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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Wednesday Festival: understanding ritual

This week's Festival post comes from Katie Z. Dawson's blog, salvaged faith. Katie raises some wonderful questions about why we do what we do in church. In the comments, I hope you'll share your thoughts! 

understanding ritual

Today I get to co-officiate my first inter-denominational wedding.

Well, that may not be completely true.  There have been plenty of folks from different protestant and even different Christian backgrounds who have married under my authority.  But each couple chose to go with the Methodist order and flow and style... their traditions weren't so important, or different, that it made a difference.

But today's wedding will be in a Catholic church, with a Catholic priest and I doing the ceremony.  I'm preaching and reading and praying, and he's generally presiding and taking care of the vows. 

I have to admit that going into this wedding I wasn't sure what to think.  I have my own authority and traditions and ways of being that are being set aside for this particular ritual.  In my church we don't normally hold the gospel in such high respect and honor.  In my church we don't typically bow before the altar and the cross.  It's not better, or worse, it's just different.

As someone who is outside of these traditions, they feel a little unfamiliar as I do them, but I am also hyper-conscious of why we are doing them.  I understand the respect and honor and submission involved in these ritualistic acts.  And that makes them beautiful to me. Yet I also understand that just as ritual acts in my own tradition become rote and familiar that we sometimes take them for granted and go through the motions without any remembrance of why we are doing them.

This experience makes me want to go back with an open eye and look at every action of our typical Sunday morning worship.  When do we stand and sit?  When do we make motions?  What is the purpose of our acts of worship?  And then to talk about them... To spend a few weeks or months, or maybe at least one Sunday every month reminding folks as we worship what we are doing and why we are doing it. 

"Let us stand together as we hear the gospel to honor the words of Jesus." 

"Let us bow our heads together in prayer as we surrender ourselves to the power of God at work among us."

"Let us sing with exuberant voices as we give thanks for these blessings God has given us."

A few words make a world of difference.  And they might be enough to jar us out of complacency and to truly worship.


  1. Thanks for getting the conversation started over here, too! :)

  2. A couple of years ago we had a sermon series on the elements of worship. seven weeks, I think. I got the idea from Reformed Worship magazine, which I think is a GREAT resource. And people in the congregation really liked it.
    This latest issue has an article on using arrows in the bulletin to help people focus on which parts of the "conversation" are God talking to us, the people talking to God, and the people talking to each other. I think, with a little explanation, that might be helpful to do for a few weeks.
    What part do you think is most in need to deeper understanding? I nominate the "offering".

  3. I'll nominate, in my tradition, the exchange of the peace. In the congregations I've served, in our efforts to be friendly and welcoming, it has turned into intermission/7th inning stretch. People move about talking about last night's game, making plans for later in the week, and commenting on the sermon. I very easily can be just as guilty of this as anyone else! We miss so much of the sacred opportunity to set ourselves right with one another and form a community shaped by God's peace as we prepare to receive communion.

    Excellent post; I really like the idea of occasionally gently using our instructions as a manner for teaching/reminding/highlighting our purpose.

  4. every now and then it's our custom to do an "Instructed Eucharist," in which each element of the service has an explanatory intro or caption (there's no sermon -- time considerations, not the observation that sermons are BEYOND explanation ...or excuse, sometimes)... Another resource I have used is an article from "America," a few years back, on "how to go to church"... encouraging worshipers to find more than usual meaning in everything they do/did inside the doors. I'll try to retrieve it.

  5. Thanks for the excellent post! I've been working on a Sunday school curriculum on worship, the parts of the Lutheran liturgy, and the church year, and I've heard from many teachers and parents that there's so much that they do that they don't understand! And, it's so true. We miss out on much of the richness of our traditions when we act and speak without thought or understanding. BTW, if anyone is interested in getting more information about my curriculum or talking to me about adapting it for your (non-Lutheran) tradition, email me at!

  6. As a lay person who grew up in non-liturgical traditions, I would love more instruction in our church on the rituals and elements of worship.

    I started commenting earlier about how our church is thinking about being meaningful and intentional in parts of worship, but realized I was hijacking the comments, so it became a blog post instead.

  7. I do in fact take time occasionally to talk about why we do certain rituals...even in the Episcopal church there is a certain amount of variation between "high" church and "low' church, and I do some things differently than their previous (long-time) rector.

    I also like to talk a bit about why "ritual" is important in our tradition in general--I like to say that "we become what we do." So when we cross ourselves or bow or adopt a reverent pose it can actually increase our feelings/experience of "being reverent" or aware of the divine. (And there is psychological evidence to support this notion.)

    It's also fun sometimes to talk about why people *think* we do certain things.

  8. Lately I've been using the children's time to talk about things we do in worship and why. One of my favorite moments came two weeks ago when we were talking about why I wear a stole (to symbolize the yoke of Christ, etc...) and one of the kids guessed "because you're Jesus?" LOL.

    I think this week I might talk about why we say a prayer of confession. it won't be directly related to the sermon, probably, but it's something I think a lot of people wonder about...and kids are a great place to start (plus the adults are all listening in!).


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