Editorial by Anthony Woollard
from Signs of the Times No. 70 - Jul 2018

This edition comes out at about the time of our Annual Conference - this year’s theme is ritual, worship and culture.

We may expect to be reminded that ‘ritual’ is by no means limited to what goes on in churches or other sacred spaces. Ritual (let alone ‘ritualists’) may not have had a good press in certain parts of the Church, but it is alive and well in places where its presence might be least expected.

The ‘anti-ritual’ of the Quakers has its ritualistic features, as does some evangelical and charismatic worship. Football clubs may be ritualistic, as may aspects of work and politics. And, if most mainstream church rituals appear meaningless to the vast majority of the population most of the time, there are still occasions such as Christmas, and even, for a surprising number, weddings and baptisms, when they can touch hearts and draw people together.

Ritual helps to confirm identity. This applies even where it is purely individual, as in some New Age spirituality or in many aspects of everyday life. (Not just in the human sphere either; my dog is the most ritualistic creature I know.)
And, in particular, corporate ritual forms communities - for good or ill. Even (perhaps especially) in this individualistic age, people feel the need for that. So, what might be the meaning of ritual in the everyday world?

David Jennings, in his article below, raises the question - which was also at the heart of the April 2018 edition of Modern Believing - of ‘the Church beyond the Church’: those who rarely if ever appear in our pews on a Sunday; who do not (as some of us do) conceive of the Church’s central ritual, the Eucharist, as constitutive of their life’s very meaning; and yet who do respond, in individual and often collective ways, to some idea of Mystery. How can we, in turn, respond to their response?

If corporate ritual is a collective action which expresses a sense of meaning for its participants, then it has a vital power which we must respect. It may have been grossly misused in human history - one thinks of the Third Reich. Even the most authentic Christian rituals are not without their ambiguities and have been misused. The anti-ritualists among us need to be heard, and their warnings against idolatry (uncomfortably close to those of the Old Testament prophets) heeded. But that is not an argument for throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

But can - indeed should - ritual bind people together at all? I have said that our age is individualistic. The very concept of ‘binding together’ can recall the ancient Roman fasces, the bundles of twigs which became the emblem of Fascism. Are we not, today, all on different ‘journeys’, to use a fashionable concept in contemporary spirituality? Or is that too lonely an image? Is there a thoroughly Anglican via media between individualism and Fascism?

Brenda Watson’s article is the first instalment in her survey of the idea of the Grand Narrative and its loss in postmodernism. Any group of people, be they a club, a church, a town, a nation, needs some sort of story to enable them to assert some kind of common identity. The idea of a Grand Narrative which might bind people together across a wider canvas is unfashionable. Yet people yearn for a story that they can share as universally as possible. We need to belong - and not just to a cosy in-group with its own exclusive story, but to the whole human race. The Christian story, the old Grand Narrative of the West, served that purpose once in its own way, but its shortcomings in an ecumenical and pluralistic world have become all too clear. We may appreciate Tolkien’s argument, in his famous essay On Fairy Stories, that all stories ultimately point to the one Story which Christians affirm - but we certainly cannot impose that on others. Rather, we must listen to their stories - and weave stories together, where we can in order to create something new.

A case in point has been the recent BBC TV series Civilisations. The original series, Civilisation, fronted almost 50 years ago by the late Kenneth Clark, did quite clearly assume a Grand Narrative of Western art and culture. This will not do any longer. But the alternative is not simply the affirmation of a whole lot of parallel narratives.

The new series, though somewhat discontinuous in its thematic approach, found remarkable connections, not least between East and West. Might a new cultural narrative emerge from that?

David Jennings’ article is another example rather closer to home. The approach to ecclesiology here described is very close to that of our Vice-President, Martyn Percy, who in his many writings has defended a classic idea of the Church of England - not a sect amongst many, but still in some sense the Church of the whole nation. There is a narrative here also - not, any more, unduly grand, but firmly and normatively rooted in the tradition and yet open to the new, and to the narratives of others, out of which dialogue new stories may emerge. Meanwhile, David Simon offers an interpretation of key concepts in the Christian narrative - sin and atonement - which reflects ongoing dialogues about human nature, not just amongst Christians but also in non-Christian philosophy as demonstrated in John Gray’s recent Seven Types of Atheism. Gerald Downing picks up briefly on the debate in the last issue about the Trinity. And our Australian correspondent, John Bunyan, reflects on Angela Tilby’s dovecote-fluttering article in the Church Times at the end of April, in which she argues that one narrative about the Church of England, broadly promoted by Percy, is in danger of being replaced by another of a rather less generous kind, broadly associated with Holy Trinity Brompton.

The book group in my church recently read Georges Bernanos’ Diary of a Country Priest. That clearly has at its heart a Grand Narrative: a view of life, and a set of practices, seeming almost redolent of pre-Revolution rural France, though its setting is that of the mid-20th century. The people may not go to church much, or believe much in conventional terms, yet the church and the priest are at the centre of their collective life. Bernanos’ hero, physically and spiritually weak and ill as he is, tries to make that narrative live afresh. Yet at the end, collapsing from cancer and unable to receive the Last Rites, his final words are: ‘What does it matter? Grace is everywhere.’

Perhaps we shall find the same truth from our Conference. Grace is everywhere, and everywhere it needs to be embodied in narrative and ritual. Our task, without losing faith with the rituals that nurture us, is to support that embodiment. Then the reality of the Church will indeed spread beyond its boundaries, and we can begin to see liturgies and narratives which are inclusive rather than exclusive.