Friday, March 9, 2012

On Being Witting or Unwitting Ritualists

The article "Witting or Unwitting Ritualists," by Dr. John Kleinig is a profound argument for why I try to incorporate the ceremonies of the Western Rite. His analysis picks up and expands upon what our Lutheran Confessions say regarding ceremonies: "1] Falsely are our churches accused of abolishing the Mass; for the Mass is retained among 2] us, and celebrated with the highest reverence. Nearly all the usual ceremonies are also preserved, save that the parts sung in Latin are interspersed here and there with German hymns, which have been added 3] to teach the people. For ceremonies are needed to this end alone that the unlearned 4] be taught [what they need to know of Christ]" (AC XXIV:1-4).

Kleinig wrote:

"All this is of great importance when we consider the rituals associated with Christian worship. Lutherans all agree that the liturgy should communicate the Gospel. Now, the traditional danger in this is that we then think about the Gospel only in intellectual terms. But since the Gospel is Christ’s life incarnate for us, and our life incarnate in Christ, that is, a whole way of life lived by the grace of God, it must be communicated totally to the whole person. And that happens via the ritual proclamation of God’s Word, and the ritual performance of the sacraments. The Gospel requires ritual enactment for it to take its full effect. Yet, we must always remember that even the best ritual is never an end in itself; it must always serve the Gospel and communicate it effectively to those who are to receive it" (Kleinig, "Ritualists", 7).
And again . . .
"While Luther and the reformers with him were critical of many contemporary ceremonies and rites, they did not attack and abolish them - as did the enthusiasts who were totally averse to all external ritual, and wished to de-ritualize Christian worship in favour of inner experience. The reformers were bent, rather, on sorting out the ritual confusion all around them. They therefore made a number of crucial distinctions. First, they insisted on the primacy of the means of grace which Christ himself had established by his command and backed up by his promises. These were the essential parts of Christian worship, and so were not subject to negotiation. The Word of God then instituted and decided what was absolutely necessary in Christian ritual.
"Secondly, the reformers recognized that there were certain ‘rites and ceremonies’ which were either inherited from Judaism or invented by the church to communicate the fullness of the Gospel and to elicit a full response to it. They realized that, even though these rites had not been instituted by Christ, they were necessary for the ‘good order’, ‘well being’, and ‘discipline’ of the church. Nevertheless, these rites could vary from time to time and place to place, provided that they were in accord with God’s Word and consistent with the Gospel.
"Lastly, the reformers condemned as idolatrous those rites and ceremonies which were either forbidden by Scripture or incompatible with the Gospel. 
"Now, none of this makes any sense unless the reformers were convinced that ritual was important in worship, because it involved the activity of the Triune God in the means of grace" (Kleinig, "Ritualists," 8-9).
And finally . . .
"Every pastor is either a witting or unwitting ritualist. He is, after all, responsible for the performance of that ritual which is necessary for the communication of the Gospel to the members of his congregation. That is not always an easy business, nor is its importance always appreciated; for, while the Lutheran Church has traditionally been a liturgical church, it exists in a culture where liturgical worship, with its emphasis on corporate and supernatural activity, has become alien, incomprehensible, and even nonsensical to many people. So, unless the pastor understands the role of ritual in worship, and creates some appreciation for it by his leadership, both he and his congregation will suffer confusion. They will be caught between the devil of trendy, liturgical innovation, and the deep blue sea of obstinate, liturgical traditionalism. 
"As a church we, therefore, need to perform our rituals wittingly, without becoming either reactionary ritualists, insensitive to the needs of people, or individualistic anti-ritualists who damage our congregations. We may even eventually come to a rather unexpected appreciation of the liberating power and enriching beauty of ritual" (Kleinig, "Ritualists," 9).
The question is not whether we will be ritualists and users of ceremony. For ceremony and ritual are inherent in everything we do. The question is how we will use that ritual and ceremony, and will it communicate what's of the church, what's timeless and everlasting, what saves, forgives, and gives life.


These are just some of the highlights, but I recommend the entire article. 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the post.
    Anyone interested in Kleinig's theology should check out
    http://www.johnkleinig.com/
    It's a site put together by ex-students that includes downloads of his courses, and pdfs of many of his papers.

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