On the Importance of Ritual: Or, Why Taking Communion IS a Big Deal
This previous weekend, I had the honor of attending the wedding of my first, and oldest, college friend. While the event is not the focus of this writing, it is a pleasant and enjoyable time where I was given a brief period to reconnect with my friend, meet his bride, and generally enjoy myself in that stoically awkward way that I exude. But what arose at this wedding ceremony is an incidence which I want to touch upon. There seems to be an all too familiar seems to be one that is all too familiar to individuals partaking in a religious ceremony in what is actually a religiously mixed marriage:
Being forced to suffer through a Christian ceremony for the sake of familial peace. Or, being forced to suffer through distinct Christian ritual for the sake of familial peace.
This instance in particular, the ceremony took place in a fairly “open” Lutheran church. The policy of the congregation was that the communion which was to take place in the ceremony would be an open one regardless of an individual denomination. Were one to take communion, they would be in communion with their home church, somehow. Likewise, if one did not wish to take communion, they could approach and receive the blessing of the priest instead. Or, do as I did, and sit awkwardly out of the situation.
Simple, yes? Don’t take communion, and you’re not interacting in a religious ritual.
The problem with this incident is that my friend had been told “in no uncertain terms” that he was to take this communion, or else risk alienating himself from his in-laws for the foreseeable future. It is an all too common example of having to bend subservient knee to the in-laws in order to maintain decent understanding, especially if they had provided significant financial support for the wedding.
My friend is not accurately a Pagan. Indeed, he is probably more accurately one of those “Nones” which have been catching all the attention as the Millennials displace the older generations and move away from organized religion. He is most assuredly friendly to “alternative religious views”, or at least he was when I was closer friends with him in college. Nevertheless, the activity of his future-now-father-in-law impressed this ritual upon him. This got me thinking about all the stories that I hear from Pagans on various social media and blogs, asking for advice in approaching a marriage between two people of different religions, and the expectations of their families.
I feel that there is a fundamental disconnect in Western, American, culture towards religious ritual. I am speaking from someone who is within American culture, but am also observing it here. There are a number of assumptions and approaches towards ritual action, that actual ritual action does not matter compared to the belief behind actions (or not). That these rituals are formalities, rather than the expressions of piety, suffered through and observed for nothing more than the sake of peace. After all, it doesn’t really matter, does it not?
From a Protestant perspective, which is the driving force of Christianization behind American culture (yes, even secular culture), this could be seen as understandable, and even expected. Rituals are less important to Protestant ethos. Sola Fide posits that it is through faith, and faith alone, which religious salvation and grace is attained. Religious works, and religious ritual, ultimately are not expressions which are as emphasized in one’s personal salvation. Flamboyant rituals are just that, flamboyant, and some of the ritual practice which they broke from are viewed as excessive. It isn’t that ritual has no place, but they’re ancillary to the belief of one’s faith, and one’s expression, which will justify their salvation.
It should be noted that anti-ritualism was espoused particularly by 17th century Quakers and other such branches of Protestants . So this simply is not a broad critique of the method of Christians by a Pagan practitioner, but representative of historic fact and attitudes. Given the influence of Quakers on American history, it cannot be discounted that these themes were absorbed by society.
Perhaps this view holds through the majority of even the religious-but-not-so-observant Christians. But part of me wonders that if forcing someone through rituals like this are nefariously calculated, pressing non-Christians and lapsed-Christians into ritually engaging with systems that they would rather not be. Without going too deep into the history of the Reformation, the wresting control of absolution and dispensation of grace was a powerful tool for the undermining of foreign dominance. However, in modern society, when dealing with people of other religious backgrounds, and religious beliefs, it can range from incongruous to potentially dangerous.
