by Graham Edwards.
On Thursday night I went into the street outside the house and applauded the NHS, most of my neighbours were out there too. We have done this for several weeks, I expect we will do it for some time to come, and week by week it has become a bigger event in the neighbourhood. At first it we clapped, now there are pans being banged with wooden spoons and tambourines being played. Neighbours have shouted conversations across the road, nod to each other over fences and hedges, and wave to those further down the street! It is right that we applaud the NHS in these strange days, but I wonder if it is becoming or has become something more, I wonder if it has become a ritual.
A ritual can be defined as a repetitive pattern of symbolic behaviour (Rambo, 1983, p. 509), which Knott (2005, p. 101) argues become a “central creative process by which people make a meaningful world they can inhabit”. That is, rituals do something, they are not simply a language to be interpreted they are, as Davies (2002, p. 113) notes, and end in themselves. Rituals are a way of communicating or, as Edmund Leach (1976, p. 45) states, sending “collective messages to ourselves”, these messages might concern our values, priorities and our self-understanding. Indeed, one television advert currently running has the narrator describing “clapping for carers with neighbours after a really wobbly day” as “the unity you needed to remember”. Rituals communicate to individuals, those sharing in them, and beyond us to society as a whole. In the 1960s, Victor Turner describing rituals among the Ndembu of Zambia, realised that rituals were often concerned with times of crisis or transitional moments in the life of the village. Society, he argues (1969, p. 103), is a process in which change is expected and inevitable. Ritual, therefore, offers the opportunity to participate in the moments of change and transition, by granting a ‘voice’ within the changing world.
The ritual and symbolic language we ‘speak’ has an important place in our world, and of course it has an important place in the life of the church. In recent weeks, however, the rituals we have been accustomed to have been unavailable to us – physically attending church services, shaking hands, sharing the peace, celebrating Holy Communion and so on. The great surprise in many places has been that, as new kinds of ritual have emerged, we have maintained a new form of connectedness. We have taken part in worship using Zoom (other video conferencing software is available!), shared recorded sermons and prayers, and have sent worship materials in the post. We have connected to people who have not been part of our churches before and realised that the connectedness we value is not simply a physical ‘thing’. Though, in truth, this is not a new revelation, perhaps the experience of lockdown has forced us to remember. When Victor Turner describes his understanding of ritual he argues that they operate in transitional or liminal places where the shared experience allows ‘relationships of immediate, direct, heart to heart experiences’ (Davies, 2002, p. 125) to form. I suggest that church communities exist in a kind of liminal transitory space, as the shared experience of faith shapes, and is shaped by, our life in the world. This shared life forms relationship that might be called Communitas, but I prefer the description Avery Dulles provides, mystical communion. Dulles claims the church is “not an institution but a brotherhood [sic]” (2002, p. 40). Drawing on work of the sociologist Ferdinand Tӧnnies and Arnold Rademacher, Dulles maintains that
the church is in its inner core community (Gemeinschaft): in its outer core, however, it is society (Gesellschaft). The society is the outward manifestation of the community; and the society exists in order to promote the realisation of the community. The community is the ‘real’ as contrasted with the phenomenal, church (2002, p. 41).
While we can explore the society of the church, the community is where the bonds of mystical communion exist, these are beyond physical and continue to connect us. Lockdown and its effects have forced us to remember this connection, and express it in new ritual, and ‘speak’ it into the world.
As we continue to experience the life of the church in these uncertain times, I wonder what rituals we will need to allow us to participate in the changes to our society and speak hope and love with the voice of faith.
Davies, D. (2002). Anthropology and Theology. Oxford: Berg.
Dulles, A. (2002). Models of the Church. New York: Doubleday.
Knott, K. (2005). The Location of Religion. Durham: Acumen.
Leach, E. (1976). Culture and Communication. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Rambo, L. R. (1983). A New Dictionary of Christian Theology A. Richardson & J. Bowden (Eds.),
Turner, V. (1969). The Ritual Process (Vol. Ithaca NY): Cornell University Press.