A Return To Ritual: The Reformed Worship editorial council discusses current trends

What is a ritual? What is the place of ritual in Reformed worship? How can we be sure that the rituals we use in our worship are living rituals?

Those were a Jew of the questions we challenged Reformed Worship council members to wrestle with last fall during a round-table discussion on the needpr living rituals in worship. The pages that follow contain an edited version of their thoughts and reflections on the subject of ritual.

Participants in the discussion ivere from two denominations: the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) and the Reformed Church in America (RCA} They included

Harry Boonstra (HB) associate editor of RW and theological librarian for Calvin College and Seminary
Helen Breems (HeB) director of music for Calvin CRC in Oak Lawn, Illinois, and Pullman CRC in Chicago
Emily Brink (EB) editor of RW
Ron Geschwendt (RG) pastor of First Reformed Church in Grand Haven, Michigan
Duane Kelderman (DK) pastor of Neland Avenue CRC in Grand Rapids, Michigan
Nick Overduin (NO) chaplain at Brock University in St. Catherines, Ontario
Chris Overvoorde (CO) professor of art at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan
John Paarlberg (JP) minister for social witness for the RCA
Harvey Smit (HS) director of the Education Department for CRC Publications
Mike Vanden Bosch (MV) professor of English at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa
Jackie Venegas (JV) member of a worship team at Madison Square Christian Reformed Church, Grand Rapids.

What Is a Ritual?

EB Let's begin with some terms. How do we define and understand terms such as rite, ritual and ceremony?

JP I'm not sure I can distinguish between ritual, ceremony and rite. The terms usually seem to be used almost interchangeably to refer to any simple gesture or symbol or action that carries with it a whole depth of meaning.

Maybe what I'm talking about is a sacramental understanding of ritual. I recall a meaningful ritual in which I participated some years ago at the World Council of Churches gathering in Australia at the time of the Persian Gulf War. We held a worship service for peace during that gathering, and as part of that service "worshipers came forward to be anointed with oil. That simple gesture had several layers of meaning: It reminded us of the oil that people were fighting over in the gulf; it also reminded us of oil as a symbol of healing and wholeness.

HB Worship encyclopedias and dictionaries usually say 1 "Rituals are words, and ceremonies are actions or deeds." But in the next sentence they say that these terms are often used interchangeably. It seems that for all practical purposes (or at least for our discussion today) one can say a ritual is a ceremony is a rite. Certainly in common use, these terms are used synonymously.

HeB To me ritual signifies several things. Rituals that involve movement take the physical part of who we are and connect us to something more than the physical, something that some may call "unreal." When you participate in a ritual, you're always tying into something that is not touchable.

Let me bring it one step further—ritual is also a return to newness and wholeness. We spend so much of our life in bro-kenness; rituals often have power to reconnect us to the larger body of believers, helping us to remember we are one body.

DK For many people ritual is not nearly as sophisticated k a term as I hear us talking about here. Some people think that if you do the same thing three times in a row at church you are hung up on rituals. A ritual in our culture is simply a disciplined, regularized pattern of doing something over and over again—a few times. And then of course the word has a primarily negative connotation.

CO But in today's society where MTV rules and where we and our young people are filled with ritual of a totally different kind, we'd better talk about ritual in a meaningful fashion, and not as though it is just habitual activity. To equate habit with ritual is a mistake. A meaningful ritual is always a response to something—it never stands alone. God has done a mighty act; then the Israelites are told to do this, or that.

NO If a ritual is a response to something, it becomes empty when that something to which it responded is no longer there. In Amos's time, for example, sacrifices had become meaningless. So God told the people "Let justice roll like a river...." But maybe originally sacrifices were integrated with a life of justice.

What Makes a Ritual More Alive than Dead?

EB The Old Testament warning against meaningless sacrifices and rituals should make us ask seriously about the difference between dead ritual and living ritual.

CO Dead rituals are simply those that are no longer connected to their original purpose and meaning. Throughout the Old and New Testaments there are repeated references to God wanting our living sacrifices, not our meaningless rituals. In the New Testament we have some marvelous examples of Christ himself instituting both baptism and the Lord's Supper—both of which certainly involve ritual. But he tells his followers to "Do this in remembrance of me." There's the principle right there: Don't just do it—do it in remembrance of me.

