Shaping debate on religion in public life.

The Rituals That Bind Us, Or Blind Us?

6 Nov 2015

Blackburn Cathedral:

WE WILL REMEMBER THEM: The Renaissance Singers will give their annual autumn concert at the Cathedral at 7.30pm on Saturday 7th November, featuring a selection of music and readings for Remembrance-tide.

Every November notices like this, ceremonies at village war memorials, parades of massed military bands and the ubiquitous crimson poppy remind us of the global conflicts of the 20th Century which brought suffering to millions and shaped the politics and society of today. The church, especially the one established by law, is an important participant in such rituals. Growing religious diversity in recent decades has led to spaces being carved out for representatives of minority faith traditions and for those of no religion. Undoubtedly, since 1945 there have been significant changes in the extent and modes by which the divine is honoured in both public and private realms as society has become more globalized and privatized. In this blog I will try to unpack the significance of some of these changes and an appropriate response.

At Remembrance tide the dominant narrative is of the selfless sacrifice of heroic warriors, laying down their lives in resonance with the Christian story of Calvary, so that we might live in liberty and peace. Even when this interpretation is contested from a pacifist perspective by the wearing of a white poppy, a dignified respect generally marks the commemoration of Britain’s experience of total warfare. 11am on 11.11 is a solemn sacred moment that no-one dares to disrupt by breaking the silence.

Ritual Re-emerging

There seems to be a consensus among academics and policy makers that across the globe religion is clearly in the public square, and a recent book edited by Titus Hjelm asks “Is God Back?” Yet, maybe in terms of the UK’s civic rituals, such as remembrance and royal occasions, God has never gone away.

There are many nuances and contestations over definitions of the term “religion”, and some prefer to describe our culture, or their own worldview as “spiritual but not religious”. In my own usage religion is always about social interactions and relationships, a usage which draws on the Latin etymology of “religio” denoting a sense of binding together, where a publicly shared sense and practices around the sacred provide the social adhesive which made communities cohesive. Social scientists will recognize the influence here of Emile Durkheim’s theories of functionalism, one reading of which suggests that shared religious belief and practice is tantamount to worshipping, or holding as sacred, society itself.

Recent research in religious studies by Linda Woodhead and others has focussed on material religion and the persistence and growth of rituals. There are many accounts of essentially private rituals, often linked with the embodied self and various forms of healing and therapy. New more personalized rituals have been developed for use in family or community settings, and marking the rites of passage. Sometimes, especially at funerals and weddings, these adaptations are endorsed by the institutional church. For example, clergy at committal services welcome (or grudgingly tolerate) the rendition of the deceased’s favourite secular music, (and fervently pray it is not Sinatra’s My Way).

New rituals may also emerge in a spontaneous charismatic outpouring of emotion, for example in a collective grieving such as in Liverpool at the time of the Hillsborough tragedy, or on the death of Princess Diana. Coverage in the mass media, and more recently social media, ensure that the very private act of placing flowers on the grave, or site of death, of a loved one, grows into the construction of a very public floral shrine. Other national public rituals include the last night of the Proms, ceremonies for the 2012 Olympics, the annual FA cup final at Wembley and the repeated collective hope and flying of flags that soon turns to grieving over the elimination of rugby and soccer teams from World Cup competitions. Such rituals mark the recognition of something, however ill defined, that is taken as “sacred” by a public whose shared identity is reinforced and bound together through shared participation. The poppy festivals of November, and the centenary display of ceramic poppies at the Tower of London last year, also tap into such waves of genuine public emotion and secular sacredness.

These processes of course are very familiar to the church with age old activities such as gathering together for prayers or liturgies, collective singing, and eating together (perhaps symbolically as in the Mass or Eucharist). Public rituals are inevitably in some way political as presence or absence from them, tends to symbolically mark a boundary between the in-group or the out-group. The powerful can control or manipulate public rituals to include or exclude categories of people or individuals. Shunning or excommunication has a long history in church life, while exclusion from the rituals of ordination to ministry on grounds of gender or sexuality remains contentious to this day.

Rituals of Civic Religion

Governments and rulers have an even worse track record than religion. Tyrants from Nebuchadnezzar and Nero, to Stalin and Saddam, demanded public rituals of worship amounting to idolatry, which the prophets and saints resisted – even onto death. In an increasingly globalising diversity, with the need to manage the “space of flows”, even democratically elected governments are concerned and fearful about the policing of religious groups in terms of social cohesion, violent extremism and international relations. They are seeking mechanisms of binding populations together around explicitly shared values and citizenship obligations. Where there is fear of an external threat or uncertainty about national cultural identity as in England today the population is likely to be compliant, even enthusiastic. Here lie the roots of Euroscepticism, Islamaphobia, and the refusal to countenance any criticism of “our brave boys” even when the war is unpopular. It is typified by the compulsory ritual wearing of a poppy by anyone appearing on the BBC from the middle of October onwards. Dissent from such national rituals can prove unpopular and be used by opponents as a political weapon, as Jeremy Corbyn recently found to his cost after declining to sing “God save the Queen”. His republican views were portrayed not just as minority personal opinions, but tantamount to atheism and treachery.

In England there is a 500-year-old partnership between the state and the national established church. Together the church and the state manage a panoply of civic rituals which serve to strengthen not only national identity but the privilege of Christianity in the Anglican tradition. Foremost among these are those associated with the monarchy, specifically the coronation, and the royal rites of passage. The Church has a number of roles in Parliament, not least the presence of bishops in the Lords. There are rituals of homage and oaths of allegiance to the queen, the festivals of military remembrance and a national anthem that invokes God and the monarch. The legitimation of public rituals by those who represent the divine is a type of public religion that comfortably endorses the establishment and conserves the status quo. Binding the nation together like this can too easily become a case of the blind leading the blind.

It is true that on occasions (such as in William Temple‘s lifetime) the position of the Church of England on the inside of the establishment has presented opportunities to use its influence for progressive reform and the common good. At other times, bishops have spoken in opposition to the government of the day with the voice of the prophets of old. Yet the social, cultural and economic changes of recent years, the global economic and environmental crisis and near hegemony of neo liberal ideology make the established Church as custodian of public civic rituals less credible each year. At least if we want to remain faithful to the scriptures and the oldest traditions of the Church while expressing a faith that is relevant in the contemporary world, maybe the time for disestablishment has come.

Among the options for the engagement of religion in public life is a counter-cultural radical one, which the late Ken Leech described as subversive orthodoxy. Its rituals may involve demonstrations of protest, and practices of inclusion and reversal as proclaimed in the Magnificat. It will be centred on the open table of the gospel feast where together all we sinners may equally partake. Ultimately the Church and the state may need to accept that what true religion (defined by the apostle James thus to reach out to the homeless and loveless in their plight, and guard against corruption from the godless world.) brings is not a binding together in easy social cohesion, but a breaking of the body politic, followed by a gathering up of the fragments in the struggle for justice.

Greg Smith is an Associate Research Fellow of the William Temple Foundation 


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