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Ritual in Progressive Christianity

General comments on ritual

The topic for this months ebulletin is the role of ritual in the progressive Christian movement. Ritual is defined most generally by Webster as “any formal and customarily repeated act or series of acts.” According to this somewhat loose definition, life is replete with ritual. The Japanese have their tea ceremony. As I sit and drink my morning coffee, I realize that I have a bit of a coffee ritual. Many sport teams have a pre-game ritual that, while not assuring victory, makes victory possible. Commencement exercises, in which graduates come forward and have the hood placed around their necks, and at the end of which everyone throws their caps into the air, is definitely ritualistic behavior. There is a “morning ritual” as people race to exit the door and head to work. Even mundane tasks such as mopping the floor or washing dishes often have an atmosphere of at least a semi-formal “customarily repeated series of acts”.

The purpose of ritual is manifold. When performed as a group, ritual bonds the persons involved. Be it a football team or a Sunday morning church gathering, the ceremonies enable individuals to participate in a community that transcends and empowers them. It also makes them more appreciative of each other, realizing that indeed they are a team that needs to care for one another.

Ritual also provides opportunity for those moments in which we are temporarily “all there”, when we experience reality rather than thinking about it, when we experience God. As for providing such moments, mopping the floor can be as meditative as being in a medieval cathedral listening to Gregorian chanting.

Unless one is a rebel in the making, ritual slowly but surely reinforces the worldview of the participants. The more we repeat the ceremony, the more we identify with the assumptions and conclusions presented therein. This can be for good, and it can be for bad. Ritual can strengthen loving community, while meetings of the KKK can strengthen hateful anti-community.

Each of us participates in many different rituals. Individually, we make our coffee or mop the floor, meditations unique to who we are. Some of us are a member of a family, and although the advent of electronic and individualistic entertainment and gadgetry has certainly impacted family time together, some “series of acts” remains. We may be a member of a team, with its ritual, and we may work with others in occupations that can involve ritual. We belong to a church, a discussion group, a secular service organization, and they all have ritual of one sort or another in which we participate.


Ritual in emerging progressive Christianity

When we look at Christianity in particular, there are three issues to address: the role of the sacraments of baptism and communion in the future, new ritual created by and for small progressive groups, and thirdly, ritual that would be inviting to all people, regardless of religion.

The two sacraments accepted by all church bodies are baptism and communion. With respect to baptism, a traditional understanding might be that we are all born with a disease labelled “original sin” and the ritual washing by baptismal water cleanses the person from this ailment, so that she can start a new life. And communion (Lord’s Supper, Eucharist), in turn, is the believers acceptance that Jesus the Christ died for their sins and that now they are forgiven and accepted by God. As we all know, just how the body and blood of Jesus are present in the bread and wine, and exactly what the recipient is supposed to believe, have been questions hotly debated and fought over through the ages.

A new and progressive Christianity might think otherwise. Baptism could be a ritual that celebrates the entrance into a community of faith that promises to accept, honor and be with you in good times and bad, even as you or your sponsor make a reciprocal pledge. And communion would be a reminder of that last supper just as it would also be a celebration of God’s presence today in the communal sharing of food.

Neither the traditional nor the progressive is necessarily wrong, but they are different, and the difference needs dialog. However, if the words accompanying the ritual are sufficiently neutral, then tradition and progression can participate side by side, as they in fact do in most church bodies. The words should point to the divine presence, and not proclaim a specific interpretation of that presence. Only in this way will the rituals celebrated through the millennia be meaningful to the Christianity of the future.

And what of new ritual that emerges in small groups? Clearly, the members of such a group need to agree on what would constitute a meaningful ceremony, and they must realize that whatever they come up with may not have meaning for others. This could make it hard for the group to grow. On this basis there most likely will never be any new ritual accepted by the whole church, which is fine.

Perhaps the greatest challenge confronting us is how, using the most general definition offered by Webster, we can create meaningful and enlightening ritual that includes all of us, religionist and humanist, spiritual and secular. In fact, given its customary religious connotation, suppose we drop the word “ritual” and replace it with words less intimidating, such as “structured gathering”. If it is true that we all seek a loving and purposeful life, that this search too often takes a hurtful turn, that we all want and need true community, and that we all have encounters with the divine- recognized as such or not- then it must be possible to develop a “customarily repeated series of acts” that builds on these basic human characteristics. Imagine an event that appeals to and includes everyone simply because they are human. Impossible? Not at all. We all like to eat and drink, listen to and create music, share our most heart-felt experiences, dance and laugh. We like to be uplifted and to uplift others, and it matters not that some come with a faith in God and others do not because we are, indeed, one family.

These three manifestations of ritual are not mutually exclusive. One can participate in baptism and communion, small group ceremony, and “structured gatherings”, and feel empowered by all of them. In Bonhoeffer’s “world come of age”, it may be those “gatherings” that lead the way into the future.

Review & Commentary