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 [1]. 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 [2]. 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.


[1] Catherine Bell, Ritual Perspectives and Dimensions (Oxford University Press, 1997), XI

[2] Bell, Ritual Perspectives, XI

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~ by thelettuceman on June 6, 2016.

13 Responses to “On the Importance of Ritual: Or, Why Taking Communion IS a Big Deal”

  1. I ultimately left a job over this. Being forced to participate in religious services while on duty “as good PR” was incredibly distasteful to me, and I made it known I would not participate.

    • I commend you for it. In an economy as poor as this one, it’s tough to get the courage to leave employment based on your convictions.

  2. When my wife and I decided to get married, we ran into many of these same issues. Her family, not knowing she was Pagan, expected a “proper” Catholic wedding, and when it came out that we wanted a Pagan ceremony instead, there was a lot of in-fighting. Some of my wife’s family accused me of “brainwashing” her (they didn’t realize she was already Pagan when we first met, and this whole experience is what led her to finally come out to them). And the same thing happened in reverse when I made it clear that I’d be taking my wife’s last name instead of the other way around (to this day, I think my dad still thinks my wife insisted on it, when it was really my own idea).

    However, we stuck to our guns and went forward with the ceremony we wanted, one that we wrote ourselves. Our reasoning was, “We’ve been to all these Christian weddings for other people in our families; it won’t kill them to attend one Pagan ceremony.” No one was asked or expected to participate who didn’t want to. And those who attended seemed genuinely surprised when we didn’t kill a goat or strip naked and have an orgy during the proceedings.

    Looking back at all that, I’m real grateful to Seth and Ishtar that we were both of the same mind on this matter. If we hadn’t been, we probably wouldn’t be married today. I wouldn’t have settled for a Christian wedding, or even a secular one; I wanted OUR Gods honored as supreme at OUR wedding. It’s bad enough going to other people’s weddings and having them look at me funny for not holding hands or singing psalms with them. (Isn’t it enough that I just stand quietly and respectfully?) Allowing them to dictate how my own rites of passage should go would be insane.

    Regarding that last point, I am glad to hear of someone else sharing the same frustration I have about it. I’ve been asked many times, “What’s the big deal? It doesn’t matter if you’re Pagan, just go along with this Christian stuff to make everyone happy.” And if I choose not to, I’m treated like I’m the one who’s being an intolerant prick. There have even been other Pagans I’ve met who seem to think it’s inappropriate for me to feel offended when other religions force their rituals on me. This post expresses my feelings on the matter in much more eloquent terms than I’ve ever been able to muster.

  3. Reblogged this on Temple of Athena the Savior.

  4. Yes yes yes! I cannot participate in semi-wiccan circles because I do not honour the Gods/God as they do. In addition, the point of their ritual is completely antithetical to me. I am Hellenic Recon/Revivalist and I do have the mind-set of a polytheist who believes that each divinity is separate and individual as well as the pantheons of which they are a part. I do not believe it is necessary to cast circles or call in protectors of the directions. A sacred space (temenos) has already been established and the individual must make sure that they are non-miasmic before entering. This is already the home of a divinity or divinities. However, some get in my face and insult me. They are just like some Christians who try to demean others. It is easier to attend the rituals of other polytheists as a witness. I will be happy to witness your ceremony; but, do not expect me to take part.

    • Absolutely, this as well. I am very willing to sit outside of a ritual which I don’t take part in. I don’t understand the urge of people to want to be included in rituals that they’re not necessarily part of. It feels like watery religion, to me.

      I wrote, about three years ago, how I was coerced/forced into aiding in a Wiccan Ostara ritual and I was uncomfortable as all getout.

  5. Some Christians don’t seem to understand that forcing their religion on people is an ineffective strategy to win converts. Growing up as a non-religious kid in the Bible Belt, all the bullying I got from my classmates, and in some cases, my teachers, only made me resent Christianity and cringe at the idea of ever becoming one. It wasn’t until my late teens or early twenties that I ever met any Christians who followed a version of Christianity that actually seemed pretty good. In an alternate reality, if people like that had found me before the Bible-thumpers, maybe I would have become Christian instead of Heathen.

