by Robert Brow  (www.brow.on.ca)

Chapter 7  - Church Rituals

The woman we introduced in our preface found a great sense of freedom when she no longer felt she had to turn up to church services. For others it was the pomposity and irrelevance of the ritual that put them off. There is also the valid objection that churches are full of hypocrites. But a total abandonment of Christian ritual can also be problematical.

It is hard to say to one's daughter who is getting married "I will come to the reception, but on principle I refuse to be part of a church service."  As a minister I have had relatives say "He was not a church goer, and he certainly wouldn't want a funeral service in church." That still leaves the family unable to stomach the thought of having no ceremony of any kind.

One funeral director recently told me that in over 40% of cases he has to dispose of the body the cheapest way possible, and nobody is allowed to gather for a ritual of any kind. The children are told "Grandmother died.  That's it." Or worse, they are lied to, "She has gone away on a trip," which in one sense is true but it leaves the mystery of death without closure.

I also get the children of parents who quit church going asking for baptism. "My parents won't come, but it is important to me." That could be due to some residual superstition, but there are many who resent having been denied their religious heritage. And there is no lack of religious interest among young people. Wherever services are offered with contemporary music, personal involvement and a lively style of preaching large numbers will gather for worship (which derives from worthship)..

But the rituals of "hatching, matching, and despatching," and the jokes about being carried into church when you die, are only a small part of our ritual functions of the church. This becomes obvious when you see a city like Varanasi (Benares) permeated by Hinduism. Or you work in Saudi Arabia where church gatherings are officially illegal. In Afghanistan the Taliban have set out to establish their brand of fundamentalism where women are excluded from earning a living and have to be covered from head to foot to venture outside their door. In Russia for seventy years Marxist ideology almost eradicated church going. Then suddenly when Communist rule was toppled people began flocking into the antique mystery of Russian Orthodox church services.

In every major religion the rituals depend on the Scriptures that give them meaning. Islam is impossible without the reading of the Qur'an. And a Christian civilization will not survive without the reading of the Bible.  One could view the reading of the Bible as a private matter, which anyone can do at home. But the Bible also has public importance. Consider some of the ways the Bible did its work in a previous generation.  Church people engaged in Bible translation and distribution. Parents read the Bible at home. Children became familiar with the Bible at school.  Parents who did not go to church themselves sent their children to Sunday School where Bible stories were told and portions memorized. Authors quoted the Bible in the books they wrote. Much of our literature was dependent on biblical themes. Those who attended church services knew the Psalms and the Gospels. Even with ten per cent regular church attendance our Judeo-Christian heritage still counts as a basis for moral discussion.

Rituals are those things that we do by habit, and preferably without thinking. In a marriage of two persons from different cultures each is surprised by the rituals which the other takes for granted. Among Christians each denomination has distinctives. Roman Catholics use holy water. The Orthodox cross themselves dozens of times a day. Higher Anglicans enjoy incense and bells and processions. Low Church Anglicans call these popish, but they wear dog collars and clergy robes. Other Protestants like robes for the choir but the preacher should wear a suit.

For some Protestants it is important to give each person a little cup for communion. Others are sure every service needs a song leader. And all of us have different ideas about baptism.

On the one hand ritual needs a habit of doing it, but the habit also needs to be evaluated every generation. We cannot cope with chopping and changing every week, but rituals that lose their meaning need to be discarded. The problem is that each ritual has deep significance for some, but it also makes their service seem quaint or strange to casual visitors.

A deep sense of gratitude may be an emotion of the heart, but we forget that thanksgiving needs a ritual. Two hundred years ago among the Hindus of North India there was no word in Hindi for "thank you." Nor did Buddhists think it necessary since any favor given was a means of gaining merit. In Christian countries children are drilled into saying "thank you" at table and then in their social relationships. But already we have a new generation who say "Why should I be thankful? I deserve it. It is my right. You owe it to me." That is just one step from "And I will sue you if I don't get it." Losing the rituals of thanksgiving and common courtesy spells the end of civilized behavior.

It is certainly possible to quit church going and be thankful to God with one's family at home. There can be grace before one meal a day and an annual ritual of thanksgiving with turkey and pumpkin pie. But the habit of giving thanks to God, and without needing to think about it, is easily lost. When people use "touch wood" as their ritual, we know that they are no longer comfortable with God. At weddings people still think that God should be recognized before the banquet, but the problem is finding someone who knows how to say the prayer.

