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A Christian Perspective on Ritual

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I was brought up to consider the word 'ritual' a dirty word. I was a Protestant – a Methodist at the time – and 'rituals' were things that only Catholics got involved with. They were 'ritualistic'; we were plain-speaking, plain-living, Bible-only Christians. Good Protestants only sang and prayed without the need for overt ceremony and show. In fact, the word 'ritual' was often used in the same breath as 'mumbo-jumbo'. Since those days I've become a priest in the Church of England. Many of my ancestors – tough-minded Presbyterians from Scotland – are probably turning over in their graves. Today I happily indulge in lots of rituals whenever I get the chance!


The comfort of ritual


I now realise that all societies, groups and communities, whether religious or not, practise all of the time various sorts of ritual. And why? Because they give life shape and order. We human beings are creatures in love with doings things again and again and again; call it routine, call it habit, but repetition helps us feel that things are safe, stable and secure. This is my theory, at least. Occasionally we need a bit of spontaneity – what else is a holiday? – but more often than not when we return home, we say, 'It's good to be back.' And what makes it good is that all our little routines and rituals are there waiting for us to begin again … and again … and again.


The power of ritual


So at home, so at church. As an Anglican, my ritual life focuses on various actions associated with the sacraments – mainly holy communion (the re-enactment of Jesus' last meal) – and baptism (the ritual that marks entry into the Christian church), and the variations within each depending on the season (Lent, Easter, Christmas, etc.). I've said that ritual gives shape and order to life. But it also gives identity – it helps to tell us and others who may be watching us who we are. My Methodist background looked upon rituals as meaningless repetition, as empty. But the opposite is the truth. The things that we do repeatedly tell us important details about what we believe. Take Holy Communion. It's the central ritual in both Anglican and Roman Catholic churches. Its importance lies in the fact that Christians believe it was created by Jesus himself during his last night on earth. The first thing to say about Holy Communion is that it's done alongside other people, like most other religious rituals. In this way rituals are a bit like plays or dramas in which everyone plays a part. The priest stands for Jesus, the congregation the disciples, and so on. So the power of a ritual is linked to the number of people taking part in it.


Engaging in ritual


One of the most moving rituals I've ever taken part in involved making the sign of the cross, with oil, on the forehead of the person beside me. The context for this ritual was a service of healing. The crowd who had gathered in the church for the service included many terminally ill and disabled Christians. What was special was its democratic quality. My wife's church, the Society of Friends (Quakers), doesn't have any priest or official person up the front saying the 'magic words' (as she calls them). At this particular healing service no one person was set apart to administer the oil. Everyone did it, the sick anointing the healthy, the healthy the sick. Rituals, especially when accompanied by powerful words – as in Holy Communion: 'Take, eat; this is my body given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.' – can be approached on many different levels. But they all demand involvement and participation. There is no such thing as a non-engaging ritual. This is why many Christians find the sermon the dullest part of a Christian service; it doesn't give them any space for self-expression or involvement.


Another powerful ritual that left an impact on me was the annual All Souls' Day memorial service at All Saints' church, West Bromwich. This service was dedicated to the memory of all who had died in the parish – and had been buried or cremated by one of the clergy team – in the previous twelve months. A letter was written to the family of the deceased inviting them to church to remember their loved one. On average, around 200 people attended. At its heart was the act of walking up to the front of church to light a candle following the reading of the names. The force – both literal and symbolic – of 200 candles is quite something. What people were doing was making a statement that we need not be alone in our grief and that by gathering to remember and recollect the dead we take back something from death's grip. As in this simple service, ritual can carry and convey our deepest convictions – that life is stronger than death – and assist in managing the balance between memory (the past) and our hope in new beginnings (the future).


Rituals come and go; some lose their power, others don't. Since Protestants broke away from the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century many rituals of the Middle Ages have been lost. They exist only in history books. I find this sad. For rituals do so many things, if we approach them in the right spirit. They bring us closer to our neighbours, they give order to life, and they help us to reflect on what is important and necessary in living a good life. Every life is rounded off by a ritual: the ritual of Last Rites, the funeral service, that formal moment in which we say goodbye. From start to finish ritual is with us.



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