    Then again, the Christians that make it look good are the ones that don’t try to force it on people. I mean, the best argument for Christianity the Bible-thumpers have is, “Join this religion or else you’re going to Hell to be tortured for eternity,” not “Look at all the wonderful things about this religion that you can take part in if you join.” It makes the Bible-thumpers seem a bit insecure about the merits of their religion if they have to resort to threats to get people to join.

    As for weddings, well, weddings are always full of drama within the family. Everyone has big expectations about how it should go that they’ve been dreaming about for years, especially the parents of the people getting married. You have to put together a ritual that satisfies up to six people (the two people getting married, and their parents), and if any of their ideas on how it should go conflict, there’s going to be some problems. Parents being disappointed if their kid or their soon-to-be-kid-in-law doesn’t want a Proper Christian Wedding is a common one, but it’s not the only one. There’s also the classic, “If I give you money for your wedding, that means I have a say in how it goes,” which I’m sure has existed as long as weddings have.

    • Aye. But it always seems like in conversations, it is falls upon the one of the “outsider” faith to make concessions, when the individuals who insist on them might not place the same value on ritual. I didn’t add this in to the main post, but I had spoken to my mother about it, as she had known my friend from college days, and her whole response to my criticisms was basically “Get over it.”, and she would by no means call herself a Christian. She’s just thoroughly, unconsciously, inculturated into their worldview. I just wish people would recognize that some of us have honest reasons why we don’t want to take part, other than some abject dismissal of Christendom because we’re rebellious or angsty or some such.

      I did have a friend who married her Hindu husband, and simply had two ceremonies, the first satisfying her husband’s family’s religious requirements, and the second being the more general one. However, that’s often not very feasible, let alone possible.

      • That’s true, and that’s Christian privilege there, where Christian rituals are considered a sort of “default setting.” And in a way that actually cheapens Christian ritual when it’s considered to just be how things are done by default and everyone’s just expected to go along with it.

        It kind of reminds me of when government officials (city councils, state legislature, etc.) want to open sessions with Christian prayers, and when anyone complains, they try to act like it’s just a formality anyway and doesn’t mean anything.

        Well, if it doesn’t mean anything, why are you doing it? Make up your mind. Either doing this prayer/ritual is so important that you have to impose it on others, or it’s so unimportant that the people you’re imposing it on shouldn’t care about it.

        • Absolutely. I’ve long been clued into the concept of Christian privilege (you kind of are, innately, when you’re a minority religion), but reading through “A Million and One Gods” really showed me how much the idea of “secularism” and “public space” just reinforce this kind of tacit Protestantism and monotheism as a dominating religious ethos.

          And yes, exactly! “This is just how it is always been” isn’t anything more than just domineering mentality.

  6. In some ways, when someone belongs to a religion that has clearer lines drawn, it strangely can make it easier. You are officially not allowed to do X, so you don’t need to explain why you can’t do X. Whereas the supposedly more inclusive and “ecumenical” or even sometimes generically secular holiday parties and such are things which you’re made out to be not playing nicely if you decline. My general rule is I don’t take communion or recite creeds or prayers that involve “the one true god” type statements. I can attend a ceremony- and with Pagan ones, it might depend on what it entails. Sometimes other Pagans have assumptions or goals built in that I don’t agree with. Heck, that happens with UU stuff too.I’m guessing if this couple had a church wedding to make the family happy, then if they have children they will probably baptize & confirm them, even if otherwise they don’t go to church. Ends up being rather insulting to the religion itself, and actually to the family, even when they think it’s about respect! I show respect for my Catholic & Protestant relatives & ancestors by *not* going thru the motions of their religion when it doesn’t mean anything.

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