Ritual has become a dirty word, and an unwelcome idea, among some Christians. Nowadays, all the kudos seem to go to those worship events that are novel, creative, and unique. Particularly in that segment of Protestantism where we expect worship to be Spirit-inspired, we tend to pair the word ritual with empty. I’ve never heard reference to a full (or better, fulfilling) ritual, but I believe in them. For while empty ritual should certainly be eschewed, fulfilling rituals have a place in church life.
My church, like many Protestant churches, spends a lot of time with Scripture but not much time connecting with historical Christianity. A few years ago I read Henry Bettenson’s Documents of the Christian Church1 and became convinced that we might have erred in neglecting the non-canonical writings of early Christians. What I did might seem remarkable: I taught my congregation a version of the Apostles’ Creed.2 I explained to them that we don’t know for sure if the apostles had anything to do with its composition, but it unquestionably goes back to some very early Christian gatherings and expresses what the apostles believed. “Just think,” I said, “when we recite this together today, we’re saying the very same words a church two thousand years ago, on the other side of the world, might have said as they met to worship.”
An elderly woman in my church told me that when she grew up in Armenian Turkey, the traditional Easter Sunday greeting was “Christ is risen!” to which the response was, “Christ is risen, indeed!” We adopted it as our own ritual, connecting us to a group of Christians we didn’t know and had never met but with whom we share the joy of the Resurrection. Dozens of wedding vows are out there, ranging from the traditional to the sappy. I’ve stuck to just one: a variation of The Book of Common Prayer3 service, a descendant of Thomas Cranmer’s from the fifteenth century. I’ve evolved from “wilt thou” to “will you,” but “to love and honor, in sickness and in health, for richer and poorer, ’til death do us part”—is still there. I look forward to saying those familiar words each time I marry a couple, and I hope those who are listening look forward to hearing them.
All the weddings I’ve seen are loaded with ritual. Few brides would forego a procession in a white formal dress. Even such spiritually doubtful practices as tossing the bouquet and garter, as well as innovations such as the unity candle, are included uncritically. Every reception incorporates a couple of toasts, even among people who wouldn’t think of drinking alcohol. Like Christmas, the wedding ceremony includes a stew of traditions, some not even remotely Christian. Yet we do these things because they are part of our collective memory of what happens at weddings. Shouldn’t we be absolutely certain then that the words the officiating minister says evoke collective memories of a wedding’s spiritual import?
Several decades ago my generation went through a sort of recasting of our rituals. There were great advantages, we felt, in discarding the old and crafting new. The wedding on the beach comes to mind, with the bearded groom in a tie-dyed T-shirt and jeans, the barefoot bride in a peasant dress, carrying weeds picked at the shoreline—pledging to one another to “always let you do your thing.”
If I sound critical, forgive me. I don’t mind innovative weddings, but I insist that at least my words, as the officiating minister, remind participants and observers that they are experiencing a serious joining of two lives in the sight of God. New rituals run the risk of breaking faith with the collective memory—something that should be avoided unless a compelling cultural change necessitates it.
A line of a wedding prayer in The Book of Common Prayersays, “Grant that all married persons who have witnessed these vows may find their lives strengthened and their loyalties confirmed.” That’s one of the things I hope the marriage ritual will do: bring to the minds of watching couples the promises they made once upon a time. With some current forms of wedding liturgies, that connection is harder to make.
Our church doesn’t baptize infants, but we do have an infant dedication service. I think of the service as lovely yet fairly new to my tradition. Because it is new, we have no long-used formula cognate to the “Will you take this woman . . .” “I will” of the wedding ceremony.
So child dedications are often informal—a mishmash of whatever the pastor happened to pull together that day. I’ve tried to create my own ritual for the infant dedication. I borrowed a service from an old Presbyterian worship book that asked the questions I want parents to answer: “Do you trust Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior? Do you intend for this child to be Jesus’ disciple, to obey His Word and manifest His love? Will you teach your child to be a faithful member of the church, giving of herself in every way, and teach her to seek the fellowship of the church wherever she may be?”
Please note that I’m not merely hosting a warm event for happy new parents. I’m conveying theology and expectation. My questions tell parents that there is no magic in this blessing: Your child will learn her faith, at least partially, from yours. The ritual must be accompanied by your determination that your child obeys Jesus’ Word and manifests His love. I’ve had families back out when they realized I’d be asking them to promise they would teach their child to seek the fellowship of the church for the rest of their lives! But if you can’t make that promise, I can’t dedicate your child, because I believe being part of a church is essential for a lively, living faith.
I’ve heard Christians say, “We don’t believe in ritual in our church.” They are probably thinking of high-church liturgy, and they may not, indeed, experience that in their church. But just try changing the order of the worship service or introducing a different kind of music, and you’ll quickly discover that all churches have rituals, even if they don’t call them that.
Overstating the importance of rituals to human society is difficult. The Encyclopaedia Britannica goes so far as to say, “Human beings are sometimes described or defined as a basically rational, economic, political, or playing species. They may, however, also be viewed as ritual beings.”4 That is to say, our lives are structured by rituals, from awakening until bedtime, from birth to death.
Specifically, we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of these public rituals, the kind we use from generation to generation to make and mark significant life passages. We employ these rituals because they add weight to our decisions and actions. They anchor our intentions so that we do not easily contradict them. Take, for example, the ritual of swearing in a witness in a court: It is certainly possible for the witness to lie after taking the oath, but something about the ritual makes one take one’s words seriously—more than one would take words spoken in casual conversation.
Christian rituals, too, lend weight to important events. We pastors deal in life transitions: birth, baptism, marriage, sickness, death. In each of these, our rituals give spiritual weight and inertia to decisions, promises, and requests that might otherwise be transient.
I would not have anyone misunderstand that I am recommending “mere” ritual—that is, thoughtless reading of a prepared text with minimal personal engagement. My wedding homily addresses the marrying couple specifically—even though the vows they will repeat are centuries old. I personalize my address to the parents of the child I’m dedicating, even though the questions are the same as I asked a previous family. The prayer for the anointing of the sick need not be original or remarkable, but you had better be present at the bedside in a personal, loving way. Even our rituals must have integrity.
1 Henry Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967).
2 Slight modification was necessary. To be consistent with Seventh-day Adventist theology, I removed the line about Jesus descending into hell (which is based on a questionable interpretation of a couple of passages in 1 Peter) and dropped the word catholic from the description of the church. The latter inclusion may be defensible (catholic in the lower case simply means “universal”—something most Christians can affirm), but keeping it there isn’t worth the almost certain misunderstandings.
3 The Book of Common Prayer (Seabury Press, 1979).
4 “ritual.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online. http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-9109488.