Reclaiming Ritual

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.

5 thoughts on “Reclaiming Ritual”

  1. Interesting Graham, thank you!! I wonder how these thoughts fit with the Methodist Way of Life and I hope Roger Walton will respond!! I’m wondering how rituals and patterns of accountability sit with each other ….


  2. Many thanks, Graham.

    When the President invites one to respond, it is difficult to refuse!

    There is not sufficient space here to explore fully the insightful ideas that you offer. I contribute a couple of thoughts. First, I am interested in the interaction between Christian practices and ritual. It seems clear that ritual plays a key part in connecting, building and making meaning in community but not all rituals are positive or good. There were rituals connected with the arenas of ancient Rome and the rise of Nazism. These rituals clearly provided meaning but also reinforced brutality and discrimination.

    A Methodist Way of Life is concerned with nurturing Christian practices, e.g. prayer, hospitality, service, promoting justice and witnessing to God’s love. Some of these practices are not uniquely Christian but they all are rooted in our understanding of the nature of God. As we help each other grow in Christian practices, so it is possible to shape emerging rituals in church and the world to be patterned after Christ. Perhaps this, in some ways, corresponds to your inner and outer dimensions of church.

    Second, Dulles work on models of the church was ground-breaking in offering a series of models of church, all of which emphasise some aspect of its calling. This approach opened up rather than closed down our understanding of the church. Methodism would, I think, most naturally identify with the models of church as Herald and Servant but might also be seen as a community of disciples called to holiness (not one of Dulles models). In this, we are called to help each other find Christ among us and in the world, and witness to the transforming love of God; the orientation of a Methodist Way of Life. The value of a variety of models is to help us correct an over emphasis on some aspect of our calling as church. We need to watch over each other to be faithful and to make our specific contribution to the ecumenical richness of the church.

    I, like you, look forward to emergence of new rituals in church and world. We live in exciting Spirit- infused times.

    [For those not familiar with a Methodist Way of Life, visit the MWoL page on the Methodsit Church website]


  3. I apologise beforehand for adding a note of caution to your words about ritual. Too often the meaning and purpose of the Christian life is lost as ritual takes over and the service and the Faith come over as a matter of saying the right words in the right order. The love of God as shown by Christ is unconditional and therefore radically inclusive and non-judgmental. For me ritual observance in Church is necessary, even comforting in a way, but I suggest it is our responsibility to avoid alienating the outsiders and strangers who cross our threshold.


  4. Thanks for this – the mention of Turner and how we need to (have to!) create new rituals resonates with one of our recent pieces at the Susanna Wesley Foundation focusing on his notion of anti-structure. He’s a useful source at this time. It’s interesting how we’re seeing the ‘mystical communion’ / ‘communitas’ emerging in all kinds of ways in wider society reflecting the wider work of God, as well as among groups of Christians.


  5. Anthropology is very useful. I think that rituals and ceremonies are all part of the same spectrum of activities. If they are all rituals of some sort or another then they are not all transitional. Some help to maintain and reinforce social and community stability and even resist change. However, when there is change then a special set of transitional rituals may be invoked or if necessary, created. Joining the group and taking up its life whether as a new citizen or church member can involve ‘leaving activities’, ‘threshold activities’ and ‘rites of incorporation’. This goes back to van Gennep, and must have been used numerous times to analyse baptism, confirmation, marriage, funerals and other losses and gains. These generally help to bring people into an existing community whether mystical or secular. However, alongside or possibly replacing established forms that give people security we have constant cultural change in many dimensions, scientific and technological development driving some of them. New social rituals arise as the article suggests and are liminal if they help to adapt to and make sense of change. The Methodist church is trying to cope with the reality of lockdown and the upsurge of an online world into which some have been initiated and which some avoid. Those who have entered and live much of their lives in that new world can find online worship, zooming fellowship and business meetings which are new ways of connecting to and maintaining an old tradition. Hopefully, they help to build ‘bridges to the future’. So far, for Methodists, the online world and the virtual future is sacrament free but that will need revision if virtual reality dominates the social and personal future.


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