HB Is a ritual dead, then, when people no longer know what it stands for? For example, making the sign of the cross can be a meaningful sign that points to Christ's sacrifice. But when people do it habitually it can also become a superstitious gesture. Is making the sign of the cross a dead ritual when the iiidividual or group who uses it no longer knows what it connects to?

NO I don't think that not knowing what a ritual means necessarily means it's dead. For example, a three-year old child might start doing a meaningful gesture his parents are doing and not really know why.

HS It's more a matter of whether there's a wholeness or a completeness that fits that action into the life and faith of the community.

CO When I use the word "knowing," I use it in the Hebrew sense of knowing. I'm talking about knowing from the gut—knowing that you really believe in something. You can't really know that the ritual is from the gut unless there's action—the whole idea of living sacrifice that I mentioned earlier.

DK It's not that simple. We don't test whether a ritual is dead or living by giving someone holistic Hebrew kinds of questions on a given Sunday. It could be that the ritual functions over time—through its repetition, week after week, year after year. And when we're in the middle of it, we may not even realize how it is shaping us, how it is really functioning. We may not be able to answer very well how the ritual works; and yet it does have a formative influence.

JP There is also a sense in which a ritual that seems meaningless can help you act your way into a new way of believing. I know a story of a young woman who came to a priest and said, "I just can't say the Apostles' Creed." The priest replied, "What do you mean? Just say 'I believe in God the Father, God the....'"

"Yes, I know the words," the young woman explained, "but I'm not sure I believe them."

The priest replied, "Don't worry about that; it'll come. Just keep saying it. The church has been around for 2,000 years, and it's not dependent on whether you believe in what it teaches to keep it alive. If you keep at a ritual, it does become part of you, and it can become genuine."

How Meaningful Are the Rituals We Use in Reformed Worship?

EB Let's zero in on specific examples. By taking a closer look at some of the rituals that we regularly use, maybe we can get a better sense of how alive they are, how well understood they are, how "known" they are. I am thinking of something as simple as a minister raising hands in blessingthat's a ritual gesture. Is it alive? Could it be dead? Could it be dead for some and alive for others? What are the issues here?

RG Let me give you an example. I recently had a conversation with a young adult, mid-thirties, very cerebral in many ways in response to sermons and the worship service. But he commented that, for him, one of the most meaningful parts of the service was the benediction. Having worshiped, sung, prayed, and listened to the exposition of Scriptures, he stood there and heard, "Go in peace." There was a cohesiveness and a serenity for him in that ritual. I've pronounced that benediction so many times, thinking that it was "just a ritual." But for him it provided a cohesiveness that brought that service together.

HS So, ritual brings a completeness or a fullness to what is being done in worship.

CO (to RG) What you had considered empty was once again filled. Because someone testified, to what the benediction meant to him, in response to his understanding of the word "peace" and his understanding of his Lord, the ritual gained meaning once more for you. He once again made it a living ritual.

MV Another example: The young people of our church came back from the youth conference having learned about lifting up of hands. That ritual was not meaningful for the entire congregation—in fact, the majority never lift their hands.

Last Sunday we had a sermon on Psalm 134, which includes the line, "Lift up your hands in the sanctuary and praise the Lord." The people responded by singing "Praise and Thanksgiving" with their hands raised. For many people, it was the first time. The ritual was now clearly tied to that scriptural injunction. What may have seemed an empty ceremony to a lot of people became much more meaningful.

NO We often say, "Let us stand to sing"—-that's a ritual that we "force" on people. Why don't we say, "Everyone lift their hands"?

Are People in the Reformed Tradition Afraid of Ritual?

HB I would still like some reflection on why for three or four hundred years the Presbyterian and Reformed churches were so skittish about ceremony and ritual and color, while most Anglican and Lutheran churches welcomed ritual and ceremony. What was it in Reformed life or doctrine that discouraged ceremony and made simplicity and the noncere-monial become the hallmark of Reformed worship?

HS Isn't it partly due to the dominance of the Word—not just the Word of God, but the spoken word, the heard Word? Since the Roman tradition had neglected the Word, there was a reaction, and the spoken word became dominant.

