he has a biting description of Protestantism in his interesting little work An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Philosophy:

“Just as there can be religious observance without religious belief, so can there be belief without observance, or belief which leaves observance to the conscience of the believer. The Protestant tradition of Christianity has tended in this direction, gradually shedding what it regards as the idolatrous trappings of the Roman Catholic ritual, until little remains of the outward display of religion, and all is reduced to a stark confrontation between God and the soul. Such an attitude is fraught with dangers. The via negativa which leads to God by discarding the images that disguise him, may come close to discarding God as well…In its war against the impure and inessential, the Protestant religion is always in danger of negating itself: which is one reason why the Protestant churches [Mainline?] are now in far greater crisis than the Church of Rome. Nevertheless, in its stable and historically durable forms, the Protestant religion has shown an interesting tendency to combine clear theological beliefs with utter vagueness in ritual and worship.” (Roger Scruton, An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Philosophy [New York: Penguin 1996], 87.)

Scruton, who himself plays the organ in his diminutive local Anglican parish, is on to something. Protestantism has so elevated the verbal proclamation of the word (aka preachin‘) that what passes for good church in many places is motivational speaking inspirational preaching coupled with a slammin’ band (and do please pass the crullers and coffee). Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind informal, thumping churches and I like the coffee shop atmosphere, but at some point Scruton’s “self-negating” critique has to hit home. One can (as often happens) so purge the Christian faith of all symbol, ritual, and characteristic language that what is left is a husk of the Apostolic community, an antiseptic kind of worship, or, if you will, a Body of Christ which has been stripped of its scars. It is easy to sell people on an un-churchy church, but it remains to be seen if one can form Biblically and theologically articulate, holy, full-orbed Christians this way.

Ultimately, teaching and worship, theology and ritual go together.  Where the fullness of the faith is on offer, one will need ritual, symbol, and poetry to describe the ineffable ways of God to God’s people. Where the faith is reduced to a few fundamentals, or a silver-tongued affirmation of an undemanding deity who wants you to have “your best life now,” vagueness in worship and rite will be not only a temptation but a necessity. Whether it is on Baptism of the Lord or on “any given Sunday,” God save us from being so Protestant that we cease being Christian.