Thursday, March 26, 2015

Changing rituals in a changing world

Zorba the Greek tells the story of an uptight Englishman who visits an Aegean island where, after several emotionally traumatic experiences, his last big hope for economic success collapses. Faced with complete catastrophe, he doesn’t cry, whine, or curse God. Instead, he turns to his earthy guide to Greek village life and says, “Zorba, teach me to dance.”

Religious rituals teach us to dance with God. For many Episcopalians, the shape of our Sunday rituals changed dramatically with the adoption of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. Holy Communion replaced Morning Prayer as the usual Sunday worship service.

Reflecting on my spiritual journey set in the broader context of American culture, two dynamics seem to have had significant roles in bringing the change about. First, I (and many others) sought a greater emphasis on community to balance an unhealthy cultural bias in favor of individualism. Morning Prayer too easily accommodated individualism, permitting attendees to avoid personal interaction. Passing the Peace during Holy Communion at least required attendees to pretend to interact as they mumbled greetings and perhaps shook hands. In the congregations with which I'm familiar, resistance to the Peace has gradually yielded to attendees learning to value a few moments to interact with other worshipers. The ritual of the Peace developed from being an awkward interruption of individual worship to an affirmation (sometimes even a celebration) of our communal identity and worship.

Second, the scientific materialism and philosophical reductionism that permeates our culture has made the inadequacy of words for communicating transcendent realities increasingly apparent. Shifting from Morning Prayer to Holy Communion better balanced the cognitive content of our worship services with greater emphasis on both affect and physical engagement. In addition to the listening, verbal responses, singing, and posture changes called for in Morning Prayer, Holy Communion involves eating/drinking, touch with other people, and movement (at least to and from the altar). Congregations that use incense also enlist the olfactory sense. Drawing people more deeply into the ritual has the potential to draw people more deeply into the transcendent mystery of God's presence.

Kathleen Norris in The Cloister Walk described the power of rituals to bind a community together and to bind individuals into a community. She memorably illustrated that power with her observations of a Benedictine monastic community.

I repeatedly observed the same power of ritual in my ministry, a binding that occurred more rapidly in transient military communities and more slowly in civilian communities. People acquired the local rhythms through repetition while they concurrently learned the local stories that imbued those rhythms with meaning. Rituals formed individuals into a community, giving their lives meaning.

Paul Tillich insisted that ritual, including the associated story or myth, requires continual reformation and renewal for the ritual to remain vital. I don't foresee an end to ritual. The search for meaning is basic to the human condition. However, I suspect that the Church will mostly shift from a highly stylized form of Eucharist meal toward a more casual, fuller meal format (this is already happening in some places). I expect that the number of people who find traditional Christian theological formulations satisfying will continue to diminish while the number attracted to post-theistic narratives continues to increase.

Acknowledging the pervasiveness and accelerating pace of change has become so commonplace as to be trite. A Christianity that attempts to remain static, desperately clinging to its current ritual forms and theological formulations, is dying. Refusing to change is tantamount to issuing an ecclesial do not resuscitate order.

Thankfully, the patient is not terminally ill. Christianity need not die. But it is like the uptight Englishman in Zorba the Greek after his repeated setbacks. Time is becoming critical. The Church needs to change and to keep changing at a faster pace if it is to stay alive. What will be our next dance, when will we learn it, and who will be our guide?


Anonymous said...

I agree with your points. But in the process of making HE normative for worship, we also made congregations dependent on the physical presence of a priest. Bishop Curry doesn’t allow deacon’s masses. In the days of MP, a congregation was satisfied with once monthly HE and lay-led MP the remainder of the time. Not now. The problem is that many smaller congregations, particularly the rural ones, will find themselves unable to pay for a part-time rector/vicar in the future. Even paying the standard rate plus travel for supply priests on a weekly basis could be difficult. Reverting to MP won’t be palatable for some people, especially the younger ones (the ones we want to retain!) who have no memory of MP on Sundays.

What do we do? I don’t know.

George Clifford said...

Perhaps the answer to the problem you sketch is to adopt a third way: develop an alternative to both HE and MP that is more meditative, incorporating music popular today (e.g., perhaps some chant, perhaps some contemporary tunes – too many people not raised in the Church find the tunes in the 1982 hymnal foreign), perhaps more of a guided discussion than a sermon.

Anonymous said...

Good, I get to disagree with you. I liked the Morning Prayer as Holy Communion was very special to me. Anything that is commonplace loses it's usefulness for expressing the joy that comes with it. At this time, if you have three or more people gathered together you have communion for any situation. The Peace and other means of getting people to interact can be used at any service either before or after church. Our biggest issue now is few people do interact with each other. We almost need tables set up with only two seats. You get a number when you arrive and when you leave you are matched up with someone else for a five minute conversation on any subject. This way you would get to know someone individually.
My other gripe was we based too much on outreach and not enough on in-reach to those who needed it from our own midst. The results of outreach is rarely visible, where helping those in the church and community serve many purposes.

George Clifford said...

I disagree with three of your points: (1) having something occasionally does not necessarily make something more special – it may do so, but specialness may also originate as people live more deeply into the experience or relationship, e.g., as in family relationships; (2) most congregations much more actively engage in sharing the peace today than they did twenty years ago – this has thankfully become an acquired taste/habit; (3) my neighbor includes both those next to me on the pew and those further away – I have a responsibility to help all of my neighbors, perhaps choosing who to help on the basis of what I am able to provide and who has the greatest need.