From time to time Jesus had some pretty harsh things to say about interposing human traditions between God and his beloved creatures. He could get really peeved when he encountered human precepts that established elaborate liturgies and ritual to identify who was in, who was out, and what one had to do to stay in or be kept out. Lest we Christians get too self satisfied about our freedom from all those rules, it’s well to be reminded that it was not just a problem for first century Jews living in Israel. The Church has struggled with the same thing for two thousand years.
Reformations come and go, new denominations pop up, congregations split apart, and every time in every place new liturgies and ritual come into being to more clearly define who is in, who is out, how to stay in and how to keep out. It sounds terrible and if often is. I believe it is one of the primary reasons that people give up on Christianity, or at least give up on the Church. Having said that, there is more to be said because not all human tradition or precepts are bad. Some are very important to opening up and clearing the way for human intimacy with God in “holy communion.” Liturgies and ritual are two aspects of that.
One way or another, liturgies and ritual are ways of acting out beliefs whether about God or something else. As has been said of we Anglicans, if you want to know what we believe watch how we worship. Our liturgies, and the ritual through which they are articulated, reveal what we believe about God and our relationship with God and one another. They are a part of our tradition, not the whole of it, but an important part just the same. The same is true not only for the so-called liturgical churches, but also for non-liturgical churches. Just go to one and see for yourself how the non-liturgical service takes on an expected order repeated more or less intact each week, how spontaneous prayers tend to be repeated in hardly varying words, and how standards of what to believe and how to believe are expressed and enforced.
Liturgies and ritual serve an important purpose in the Christian Church. They are conduits through which one enters into holy time and holy space for an intimate encounter with God. When liturgies and ritual will not or can no longer serve that function they become useless, or worse, become an impediment to communion with God. And that is what got Jesus so riled up. We surely do not want to get Jesus riled up so is there a correct liturgy or ritual that will always meet with his approval?
I, for one, am deeply wedded to and moved by the liturgies and ritual of the Episcopal Church. They lead me into the inexplicable profundity of God’s imminent presence in Christ. So I’m pretty sure ours are the ways that Jesus likes best. But my friend Jeff, a local Pentecostal preacher, is dumfounded at that and finds our way of worship to be so quietly boring that God must fall asleep waiting for us to arrive. I find his services so noisily rattling that God must be hiding until the din is over. And isn’t that a part of the great good news of Christianity! There is a place for everyone, and Jesus seems to show little partiality for one over the other.
The problem comes when we take those ways and place a heavier burden on them than they can carry. I’ve experienced Episcopalians up in hysterical arms because the candles were lighted in the wrong order, the gospel book was set upright or laid down flat, the Sursum Corda was said and not chanted, incense was used or not used, the acolytes were not wearing black shoes or folding their hands incorrectly, and so on. I have no idea what might set off people in Jeff’s congregation. Maybe the drummer didn’t show up one Sunday and how can you worship without a drum? I don’t know. The point is that this is where human precepts become more important than the worship of God to the point that liturgies and ritual are undermined and their values collapse. It’s something we have to guard against at all times, and it’s very difficult to do. There are always demands from some people who desperately want to know what the right way to worship is, and there are others who are quite sure that they know what the right (and only) way of worship is. Failure to do it right might invalidate everything and make God really angry. That’s the point when we might as well start tossing virgins into the volcano for all the good our liturgies and ritual can do. At the same time, it is important, truly important, to be faithful to one’s tradition. That means knowing and understanding what that tradition is and how it is employed for the fullness of life with God through Christ. It means acting out our beliefs through liturgies and ritual with holy intention and respect, but not with idolatry.