How Much Ritual Is Too Much?

How Much Ritual Is Too Much? December 7, 2015

Photo Credit: Steven Kelley.
Photo Credit: Steven Kelley.

When Thomas Howard made his journey from Evangelicalism to Anglicanism (and then to Catholicism) in the 1980’s he penned what would become his seminal work: Evangelical is Not Enough.

Like many conversion stories, Howard’s is one that can be read and read over again; to my own journey there are so many parallels, and it’s refreshing—a divine gift—to hear it in someone else’s words.

One of Howard’s chief points, one that struck me right to the core when I first read it and has resounded ever since, can be paraphrased weakly like this:

There’s nothing wrong with ritual.

As an Evangelical, taking tentative steps towards more ancient Christian expressions, Howard was perplexed, then enthralled, by the sheer amount of ritual present in these traditions.

Rituals are key to worshipping in Catholic, Orthodox, or high Anglican contexts but often Evangelicals like Howard and myself were often taught to abhor, or at least strongly object, to the idea of ritual.

But, argues Howard, we’re all steeped in ritual. Everyday.

From our often ritualized daily routines to the way we celebrate the seasons, holidays, and birthdays. We, as human beings, are a people of ritual.

It’s the birthday celebration in particular which Howard takes to task and uses as an apt example.

Again, allow me the grace to butcher his words:

How is it that we’re OK with the gifts, we’re OK with balloons, we’re OK with the cake, but… wait, no… we object to the candles!

Howard’s line of reasoning is sound.

Who is to say how much ritual is too much? And why?

Over the course of my journey, and especially in this last year, I’ve had a number of interesting and exciting conversations. And I’ve overheard many more, too. One of my favourite parts about being a Catholic is that not everyone I know—especially more peripheral folks in our Evangelical circles—know about my conversion. I’m a secret Catholic, sometimes, and in this role I’ve heard my share of interesting comments and conversations.

It’s those that left Catholicism because of the ritual that interest me the most.

“It’s all about ritual and rote,” I’ve heard, “where is Jesus?”

To be fair, this is the experience of a lot of lapsed Catholics. This is a big reason why many leave. But it’s not all to do with ritual.

See, there’s nothing wrong with ritual in and of itself.

As Thomas Howard says, we can’t have our birthday celebration (a ritual) but suddenly object to the candles on the cake proclaiming that that is simply going too far. Who’s to say? And on what grounds are candles too much?

What’s wrong with ritual is when ritual becomes the end point; when the candles become the focus of the celebration.

That’s a lame birthday.

For many Catholics, raised in the faith with a poor foundation, I’m sure this became the case.

For many Catholics, without a strong faith community in their parish to push them to become, as Sherry Weddell champions, actual disciples of Christ, it’s easy to become lost to the ritual.

The ritual, the Mass, becomes the thing rather than the beauty of the rituals which point beyond themselves. In this we concerned Catholics have to champion good faith formation and ongoing Catholic education. We have to become educated and better equipped to explain our faith—to give an answer for what we believe—in order to make the ritual meaningful.

Certainly, as an Evangelical, the rituals of the Catholic Church presented a genuine barrier to my understanding of what was taking place during a worship service. But only in the same way that any tradition might present itself as odd or incomprehensible to someone outside of the fold.

Thankfully, the Catholic Church, in its thousands of years of wisdom, has an answer in its universal initiation program: the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults which, while not universally good (depending on the teachers), presents a comprehensive and intensive 9-month curriculum to help educate new Catholics or interested converts.

Here the Catholic Church has the potential to demystify its ancient rituals while not compromising their integrity—or beauty, or history, or theology…

But we have to be fair: ritual rubs both ways.

As an Evangelical, it’s all too easy to become caught up in the incredible music and worship experience, or in the charisma of an enthusiastic leader, and lose sight of the purpose of that worship and to whom that leader ultimately reports to.

As a younger Evangelical I remember fondly worship leader Matt Redman’s “Heart of Worship,” a sound he wrote with this exact theme in mind: coming back to the heart of worship—Jesus.

The core of the ritual (whether Catholic or Evangelical).

As an Evangelical convert to Catholicism, I’ve found not a rigid monotony in the rituals of the Catholic Church but an incredibly rich beauty; a kind of predictable framework that can be infinitely plumbed for its spiritual riches. I’ve found myself not distracted by symbolism but drawn up by the sophisticated and intentional movement, motion, and mantra where every tiny little gesture is carefully and reverently considered.

The objection, long held by some of us Evangelical converts, that ritual is automatically bad evaporates, rapidly, in the face of a discernable, understandable, and approachable ritual. A ritual that is well-intentioned and well-explained. A ritual thousands of years deep, with still so much left to plumb.


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