Going Through the Motions

June 07, 2015

by Holly Vincent Bean


A prayer as we begin: may the next 15 minutes bring a blessing to us all.

A foray into Bible study this spring led me smack into the latest challenge to my white, Anglo Saxon Protestant privilege. This time, it was the Protestant part. The challenge came when I read anthropologist Mary Douglas’ reference to a Protestant anti-ritual bias. “Protestants against ritual?” I asked myself. “Really?” A quick look at my upbringing confirms the presence of a strong, unexamined belief in Protestant superiority. I know this because my best childhood friend was Roman Catholic. (We are still good friends.) Back then, in the 1950’s, I was fascinated by the differences in our religious practices and I asked a lot of questions. My staunchly Protestant parents answered them. Praying the rosary was rote, confession and penance too easy. We Protestants required a change of heart. If you were Catholic, you could just go through the motions. There it is, friends, the anti-ritual bias, one that certainly reflects an anti-Catholic bias, as well. I imagine I am not the only one here today who has experienced this.

Protestants have reinforced this bias ever since the 16th century when the Reformation upended so much of Christendom. Mary Douglas writes, “In wave upon wave the Reformation has continued to thunder against the empty encrustation of ritual. So long as Christianity has any life, it will never be time to stop . . .saying that external forms can become empty and mock the truths they stand for.” 1 She wrote that in 1966. Here at Judson, ever since the late 1950’s, a powerful reforming spirit has swept away even some long held Protestant rituals, confirming Mary Douglas’ claim. However, of late, the trend has begun to look more like experimentation than skepticism. We now pray before preaching. We formally bless our children on a regular basis. We have added a litany to the song we sing when new members join the church. I understand that some of us even pray the rosary. Our tendency to question long held rituals seems to have given way to explorations of new ones. What are we to make of this?

Let’s begin by acknowledging how important rituals are to us. After all, in Mary Douglas’ words, “It is a mistake to suppose that there can be religion which is all interior, with no rules, no liturgy, no external signs of inward states. As with society, so with religion, external form is the condition of its existence.”2 We cannot deny that, as social animals, we are, inescapably, ritual animals. Our reforming spirit need not question ritual itself, but the authenticity and authority of particular rituals.

We know from instinct and experience that our rituals are not only inescapable; they are powerful. Practice rituals of exclusion and we learn to exclude. Practice rituals of kindness and we learn to be kind. One of my favorite homegrown Judson rituals comes from Sunday School Director, or Grand Poobah, Andy Frantz. When giving a Bible to each Sunday school graduate, he says, “Don’t ever use this to hurt anybody”—a powerful lesson for all ages.

Rituals can comfort as well as teach. How many of us have discovered that an old hymn we found irrelevant at one time brings great consolation at another? Our rituals can also usher us into sacred time and space. The beautiful preludes Michael Conley plays give me time to settle my mind and heart; they offer a genuine and reliable invitation to worship. Yes, here at Judson we do rely on the power of certain rituals to teach us, to comfort us and to lead us in worship, and maybe all those things at once. At the same time, we know that some rituals do lose power, or, worse, mislead or hurt people. Think of the fierce and ongoing struggle over inclusive language. A reforming process of shedding the old and trying out the new, despite its discomfort, may be very good for us.

This brings us to the ancient testimony for today—a biblical passage that encourages the best in any reforming spirit. “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” Here is a standard, a touchstone for judging what we do as a church. Is it “of God?” Here is an invitation to ask that question repeatedly, to accept it as an ongoing challenge to the integrity of our faith and practice. I wonder if any of us can say with confidence what, exactly is “of God?”

All rituals can be said to have an outside and an inside. The outside is the form, the movements, the steps we take in time and space to perform it. The outside is communal, something we can do with each other, provided everyone knows the steps. The inside is what goes on in our hearts and minds as we perform the steps together. This is harder to describe; it summons feelings, intentions and memory to align with symbolic meaning. The inside is personal, individual. Wouldn’t it be great if the inside and outside were so exquisitely conceived and integrated that participating in such a ritual created a transformative sacred experience? Maybe that is “of God”—the beautiful and meaningful ritual. Maybe.

This Sunday at Judson we participate in an ancient and very important ritual, the celebration of communion, or the Lords’ Supper. The outside of this ritual is well known. Even with its many variations, the practice of communion finds us on common ground with almost all other Christians on the globe. What do we understand we are doing when we practice communion? What does the inside look like? I’d wager we have quite a range of feeling and understanding among those who take the bread and the cup and among those who do not. How do we know if this ancient and revered practice is “of God?”

