Evangelical Is Not Enough 6

The sixth chapter in Thomas Howard’s book, Ritual and Ceremony: A dead Hand or the Liberty of the Spirit?, opens with the note that when the early Christians met for worship, everyone present was a full participant.

Bishops, priests, deacons, and laity were the four orders in the Church that we glimpse in the New Testament and in the writings of the men taught by the apostles.  … It [worship of the Church] is an act, to which we come as participants, indeed as celebrants, if the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers means anything.

I noticed early on that evangelicals called everyone priests, but seemed to have no conception of what it meant to be a priest. In a typical evangelical service, the laos or people, the first order of the royal priesthood of all Christians, effectively have nothing to do but be present, perhaps sing a few songs, and give money. There is no sense in which they are celebrants or even participants.

Howard also notes than until recent times the center of Christian worship was always the Eucharist. In much of evangelicalism, that has changed, so much so that the Eucharist, even in a diminished form, might be celebrated as infrequently as once a year.

It’s a common evangelical objection that ritual is boring and empty. Howard turns to C.S. Lewis to respond to that. After quoting Lewis, Howard comments on what Lewis had written.

Lewis touches here on something profound, which does not always present itself easily to people like us who are keen on expressing themselves and who have been taught that freedom lies in getting rid of structures. It is an idea especially difficult for people whose religion has taught them that structures are deadening. That ritual might actually be a relief, and even a release, is almost incomprehensible to them. That the extempore and impromptu are eventually shallow, enervating, and exhausting seems a contradiction to these people, who so earnestly believe that nothing that does not spring from the authenticity of the moment is actually fruitful.

As Lewis points out in this same context: “The unexpected tires us; it also takes us longer to understand and enjoy than the expected. A line which gives the listener pause is a disaster … because it makes him lose the next line.” Any Christian who has tried to stay abreast of impromptu public prayers will testify to the truth of this observation.

Of course, all of us build and follow a routine in the activities of our life. The routine may vary somewhat over time, or for other reasons, but then every liturgy has some variation within its structure. And the truth is that even the most “unstructured” worship will still operate within some defined framework. Even Quakers sitting in a room waiting for the movement of the Spirit are enacting a ritual, one that they will repeat time and time again.

I’ve never had a problem with ritual or ceremony myself. Again, I was not formed within an evangelical context and I don’t really grasp their aversion to and futile attempt to escape ritual, even after fifteen years as one. So in many ways, this chapter had relatively little to say to me, certainly little that was new. But Howard’s approach was more one of encouraging people to recognize the way ceremonies of all sorts permeate our lives and experience; trying to help them move beyond their cultural gut reaction against formal ceremony in worship. It’s hard for me to judge how effective the chapter was, but it seemed like a good approach to me.

I’ve noticed that evangelicals seem to have an aversion to the sign of the cross that has never made any sense to me. I liked the way Howard described one aspect of it at the end of the chapter.

By making the sign of the cross with our hands we signal to heaven, earth, hell, and to our own innermost beings that we are indeed under this sign — that we are crucified with Christ.

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