The Place of Practice

I came across a link to an interesting article the other day on Tony Jones’ blog Theoblogy.  Presented without comment, the short piece was written to reflect on the tenure and influence of Rowan Williams, the retiring Archbishop of Canterbury.  As leader of the world’s Anglican’s, Williams has had the opportunity to both comment on and influence the direction of Christianity since his accession in 2003.

A rather provocative excerpt from the article immediately grabbed my attention:

To put it bluntly, [Rowan Williams] has helped me to see that Christianity is not essentially a big idea that we must try to spread, by arguing for its truth, but a cultural tradition, centred on the church’s ritual.

Upon initial reading, I would’ve said that I wholly reject the statement and its denigration of Truth.  If Christianity is simply a cultural artifact, it has no more value than any other cultural artifact the world over…and no potential to speak in contexts that are not traditionally Christian.  After looking at the whole article and reflecting a bit, I have a few more thoughts.

The article’s author, Theo Hobson, alludes to three aspects of Christianity: supernatural belief, revolutionary moralism, and church ritual.  I would accept these as three constituent parts of the Christian religious framework.  Stated in another way, this trinity of ideas has to do with how we act in the world, what we do in the Church, and in whom and what we believe.  If these three are aligned in a particular fashion, the result is historic Christianity.

Hobson goes on to say that Rowan Williams’ elevation of ritual in the Anglo-Catholic vein has been profound and helpful:

When many, such as his Cambridge colleague Don Cupitt, were arguing against traditional metaphysical belief, or defending it in rather dated terms, he changed the subject. The question of what we believe is secondary to the question of what we do, what forms of symbolic communication we participate in, what cultural language we speak. We must rethink our tradition in these semiotic terms. Jesus was “a sign-maker of a disturbingly revolutionary kind”, he writes in an essay of 1987. And Christian culture echoes his sign-making. This communal sign-making is, for Christians, the most authentically basic bit of culture. Is it just another bit of human culture? Yes and no: for here, we believe, the true myth is performed, the fullest meaning is made.

While I’m not sure that simply “changing the subject” is enough to answer the severe metaphysical questions that can be posed to Christianity, it does remind us, I suppose, that Christianity is more than simply the cold facts of supernatural belief.  It is meant to occupy the place of relationship that affects the whole of one’s existence.  The notion that what we do is more important that what we belief is an interesting one…but likely a false dichotomy.  I would assert (with the Epistle of James, I think) that what we do, at least morally, is intimately connected with what we believe.  I would accept this as an axiom.

But does ritual proceed belief in importance or prominence with Christianity?  This, I think, is more what Hobson is getting to here.  He does, after all, state that “this is the basis of Christian identity.”   Again, operating from  a Protestant/Evangelical/Pentecostal framework I have a hard time initially asserting that ritual (whether of traditions high or low) is as important as he thinks. But when I think about baptism and communion–two Christian rituals, if you will, that all Christians share–I can perhaps become a bit more generous.  In a certain sense, these two practices do embody exactly what Christianity is about.  As sign-making moments that are foundational, morally impactful, metaphysical, and transformative they are possibly without equal in the Faith.I am not an expert on Rowan Williams, Anglo-Catholicism, or semiotics, but I can tell you that reflections on ritual like this remind me that what we do together as Christians has importance.  While I would reject the idea that the cultural sign-making power of Christianity through ritual is THE most important part of Christianity in favor of an approach that balances belief, moral action, and tradition, I respect the respect for it granted by my brothers and sisters in different traditions.  In the Christian world in which I live, truth claims and actions far outweigh ritual, perhaps to our detriment.  It isn’t as if we don’t have rituals, we just may not accept them as such.  Embracing these and drawing closer to the practices of the historic Church may offer us new ways of understanding, living, and sharing Truth in the world at large.

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2 comments on “The Place of Practice

  1. wcosnett says:

    The link to the article didn’t work for me, so I only have your post to go from. But this seems to me to be essentially the age old “faith vs. works” debate. What is the essential part of being a Christian, believing in Christs and accepting him as your Lord, or doing his work in the world? What is at the heart of Christian identity? On the one hand, belief in Christ needs more than a mental assent, but a living out of what he taught in your daily life. On the other, you do not “earn” salvation through your actions, all that is required to be a Christian is a belief in Christ.

    It seems here the issue is framed through the lens of evangelism. Do we spread the gospel by looking at it as a “big idea” that is taught and shared, or by looking at it primarily as a way of life that is lived out and modeled? I think pretty much all Christians would agree that it is both, Christ is more than a set of academic teachings, but he is also more than doing good deeds.

    For me, it depends on what you mean by “ritual”. If you confine ritual to set creeds and liturgies, I think I probably agree with you. These days though, I tend to have a more expansive view. I think one thing that has been waning in recent years is a focus for most people of the rhythms of the normal. Culturally we always seem to be looking forward to the next event. The day after the Halloween merchandise is cleared from the stores, the Christmas items are out. In churches I see people show up for big events, but if its just an “ordinary” Sunday, they don’t bother. The idea of Church or your faith being part of your everyday life is lost for many people.

    When I think of ritual, I think more of patterns and practices of living. For the family of five, the Sunday ritual starts with getting up early, just like they do every Sunday. Their Christian ritual involves getting everyone up and moving so they can get to Sunday school on time, after which they all go to the fellowship hall and spend some time catching up with their fellow church members while the children run around with their friends. Then they go to worship together and go for pancakes afterwards. That is the ritual. Attending the weekly prayer meetings, or book clubs, or choir practice. Volunteering every time the soup kitchen needs help, or visiting people in the hospital. That’s the Christian ritual.

    I can’t help think of everything I’ve been involved with this week in response to the recent storm. Every day since power has been restored in the church house theirs been people serving meals, coordinating visits, matching up people who have resources with those who are in need. And for everyone its almost second nature. Helping those that need it is a reflex, its become a ritual.

    This still leaves the question of the primacy of belief vs. action, and that is probably a discussion Christians will always be having, my point is that I often feel that when people use the word “ritual” they immediately think only of the rote recitation of old liturgies and not the living practices of people and congregations. This past Sunday there was a line in the sermon that stuck with mean, it was something along the lines of “The storm was not the act of God, the act of God was peoples response to the storm”. And it wasn’t just this past week, whenever there is need so many Christians habitually, reflexively, ritually, move to care for those that need it.

    • Will,

      I’ve fixed the link, so please do take a look at the article.

      Thanks so much for this thoughtful response; your comments about the storm (which track with what I have been perceiving from other church communities in NJ as well) are very timely and helpful.

      Perhaps the (admittedly artificial) tripartite way I am framing things here needs to give way to a fourfold idea:

      1. belief
      2. moral outlook
      3. ritual practice
      4. engaged action

      Ritual/tradition can indeed be looked at in different ways, though the article did seem–in my brief look–to be a little more about cultural tradition and Anglo-Catholicism. This said, there is a lot of social action work in the midst of that as well.

      I think the questions of being/doing are indeed overdrawn, especially when it comes to belief and social action. Yet in the article the idea of ritual/tradition constitutes, perhaps, another way to look at things that I do have some questions about. Your explication of ritual is helpful to this end, but I still have questions about elevating it above other defining characteristics of Christianity, as the article may. I’m especially uncomfortable with talking about Christianity as a “cultural practice” as well, if by doing so we are linking it to only our culture.

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