Rituals are important. Rituals are especially important for religions that place less emphasis on orthodoxy than they do on orthopraxy. Exemplī grātiā: the vast majority of Pagans. This cannot be understated. Ritual action not only intersects us with the numinous and the divine, but it also is used in a social sense to differentiate varying styles, degrees of religiosity, and cultural determinism . Ritual is partially the way in which reciprocal relationships with the divine are established in sometimes very proscribed, mandated ways. A ritual preserves history, preserves heritage, and transmits those themes throughout society and culture which are perpetuated throughout the generations.
Anti-ritualism flourished as a method to consolidate religious teachings, simplifying religious expression and forcing that very same expression to be the purview of a sole class of educated clergy. This is the paradox of the Reformation, as Euan Cameron so eloquently presented in his book of the same name.
A religion that places more emphasis on orthodoxy understands that the intersection with the divine happens in a ritual setting. We make our intentions known to the Gods, we enter into a sacred relationship with them within the parameters of whichever religious tradition we are engaging in, and we perpetuate our culture through such religious rituals. By being forced to take part in a religious expression which is not our own, we are being stripped of not only our religion, but we are being stripped of our very culture which makes us a viable religious practice. We’re being forced to act on another religion’s supposed supremacy and social capital, perpetuating their practices at the expense of our own identity.
Communion is a ritual act. There’s no other way to describe it, and to argue that it is a useless formality simply is incorrect. It is a ritual which both recalls Christ’s actions during the Last Supper, continuing the memory of that act through Christian religious consciousness, but it also acts as a formidable channel for the dispensation of Christian grace. It is an avenue by which Christians intersect with their God, whether by means of imbibing essence, or by utilizing it as an example of fidelity and obedience to God.
How can one be expected, be demanded, to take part in such an act? How can the burden of debasing ourselves to a foreign system be expected upon us? As a visitor to such a wedding, it is no concern. I opted out of taking part in any aspect of the rites in question. But my friend was not so lucky. His entire future had been predicated on this one act, a toll which he obviously did not mind paying. And that is well for him.
But if it were someone who places a great deal of emphasis on these rituals? Like me? Being forced between a religion, which is of utmost importance in my life, and the family of the woman I would be wedded to? How can anyone be expected to reconcile that? And Americans view it as the ultimate expression of love to do so, to be willing to set aside something which others seem to place less emphasis on, in order to do “what is right” in their eyes.
I do not know my friend’s father-in-law or, really, his wife. I am sure he is a pleasant man, and I mean no ill will to him directly. But I cannot help but wonder if this action, this ultimatum, is representative of a tradition of spreading religious views. By engaging with my friend in such a way, by mandating the importance of this particular ritual, these views were spread and seeded into my friend’s wedding in a binding way. It is a hallmark of missionizing Christianity to strip the traditions away from individuals being sermonized to in order to disconnect the living from their past, to break the continuity of tradition and to isolate pockets of individuals order to accept and perpetuate a new world view.
Could this be argued to be doing the same? I think so, at least, from the perspective of someone who is an avowed member of a religion and not someone who is noncommittal to the idea.
What we have at play are numerous attitudes towards the role of ritual within society. This includes secular and “day-to-day” events, as well as those which are religious. It is my opinion that American society has taken some of the worst attitudes towards the importance of religious ritual and dispensed with the idea, inheriting and perpetuating an anti-ritualistic approach. That these practices are something to be placed to the side or suffered through for the sake of some inexplicable greater end, depending on the views, feelings, and orientation of the observers.
And this places undue stress on situations when alternatives should be found, and can sour a marriage before it even begins, all for the sake of the satisfaction of others. A devout Christian would not stand to take part in a ritual advocating the supremacy of another being, or invoking deities which are otherwise considered blasphemous to them. Yet Pagans and Pagan-types are consistently forced to kowtow by reason of being a minority religion with less validity, less authenticity, and less tradition than the overarching Christian culture.
No one should be forced into taking part of the cannibalistic rite of a religion not their own.
 Catherine Bell, Ritual Perspectives and Dimensions (Oxford University Press, 1997), XI
 Bell, Ritual Perspectives, XI