Right Rites: How much ritual is appropriate in Reformed worship?

Calvin called the ceremonies of the Roman church "alien hodgepodge, theatrical pomp, foolish gesticulations and empty little ceremonies, outward trappings, magical incantations, and perverse rites." (These and many other denigra-tions can be found especially in the Institutes, Book 4). Four centuries later, hardbitten detective Travis Mc Gee says: "To me organized religion, the formalities and routines, it's like being marched in formation to look at a sunset. Maybe some people need routines. I don't."

Going up against John Calvin and Travis Mc Gee is a daunting challenge. But some of our authors in this issue have done so—successfully I think.

Of course, at the other end of the spectrum from Calvin and Mc Gee are those whose (worship) lives are not complete without ritual. In Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail, several authors describe how they left their ceremonially barren evangelical churches and found their liturgical and spiritual hunger satisfied in Anglican and Episcopal churches. Again, the history of evangelical and Reformed churches has a notable sprinkling of the great and near-great leaving for Roman Catholic or Orthodox churches.

What are these rituals, ceremonies, and formalities that are so offensive to some and indispensable to others? A full-fledged look would include our discussing rituals of daily life, such as the celebrations of Independence Day, or tucking a child into bed in the same manner every night. But here we will largely restrict ourselves to worship ceremonies.

First, a word about definitions. Dictionaries of liturgy will usually define rite, ritual, and ceremony as different aspects of worship. In our discussions we will often not be as technical, generally using these terms as synonyms. Denned at its most elementary, we can say that a rite or ritual or ceremony is a repeated feature of worship. It may be spoken or sung, a physical gesture or movement, or a combination of aural and kinetic. In addition, vestments, visual symbols, and colors all have ceremonial, ritual importance.

Several other concepts are fundamental to our ruminations about ritual. I can only state them briefly here and trust that the various essays that follow will give body to the concepts.

First, an act or gesture, a color or shape, can carry meaning. This meaning may be more suggestive than exact, but it is nevertheless an intrinsic aspect of communication. The kiss of peace, for example, is richly expressive. In other words, words cannot fully encompass our worship experience.

Second, the repetition of a word or gesture or song enhances its significance. The weekly repetition of the Apostles' Creed, the weekly use of the same gesture for pronouncing the blessing, the repeated singing of "Hallelujah!"—all of these enforce and enhance the emotional impact of worship.

Third, worship is (ought to be) strongly dependent on the physical, on the body. Our eyes feast on the beauty of a stained-glass window (giving us intimations of the beauty of the Lord) and our mouths taste the goodness of the Lord in the whole wheat bread of the Holy Supper. Also, our emotions are intricately caught up in this walking, seeing, tasting, and hearing—both in perceiving the Lord and in responding to God's goodness.

How does this all come together on the Lord's Day? Consider a few examples: The weekly singing of "Praise God from whom all blessings flow" is the ritual use of a hymn. The twice-a-Sunday use of "Our help is in the name of the Lord..." is a ritual use of Scripture. The raising of one or both arms in ministerial blessing, or the elders shaking hands with the minister before he mounts the pulpit, are rituals and ceremonies long known in Reformed churches. Certainly our administration of baptism and the Lord's Supper involves a number of repeated ritual words and symbolic actions. And church garb, such as a Prince Albert suit (eighty years ago) the "Genevan" gown, choir robes, liturgical stoles, or the use of the cross on a banner are examples of visual symbols.

Other Christian traditions use additional rituals. Last summer, when we worshiped in a Brethren Church in Belfast, my wife was the only woman present without a hat. A Baptist church will ritually "dunk" a person in baptism. The priest and choir in an Episcopal church walk up the aisle of the sanctuary in a ceremonial procession. And the repeated congregational 'Amen!" in an African-American church is not only spontaneous approval, but also a ritual response. Even the Quakers' times of silence (originally observed in protest against ceremonies) have a ritual quality.

All Christian churches use repeated words and gestures in their worship— and therefore all Christian worship is ceremonial or ritualistic to a degree. The question we are contemplating in this issue is this: Which rituals are fitting and edifying, and how much ritual is appropriate for Reformed and Presbyterian worship?

Some who are wary of ceremonies will claim that only biblical rituals are to be allowed in worship. It is unlikely that such a limitation is either possible or necessary. We do not know if the raising of arms and hands in the traditional pastoral blessing is performed today as it was in biblical times. The New Testament "kiss of peace" may not be appropriate for our worship. The ritual of an elder shaking hands with the pastor before and after the service is not found in Scripture. Collecting money in black bags or wooden plates has no precedent in Scripture. Distributing grape juice in little cups to people sitting in pews is unknown in the New Testament. Allowing only biblical ceremonies is not possible. (Moreover, the traditionalist separation of ceremonies into essential and circumstantial is not much help either. I have generally found this distinction very arbitrary).

A more fruitful approach may be to use several criteria for deciding on the fittingness of rituals. Certainly, biblical warrant is a prime consideration. Our sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper are biblically based ceremonies, as are "lifting holy hands in prayer," and the singing of "The LORD'S My Shepherd."

The history and tradition of the church is another source, although here one needs to be involved in careful picking and choosing. Does incense belong in our worship? Does the processional? Should we use unleavened bread for communion? Do small cups at communion violate the concept of covenantal community? Should men and women sit separately? Is the gesture of the cross as appropriate as the image of the cross on the communion table?

Another question centers around the rise of new ceremonies. For example, some churches have developed the practice after infant baptism of the pastor or someone else walking up and down the aisles with the baby to introduce the child as a new member of the covenant family of God. How and when does a congregation develop new rituals?

Conversely when is a ritual dead? Certainly part of Calvin's protest against ceremonies arose out of the meaninglessness of many medieval rituals. Perhaps the priest still knew the significance of the rite (or perhaps not), but certainly most of the people did not. But that still leaves the question, Meaningless for whom? When I used to argue with my father against the ritual of the consistory walking into the service en masse (our non-ceremonial daughter used to say "Looks like a bunch of basketball players coming from the locker room") and sitting together, he defended this as a meaningful ritual that demonstrated the spiritual authority of the consistory.

And how much is too much? I appreciate a due amount of ritual. When I think back on my Dutch Reformed worship services, in retrospect they seem rather bare and barren; however, when I attend a Syrian Orthodox church, I feel overwhelmed with the smells and bells. My need for ceremony lies somewhere between those extremes. But again, my due amount of ritual will differ from that of others. Here we encounter questions of proportion, of the relative importance of the sermon, of visual (over-)stimulation, of the traditional "simplicity" of Reformed worship, of the full use of creation in worship.

This special issue does not answer all the questions on the role of ritual and ceremony. However, we hope this issue will stimulate your reflection and help all of us respond to the psalmist's call to bow down and kneel before the Lord in worship.

Harry Boonstra (hboonstr@calvin.edu) is former theological editor of RW and emeritus theological librarian of Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan.


Reformed Worship 32 © June 1994, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.