Many answer that question with an appeal its ancient origins. Communion memorializes the supper Jesus shared with his disciples on the night before he was tried and crucified. In our ritual re-enactment of that moment in time, we eat the bread and drink the wine together, just as Jesus and his disciples did that fateful night. The elements symbolize Jesus’ sacrifice—some would say his act of atonement—for our sins. We have inherited a ritual that symbolizes that we, too, are followers of Jesus and, through him and his teachings, seek God. We also signal that we share faith and a sense of loving community with each other. The authenticity of what we do here at Judson derives from that ancient origin. Or does it?

What if those origins were actually very different? During that Bible study I mentioned earlier, we learned to question some basic assumptions about this ritual and Christian origins, in general. One scholar put it this way, “The beginning is often portrayed as the ideal to which Christianity should aspire and conform. Here Jesus spoke to his disciples and the gospel was preached in truth. . . But what happens if we tell the story differently? What if the beginning was a time of grappling and experimentation? What if the meaning of the gospel was not clear and Christians struggled to understand who Jesus was . . .?”3

Scholars can now say with confidence that Christian beginnings were inherently diverse. Many different movements flourished in the name of Jesus. Early Christianity developed slowly through intricate and extended social processes. Experimentation played a key role. Hal Taussig, a New Testament scholar teaching at Union Seminary, tells us that the early practice of the Lords’ Supper varied widely. He writes that ”tradition posits one original event, Jesus’ last Supper as the basis for all subsequent liturgy. In New Testament scholarship, however, it is widely acknowledged that we cannot reconstruct one version of that event, nor even establish with certainty that there was such an event.“4 What? No original Last Supper? If this is the case, what of communion is authentic?

I am grateful that here at Judson, the practice of communion has evolved as it has. We invite all who wish to partake to do so without jumping through doctrinal hoops. We try not to pressure those who are not comfortable taking communion but respect their choice. The ritual is framed as an agape meal, a meal of love, and a sign that we aspire to be the beloved community. In it we remember with love the one whose life and death signal for us the divine love in human form. The authenticity comes from the way it fits who we are and who we aspire to be, consistent with what we know of Jesus teachings.

Isn’t it ultimately liberating to know that our forebears in the faith may very well have grappled and struggled with their faith and practice from the earliest days? What we have received as sacred practices, hallowed by the passage of time and widespread use, can be understood as malleable. We can adapt them as well as create new rituals that meet the needs of a faith community in our time. In doing so, ritual practice may just escape the “empty encrustation” that we Protestants have feared and denounced. And how will be know if our experiments are “of God?”

The short answer is that we can’t. That is, we cannot ever fully know if what we do is “of God” but we need to keep asking the question. It is not a trick question. It is, instead, an ongoing challenge for both the outside and the inside of our ritual practices. There are ways we can evaluate what we do. Experimenting requires that. We need to ask ourselves who benefits from our ritual practices here at Judson? Who does not? Are some rituals done for the wrong reasons? Can we recognize a ritual that is no longer life giving and do something about it?

As an evolving Protestant, I hope to see the rituals of the church in the same way as so many other gifts handed down in the long, rich and troubled Christian tradition. As part of the Free Church tradition, we have new opportunities all the time to reshape these gifts and to find new ones. To keep going turning, turning ‘til we come round right.

And when we do, will we find that perfect marriage between the outer and inner aspects of ritual? Well, let’s admit that, sometimes, even when the outside of a ritual is just fine, we are personally unable to rise to the occasion. Some days our hearts are just not in it. Grieving or angry, or just distracted, we may only be able to go through the motions. And that, my friends, is enough. At those times, may we find the grace to trust a God who finds us where we are, not where we think we ought to be.

The spirit of God is free and unfathomable. Our human minds and hearts are limited. As we go through the familiar motions of communion today, whether we take the bread and drink the cup or not, whether we feel up to it all or not, may we know that peace that passes our understanding, the promise of grace from a God of love.

1 Mary T. Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul 1966), 61 .

2 Douglas 62.

3 Karen King. Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle (Santa Rosa, California: Polebridge, 2003) p. 158.

4 Dennis E.Smith and Hal E. Taussig. Many Tables; The Eucharist in the New Testament and Liturgy Today. (Eugene Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1990) p. 15.

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