I grew up in a protestant tradition that prided itself as being a “low church.” Admittedly this never sounded very good to my young inexperienced ears. It was not until college that I learned what was meant by “low church.” It simply meant we are not a “high church.” On the few occasions when I attended services at a Roman Catholic Church, full of icons and rituals, I found myself very uncomfortable. I was never clear, even in my questioning years, if I was more uncomfortable with the content of the language, the sometimes scary statues or because everyone one seemed to know what was going on except me.
Over the last few years I have spoken and written extensively about my concerns with churches that continue to use ancient rituals, hymns and icons that reflect an understanding of a Fourth Century Christianity while the church leadership claims to be part of a progressive or at least “emerging” church. I am referring here specifically to the story that Jesus was the only begotten son of God, came to earth with one purpose, to suffer a horrible death as God’s sacrifice for the sins of the world. More than one critic of religion over the last century has argued that religions control participants with rituals that few ever give rational thought to.
Some suggest that we should not put too much emphasis on the traditional language positing that it is only metaphor. I have written before about a time I sat next to one of the finest New Testament scholars in the world today. We were in an Episcopalian Sunday service. He had spent the previous two days at a conference, hosted by the same church, explaining how the latest research on the historical Jesus painted a very different picture of the Jesus of traditional interpretation. For all intentional purposes, this scholar had knocked the legs out of any serious historicity to the fourth century myth. And yet he stood up, starting with “I believe” and continued to recite the Apostle’s creed with his eyes closed, apparently in a meditative place.
I asked him after services and I continue to ask others, “How do you explain this dichotomy to the child or the new visitor who was looking for a more modern interpretation of the Christian faith?” His response was that was just a ritual. He went on to explain that for him it was metaphor and that it connected him to the early traditions. Metaphor for what, I wondered. What early traditions? Were they traditions that put people in prison or even to death for not being willing to say the same words?
Admittedly it is not easy to change rituals or traditions that have been part of a faith community for centuries or even decades. I do remember the battle we had in the very progressive church I pastored for over twenty years. We were trying to change the so-called Lord’s Prayer to more historically accurate and egalitarian language. We finally settled by stating that anyone can recite the prayer any way they want. It was a strange compromise, but it was fun to hear all of these different version of the same prayer going on at the same time. I think it worked. However, I can attest from my mail and phone calls that unless pastoral leadership has done years of preparation, the lead pastor better first have his or her profile or resume prepared before they think about changing the language of the Lord’s Prayer, the Eucharist or a Baptism.
For the last few decades I have taken the position of many critics of the church that we should just get rid of rituals. I am afraid they become traditions that trap us in the dangerous circle of “We have always done it that way” or “They bring back fond memories.” Maybe they are fond memories of our childhood but do they mean anything to the visitor or the child? After all, our goal is to share Jesus’ teachings about living a compassionate life, is it not?
On the other hand we humans and a lot of other animal species apparently have always had some form of ritual. Archeologist now think that the Neanderthals had rituals that they practiced as a community. Certainly the “hunters and the gatherers” had rituals that were an integral part of their communities. They were often based on a belief in a higher power and in the need for complete egalitarianism. (http://www.scholarpedia.org/article/Hunter-Gatherers_and_Play) And it is fairly easy to track some of the rituals that developed in the early communities of the Mesopotamia Valley ten thousand years ago. These were part of the growing communities that led to what we may mistakenly refer to as the beginning or birth of civilization. A few of them are still buried in the mythologies of our own biblical text.
Several months ago we did a survey of small groups that were forming across the country* asking them about their communities. Interestingly we discovered that most of the groups that had stayed together longer than a year had some kind of set ritual practices as part of their regular gatherings. I am not suggesting that this is a necessary component for long term communities as there were certainly exceptions. But it does seem like rituals can be helpful for people who are trying to go deeper into their relationships and learn together about an alternative way of living their lives.
Admittedly we had a little bit of a challenge trying to discern what was meant by ritual for these groups. For example some groups prayed or meditated every time they met. And for them that was a ritual. Others considered sharing a meal on a regular basis as an important ritual. John Dominic Crossan suggests that very thing in his book, Jesus A Revolutionary Biography (Harper San Francisco 1994). One group reported that they had developed opening and closing rituals for their meetings which they described as part educational and part spiritual.
And as I have noted before, I am part of an intentional community. We have slowly developed a couple of practices that have become a valuable part of our weekly gatherings. We also try and start our meeting with a meal whenever possible. I do believe that something sacred happens when we break bread together. Sharing a simple meal together changes relationships and also gives us a time to share our lives. We begin our quiet time with another practice. We stand in a small circle and hold hands, remaining silent with our eyes closed. We know that this is intended to slow down our chatter in preparation for our meditation. It is also a time for us to experience and focus on the oneness or connectedness of our community. No words are spoken but most of us have shared our appreciation for this time. Many of us have found it so precious that we expressed the desire to stay in the position longer. Yes, it has become a ritual and once we got over the concern that we were being too religious or too intimate, this ritual became not only natural but desirable.
Wikipedia tells us that a ritual “is a sequence of activities involving gestures, words, and objects, performed in a sequestered place, and performed according to set sequence.” With this definition I would guess that many households have family rituals, especially around meal times. I fondly recall our dinner ritual while growing up. My father would share his day boasting about how many problems he had solved, and how many “dragons he had slayed” that day at the aerospace plant where he worked. He would then go around that table asking each of one of us about our day. Most of the time my two siblings and I looked forward to our turn, although there were times when one of us would have liked to hide under the table. That was usually me. But it was a ritual and I believe a good one. I can only wish that more young people would have parents who cared enough to take the time for that kind of ritual at every dinner meal.
So at this point I have found myself of the opinion that rituals in themselves are not necessarily a bad thing. But I do believe that we need to know what they mean and why we practice them. I do not think it makes sense to continue to recite things we no longer believe in nor make sense. Blind rituals not only have no positive meaning but they can be misleading.
Old rituals can be rewritten, new ones can be created. We have hundreds of those on our www.ProgressiveChristianity.com website and we continue to add them every day. I used to encourage couples who came to me for premarital counseling to participate in the creation of their own ceremonies. But I strongly encouraged them to at least write their own vows. Almost always I would hear from the ones who wrote their own vows that the words meant so much more to them. On several occasions I heard back from some of them years later that every anniversary they would pull out their vows and reread them, often with their children. I have more than a hunch that these are strong and happy marriages.
And think this might be a model for our churches and small groups as well. These rituals will not necessarily be part of some historical memory or lack of memory but rather something that is alive, in accordance with one’s beliefs about the Infinite Mystery that continues to slowly reveal itself. And maybe like the couples who wrote their own vows, these rituals will mean so much more to the participants and the communities that they help form and continue to shape.
*Two of these groups were from other countries.