JP The dominance is there, and that may be unfortunate, but there's also something good about it. About a year ago I went with a group to Europe, and went to the Taize community in France where worship is much more ritualistic. One person called it a very "sensuous" worship—lots of candles, low light, and soft Taize music. Even though I liked a great deal about Taize, I also came back with a real appreciation for my Reformed heritage. Simplicity and understandability are among the strengths of Reformed worship as is the emphasis on the Word. The problem with symbols and rituals is that they are slippery. They do have a power to convey in some ways what the spoken word alone does not, but they are much harder to pin down.

CO But to say that words aren't slippery is erroneous. Words are just as slippery as rituals. It's also erroneous to say that the Reformed churches did not develop rituals—we had plenty of them, at least in the Dutch church where I grew up.

NO Really, I became Christian Reformed because of a spoken ritual. I grew up in a tradition where there was no assurance of pardon, and people were always nervous about whether they were really forgiven and saved. One time I went into a Christian Reformed church, and I heard the "assurance of pardon." That blew me off my chair. I was forgiven! I became Christian Reformed a few years later. Because of a ritual!

DK I think that there are broad cultural biases against ritual that go far beyond our theological tradition. The Western idea of human perfectibility and the perfectibility of cultures is always a forward-looking one, as if we're sort of shucking the past and getting on with things. A technological society is a society in which the newest invention will save us. So there is an inherent bias for change in our culture. I'm not saying there isn't ritual. I'm just saying that there is a cultural bias against it, even though we slip right back into it. Yes, we are creatures of ritual.

NO And we know that ritual is an important part of our society. The handshake on the White House lawn between Arafat and Rabin was a "ritual event," and the media's fascination with that action is an indirect proof of the importance of ritual.

JV During the sixties we were so intent on rejecting everything that we almost made a ritual out of not having rituals. But now the young people of the sixties are seeing their children growing up; their kids may even be having children. And they're saying, "You know, my children and grandchildren don't know a lot of the songs that we used to sing—songs that still speak to me from my childhood." People are longing for that sense of stability that they felt when they were younger.

There is a hunger and a thirst in people today for that strong stability, something they can hold onto, something that is not changing. And so, people from this era are starting to ask questions about ritual. But I think that they are still afraid of being abused by ritual because they view it as authoritarian. Somehow ritual and tradition and authoritarianism have all become one in people's minds.

JP Can you say more about how people are being abused, or how people are afraid of being abused by ritual?

JV I think people feel that the pastor has the power to dictate worship practices or that a worship committee can set the tone for a church. The congregation doesn't have enough input. A few people are making decisions, and the congregation is being forced to go along—to stand up at certain times or to raise their hands. Some of them are thinking, "Well, I don't want to raise my hands, and I don't want to come up for communion." People are afraid of being forced or abused.

So, on the one hand, people need stability and consistency. But that need is constantly being challenged by another group of people who are scared of the word authority.

JP I think people are also afraid of the power of rituals. I am reminded of a story that Tom Troeger and Carol Doren told. They had used the chorus "Jesus, Remember Me" and had had the group sing it over and over again. A man came up afterwards and asked them, "Did you know what you were doing when you had us repeat that song so many times?" He was so moved and so surprised by the power of that simple chorus that he almost became angry. He had lost control, and he didn't like it.

CO We have to experience worship. That idea scares the daylights out of many people because they don't want to experience it; they don't want to involve their senses. At the heart of many people is a real fear of the senses. People fear the ritual because they have to raise their hands. "Give me a break. Leave me alone. I don't want to get that involved!"

Look at the major issues that confronted our churches a few decades ago: film and dance. What's wrong with film? The senses. What's wrong with dance? The senses. What's wrong with ritual? The senses.

Aren't we Seeing a Return to Ritual?

NO It seems to me the pendulum is swinging back toward ritual. For example, weddings today have much more ritual than they did twenty years ago.

RG I agree. We observe in the life of the church today that there are those who want to return to the rituals weVe discarded. People find stability and assurance in ritual over against the world that we encounter in the workplace.

NO One recent worship practice that shows a hunger for return to ritual is the use of the Advent candle. It's been completely irresistible. It's everywhere.

How Do We Develop or Deepen Rituals in Our Worshiping Communities?

