Monday, 3 November 2014


There are events and activities in our lives when the divine intrudes more strongly and fully into our experience; when our sense of relatedness to the whole of live, or God as some call it, is more acute.  It is the purpose of religious ritual and spiritual practice to make us more aware of the divine presences at these times. These are called sacraments – 'an outward sign of an inward grace', and in the fullest Christian tradition, seven are recognised. These events and activities are (with the common sacrament name in brackets): birth (baptism), coming of age (confirmation), marriage (matrimony), death (last rites or anointing of the sick), giving and receiving forgiveness (penance or confession), sharing food (communion) and ministry (holy orders).

Quakers are right to say that the whole of live is sacramental, and to recognise that separate religious rituals can detach us from the reality of our experience. This is especially problematical when society and culture change rapidly and the naturally conservative forces of religion make the rituals less and less relevant to the way we live now. Furthermore the patriarchal hierarchical church often usurps these rituals to force conformity on us.

Baptism is used to tie us to the church, with the sanction of hell for those who are not baptised in time, coupled with the subordination of the women who gives birth through rituals like 'churching'.

Confirmation replaces the full expression of adulthood and the exploration of identity with conformity to the catechism.

Marriage is denied those who seek long term committed relationships but are not heterosexual, and then linked to having children imposed almost as a necessity, whilst denying sexual expression to those outside marriage.

Death is used to make us conform through the fear of eternal damnation. As Thomas Paine put it: 'Of all the tyrannies that affect mankind (sic), tyranny in religion is the worst; every other tyranny is limited to the world we live in; but this attempts to stride beyond the grave and seeks to pursue us into eternity'(Age of Reason).

The personal interaction of giving and receiving forgiveness is replaced by confession before the priest with yet more fear of sin and damnation.

The everyday sharing of food is completely detached from reality with administration of barely edible wafer and the tiniest sip.

And finally ministry is only to be given by those sanctioned by the hierarchy to be priests over us.

In the protestant tradition, only communion and baptism are recognised, with the result that what should be celebrations of our lives together in community become privatised and individualised. We come to the front before the minister to receive communion instead of sitting round the table sharing a meal. In the  baptist tradition, baptism is decoupled entirely from birth and even coming of age to be turned into an almost cultish initiation rite into the externally imposed church. Forgiveness is reduced to the working out of contractual obligations between determined individualists.

However, we still need these sacraments. The divine always intrudes, but we do no necessarily pay attention. We easily succumb to the spirit of the age where these events and activities are seen through the lenses of Darwinian evolution and biological determinism. All seven occur everywhere, to varying degrees, throughout the animal world, and we too are animals. But we are also self aware – we are persons – we have been given the gift of being able to perceive the divine, of knowing that we are related to all of life and can participate knowingly in life to an infinitely greater degree than any other animal.

The Quaker philosopher John Macmurray wrote: 'when an animal is hungry it goes in search of food; but when a man (sic) is hungry he looks at his watch to see how long it will be before his next meal' (Persons in Relation, 1961, p44). When he will join with his family and friends to share food together, round the table, passing the bread and wine to each other, in communion.

As Quakers, we are required to see the whole world as sacramental, but this is not an idea in our heads. It is incumbent upon us to devise religious rituals and spiritual practices that heighten that sense of divine awareness - that recognition of inward grace - as we go through the major events of life, and often seemingly mundane day to day activities; rituals and practices that make sense in today's culture, that work in a post-modern industrialised and urbanised environment, that will be a witness not just to ourselves but to all around us as they see how much we love one another.

The judgement that awaits us is not that we have sinned, for our sins are forgiven, but that God spoke to us and we were not listening.


Unknown said...

It seems to me that many groups and individuals lack the confidence to create new rituals. Perhaps this is because we think that authority lies with state, church or ancestors. Many of my friends have created new, life affirming rituals for most of the seven occasions you mention, but I'm struggling to think of forgiveness rituals - anyone?

Bill Rushby said...

"As Quakers, we are required to see the whole world as sacramental"

I am puzzled by what appears to be a fixation on "sacrament" and "sacramentalism" by so many Friends. The concept of "sacrament" comes from high church traditions; it is not a biblical term, and was not a part of the Quaker vocabulary before the 20th Century, as far as I know. And the notion that "all of life is sacramental" is a modern Quaker idea, not a traditional one.
There is indeed a paucity of ritual in modern unprogrammed Quakerism, and it diminishes our ability to experience God and the Holy. We do not need new rituals to help us in this regard; we need to rediscover the Quaker rituals Friends have discarded. My two cents' worth, Bill Rushby

Gordon Ferguson said...

Paul: rituals around giving and receiving forgiveness.
How about (in no particular order and by no means complete):
-shaking hands.
-a hug or kiss.
-going out for a beer.
-giving a small gift.
BUT, not done to assuage guilt or out of fear, but in celebration of restoration:

"But if two friends are estranged, this hostility can only be overcome by their doing together something that is incompatible with hostility. The reconciliation may be symbolized by the mutual act of shaking hands. This is a ritual act, which symbolizes the common intention to take up again the common activity which the estrangement had interrupted." John Macmurray 'Religion, Art and Science' 1961.

Meaningful rituals take normal everyday activities and imbue them with special significance. It can be dangerous to devise special activities as rituals since they can lead us to think that religion refers to 'the great mystery', divorced from the reality of everyday life. We need to bring God down out of the clouds and down off the mountain and into our lived lives.

"We are all the same really - we are frail, frail human beings who are frightened of ourselves. Going through ritual for the Jewish life is a way of telling your body that everything is OK". Person speaking in 'Grayson Perry: Who Are You?' part 3 broadcast channel 4 Nov. 5th 22.00.

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