My friend Alex asked this question, “I want to know what you think about “ritual” and what are the factors that make a ritual meaningful vs. just a comfortable way to passively “participate” in an organized religious experience while avoiding really thinking about anything challenging. i.e. most organized religious services follow a specific format that stays the same week after week and year after year, often following traditions that have been passed down for generations. Is this a good thing? Bad? Something in between? Why is it that reading pre-written prayers in unison is more common than having open discussions about the meaning of life, etc. What does this say about us as a society? Organized religion in general? Our need for pattern and repetition and comfort? “

What is the role of ritual in worship? This is obviously different for UUs than for, say, Roman Catholics, but the aspect of ritual is very real, and very important, in UU churches.

Ritual gives us something to hold on to, something to identify with, and something to be certain about. If you went into your science class every day and the chairs were in a different order, the blackboard was hanging strangely, you were never sure which teacher would be in there, and while it was always science you were never sure if it would be biology or chemistry? It would be confusing, you wouldn’t learn much, and it would certainly be off-putting to new students.

The same thing is true of church. The sermon changes every week, most of the songs change every week, in some places the chalice lighting changes by the week. Having some things remain constant does not equate stagnant. It’s putting people at ease enough that they can then be pushed out of their comfort level enough to change.

Do an experiment for me, right now. Close your eyes and imagine the typical church service you attend.

No really.

Chances are you are thinking *something* along the lines of enter, gathering music, announcements, call to worship, welcome visitors, light chalice (standing), first hymn (standing)… you get the point. There is a rhythm to it, a set order, and people know that order. People like that order. People are comfortable with that order. Comfort is Not a bad thing!

That said, I definitely think that things can be changed up every so often, and that’s OK, too. But you need to have the basic elements. That structure allows people to feel grounded and secure enough to change.

Alex brings up the question of having open discussions during church. I think that talking and feedback is really great, but not during worship. A discussion about “the meaning of life” would drive me to never return to a church again. We have adult RE (religious education) programs for that kind of thing. I think that question and answer periods during worship are not functional as a part of worship. Insightful discussion can be worshipful but I don’t think it belongs in a worship service, if that makes sense.

There is room for spontaneity though. One time we had a service on compost and somebody stood up and said that he knew a song about compost – he was welcomed to the front of the sanctuary and we sang it. It was wonderful! But I don’t think that having us just not have set hymns and asking a few times during the service “anybody want to sing anything specific?” could ever work.

A lot of this is more about routine than ritual, but I think that the basic ideas are the same. We need ritual, structure, comfort to be ABLE to change.


One Comment to “Ritual”

  1. So, this is a topic that really interests me. I’m now a member of a UCC church — a denomination that, when I first joined, checked in with me to see if I’d investigated the UUs 🙂 I had, in fact, and ritual and tradition, or lack of respect for them is what had turned me away from those I’d tried. I like knowing what I’m getting into each Sunday — I did not appreciate being forced into interpretavie dance one summer Sunday in Minneapolis just because only 10 of us showed up. But, there’s more to it than that. I like feeling a part of a tradition and knowing that what I’m doing or saying is part of a chain of like-minded people over centuries all striving for the same thing. Even if, well, many of us in that chain would be in violent disagreement of each other. Although in general I really do go to church for the sermons, my next favorite part is the laying on of hands for ordination. It is in many ways a very hokey thing, but also very powerful to think that the importance of touch and faith in a chain of touch has survived over time (and through both the Reformation and the Puritans, for that matter). I feel the same thing singing old hymns — with or without gender-altered lyrics. Tradition is clearly not always good for its own sake, but I like the ability it gives to feel in touch with a community across time — not just the people I worship with any given Sunday I manage to make it to church.

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