Ritual is not a dirty word

Religious ritual is a more complicated matter than a caricature of dead ceremonies and antiquated language.

Taking the word in its broadest sense, it is clear that humans have always been ritual beings: anything that is performed on a regular basis and performed according to accepted rules is a ritual. Human societies have many different rituals which in some way define that society, especially to outsiders. Ritual behaviour is almost always corporate, and even that which is performed by individuals becomes a ritual when it is done in the same way and for the same purposes as by other individuals in the same society.

Many human rituals are performed for specifically religious purposes. Religious rituals have classically been divided into three types:

  • those that try to control a deity for human ends, or magic
  • those that try to ward off a deity, or taboo
  • those that try to establish a relationship with a deity for ultimate benefit, or communion.

This last type is most obviously a feature of Christian ritual, and in this sense it is impossible for Christians not to be ritualistic. Whenever Christians get together to celebrate their faith, they are being ritualistic. It is unfortunate that the word ‘ritual’ has come to have a negative connotation in some Christian circles. The Reformation rebellion against ‘vain ceremonies’ was against their misuse, not against religious practice in itself.

The essentials of religious ritual are actions that are repeated, corporate, agreed by the participants and the wider community, and designed for communion with God.

Many religious rituals see themselves as actually having been instituted by God. Whenever Christians gather together to break bread and drink wine, they perform a ritual whose purpose is to enable communion not just with each other but with God himself, and they do so not because it is a good idea but because God told them to do it. It does not matter whether the celebration is low-key and informal or highbrow and full of ceremony: wherever Christians gather to hear the word, share fellowship, offer worship and break bread, and do so using forms agreed by the worshipping assembly (even if they are all songs written that week by the worship band), then they are being ritualistic.

Ritual and the everyday
Another feature of religious rituals is that they often have everyday actions at their heart. Frank Senn describes the basis of Christian ritual as ‘bath, book, meal’. Baptism, communion and hearing the word of God all begin with a ‘natural’ meaning. The water of baptism is the water that brings us life and makes us clean. The bread and wine of communion are the bread and wine that keep us alive. The words of scripture are the words we use to communicate and which enable us to be social beings. Religious ritual connects the secular with the sacred, the everyday with the eternal, the ordinary with the supernatural. At the heart of the Christian faith is the belief that in the life of Jesus Christ, God shares our humanity, and that through the incarnation there is nothing that cannot be redeemed: in St Augustine’s terms, there is ‘nothing which is not holy’.

Many religious rituals have taken what is familiar and essential, and use it to draw a community together and look beyond the immediate to the God who is behind and in it all. Indeed, such rituals are, in many ways, the only way in which the power and majesty of Almighty God can be made real to us without wiping us out. As Frank Senn says, ‘rituals serve to structure a reality that would otherwise threaten to overwhelm us’. How else would we ‘die to sin’ except through the ritual of baptism; how else be ‘washed in the blood of Christ’ except in the breaking of bread; how else ‘hear the word of the Lord’ except through scripture both read and preached? Unlike the veil in the temple, designed to keep us out of the holy of holies, such rituals usher us in, enabling us to see God face to face without being consumed. Rituals for special occasions
Some rituals are formed to be associated with once-in-a-lifetime events such as birth, becoming an adult, marriage and death. Anthropologists define these rituals as ‘rites of passage’. Christian versions of these rites of passage are not hard to find, and often relate closely to similar rituals in other societies. Birth is marked with baptism in some denominations, or dedication in others. Growth to adulthood is handled less clearly, but can be baptism or confirmation (which is safer than having to kill a lion, at least, as happened in some tribal cultures). There are Christian marriage rites that have echoes of more complex ancient betrothal and joining ceremonies; and it is unsurprising that a faith which has much to say about death not being an end, but the gateway to new life, has developed a range of rituals around dying and death itself.

Ritual words and ritual actions
Wherever Christians gather to celebrate the basis of their believing, and whenever they offer themselves to God at the change and crisis points of their lives, they will encapsulate the moment with some kind of mixture of words and action—what is technically called a ‘rite’. Some such rites have become so encrusted with ceremonial additions that they have become almost unrecognizable from their origin, and it will always be the business of the church to scrape away the encrustations to find the most appropriate way to gather together, celebrate the faith, create a community and proclaim the good news. Because the central rituals of ‘bath, book and meal’ are based on symbols with a universal and timeless application, it will be the church’s task to reinterpret them, not to reinvent them in every generation. Similarly, the great life events are common to all, and need rituals that are able to reinterpret them in Christian terms for the contemporary world.

These ‘classic’ rituals of faith and life are what the traditional denominations have as ‘givens’ in their ministry. Such denominations find it most difficult to reinterpret them, especially when the rituals have an ancient form that is valued for its own sake. It is almost impossible to come up with contemporary rites that take today’s world as their starting point when the ‘ancient’ rites are so much a part of our identity. Newer churches find it easier to invent new rituals, some of which may be more temporal and of relevance only for a period, but they have the opposite problem with making rituals that carry the weight and depth of the ages.

It is entirely possible to be a Christian and remain entirely on your own, but it is better to meet with your fellow Christians and celebrate your faith. To do this, there needs to be an agreed way of meeting, and a religious ritual is born.

An extract from The Rite Stuff, edited by Pete Ward, copyright BRF 2004