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.