DK Introducing new or reintroducing old rituals is going k, to be tough in our churches. Because we live in such a mobile society loyalties are not very strong. People don't stay in one place very long. And ritual, almost by definition, is something that develops over time. What we need in this fragmented culture are communities of memory—the very thing that some churches are trying to get rid of. We need connectedness.

JP In a sense, I think that for a ritual to be genuine it needs to come from within rather than be imposed. There has to be some way or process by which the congregation can own it and say "This is our ritual." When there is a segment of the congregation for whom that tradition has been important, they can help the whole congregation to accept it and adopt it as their own.

DK As we consider the place of children in worship, and as we do more gender study we are learning more about different ways of knowing and experiencing. We have suffered from monolithic leadership, and have paid the price of imbalance.

NO We have to be careful about how we introduce changes. For example, I'm in favor of liturgical dance, but I'm not in favor of dabbling in it. There's got to be a community consensus to do it. You're going to hurt the young people if you dabble in something and then drop it. You have to be disciplined about it.

HB I'm not sure how else you can introduce new rituals. To call it "dabbling" makes it sound pejorative, but, in our congregation, we have experimented with various ways of administering communion. For a while we tried "ambling" communion—you go up and take the bread, proceed to the person who serves the wine, and walk back to your seat. Most recently we have tried "circle" communion. We have decided now that for morning services we'll have pew communion and for evening services circle communion. I don't know how we could have come to that conclusion without actually trying the various modes.

JV There's also the whole matter of rituals needing to be a communal action of response, and the need for everyone to understand what we are doing. Then the whole matter of who gets to decide about certain rituals, who initiates or who squashes certain actions—that will become less important. What counts is that the church is a mutually submissive body; we are part of a larger whole, and we must be "willing to engage in actions that might not be all that meaningful for some but are extremely meaningful for others. For the sake of the body, we do it together.

HS Does it seem that there are certain more emotional parts of our worship that tend toward ritual? For example, Advent is always such a warm season—it's a time of deep emotional experiences and family ties. So, we have a tendency to ritualize much more in Advent. But why doesn't that hold true for other events in our church life such as profession of faith? That's an emotional occasion, but it seems pretty hard to develop any rituals around it.

NO Pastorally it's hard to get the people making profession of faith very involved, especially if you are working with several people at the same time. You go to the lowest common denominator—the one who is most nervous! That one will only want to say "Yes, I do." So that's all you do for all of them. You don't want to embarrass that one person by having the others involved in a more meaningful ritual.

HS I remember when one of our pastors started to embrace the young men and young women when they made profession of faith. I think my son was one of the first ones embraced; it made him quite unhappy.

How Do Our Rituals Tie Us to the Church Universal?

EB To what degree is it important to recover rituals that go beyond denominations, that go all the way back? Certainly the sacraments go all the way back to the beginning of the church—the actions of taking, giving thanks, breaking, pouring, and so on. Are there other rituals that we should all participate in so that there's something that connects us?

JP I think there are some rituals that belong to the whole church, some that are congregation- specific, and some that belong to the whole church that are done in congregation-specific ways. It's helpful to know which are which.

HB When you compare our rituals to the rituals you find in an Anglican service, you'll find they are a very a different kind of ritual. Certainly the absence of visual symbolism and color has been typical in most Presbyterian and Reformed denominations.

EB Until now. Reformed churches are adding movement and color with banners, observation of the liturgical year, and more frequent celebration of the Lord's Supper. Anglican churches might not have changed much in their ritual life, but the Roman Catholic Church surely has. Images are gone, congregational singing and preaching are back. And in both Reformed and Roman Catholic churches—to mention just two traditions in the larger Christian world—we see rituals being imported from the charismatic tradition. People are raising their hands, singing medleys, and finding new ways of praying together. As a result, there is more variety within than across some denominations.

We have reached a time when our questions about ritual need to distinguish between those that belong to the church universal and those that are "congregation-specific," as John Paarlberg said earlier. We need both, but if Christians everywhere would stand over against the world in visible ways, our witness to the world would be strengthened.

Let's end our discussion on that note and hope that churches everywhere continue it.

Emily R. Brink (embrink@calvin.edu) is Senior Research Fellow for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and former editor of Reformed Worship.


Reformed Worship 32 © June 1994, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.