Among Jews and Christians faith begins when someone is thankful to God. It is only people who are in the habit of being grateful to God who have a thankful heart. But the private ritual of thanksgiving is nourished by the public rituals. One of the unexpected results of church going at its best is that we arrive full of private concerns and agendas, and with the first hymn we are led into thanksgiving which is bigger than we are. Russians say that one of the horrors of seventy years of atheism was that corporate thanksgiving was eradicated.

In our day people may not want to go to church every Sunday, but they still feel the need for some kind of thanksgiving when a child is safely born.  Some want to give thanks in church when they are healed. They assume there should be a harvest thanksgiving, an Easter celebration for the assurance of resurrection, thanksgiving for the end of a long bloody war.
Veterans might be uncomfortable inside a church building but they insist on the ritual of parading on a cold November the 11th. Morning, and a padre must be there to give thanks.

The heart of Christian rituals is the Eucharist or thanksgiving. It goes back to the rituals found in all ancient civilizations. At their worst priestcraft had used the rituals of animal sacrifice as a means of placating or bribing an angry god. But at their best they were occasions of family or tribal thanksgiving. In our day we have our meat butchered out of sight. But they recognized that "this animal is dying so that we can eat." And before eating they thanked God for his presence and provision, forgiveness, guidance, protection. They also used such public occasions of eating together as a means of making peace with those they had warred against.  At the last supper with his disciples before the crucifixion Jesus instituted a very simple ritual of eating bread and drinking wine together.

For the early Christians it quickly superceded the ancient rites of animal sacrifice. The thanksgiving service can be complicated and misused to suggest the magical powers of the priest. But when it works as intended it picks up all the themes of thanksgiving that we need to enrich our lives.  We sing "Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven; Father-like he tends and spares us; well our feeble frame he knows; in his hands he gently bears us; rescues us from all his foes." The hymn begins as a personal "Praise, my soul" but it ends with the corporate "Praise with us the God of Grace." It was written by H.F.Lyte in 1834, but it soon became part of our hymn body.  It is hard to enjoy it alone. The same became true of "Amazing Grace" written by John Newton, the converted slave trader. A few years ago the tune became a favorite on the bagpipes, but that would hardly have happened without the ritual of a community singing the words. We will consider the place of musical ritual and innovation in chapter 9.

Finally in this chapter we might note the rituals of prayer. Children used to be taught "Lord keep us safe this night, secure from all our fears. May angels guard us while we sleep till morning light appears." That was a few degrees less morbid than "If I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take." The Lord's Prayer seems designed for plural use, "Our Father, which art in heaven; give us this day our daily bread, forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us."

When people face a major operation they usually appreciate the assurance of the prayers of others. When I used to wear my dog collar for hospital visits there were very few instances of people refusing to have me pray.  If people were too sick, I would just hold their hand and stay by their bedside a while. But that was also a prayer. The ideal was to let them share their chief concerns for their family, and I would express that in a prayer to God. I was always awed by how many would wipe away their tears, and thank me very warmly. They might not be church goers, but they were glad the church was around.

Though I was often called the parish priest, I always explained that all Christians are priests but some are paid to do it professionally. In Canada most boys are hockey players, but if a mother says her son plays for the NHL, we know he is a professional. So I tried to teach every member of the congregation how to be a priest for their family, and friends, and neighbors. Priests must be able to do five simple things.

First they listen attentively to what the other is saying without being shocked or judgmental. Most people can't do this because they are only listening for the next opportunity to chatter.

Secondly the person must be assured he or she is forgiven and accepted by God just as they are. Most people can't do this because they assume that only an ordained priest has the authority to assure others of God's forgiveness, and God demands at least a passing grade in goodness. Both those assumptions are wrong.

Thirdly the person's concerns must be expressed, as he or she defines them, in prayer to God. Most people can't do this because they don't know how to pray.

There is also the need to explain perhaps one or two verses from the Gospels that give guidance and encouragement in that person's particular situation. And again very few people know enough to do this.

Finally a priest must be able to give a blessing. "It's OK, God loves you and will help you." That demands a confidence that God cares for the person, and the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit can work together for a good outcome in the situation.
A person who has quit church going could function as a good listener. And many do this much better than those who are busy in church activities. But forgiveness, prayer, the Word of God, and the assurance of God's blessing, all seem to lose their meaning apart from the church. And apart from the rituals of such a community it is hard to see how they could continue their vitality into the next generation.

Chapter 8 .....