Wednesday, September 19, 2007

More on Ritual and Ceremony

This post is third in a series of sorts....
Part One
Part Two

Papa Rooster, reading what I wrote for last time, tells me I HAVE to quote C.S. Lewis on solemnity, from The Preface to Paradise Lost. But he can't find his much-underlined copy, so he turns to the internet and finds this gem of a post.

Since it so beautifully supports everything I said about ritual and ceremony--how nice, huh?--I shall excerpt freely:

[The Middle English word solempne] means something different, but not quite different, from modern English solemn. Like solemn it implies the opposite of what is familiar, free and easy, or ordinary. But unlike solemn it does not suggest gloom, oppression, or austerity.

The Solempne is the festal which is also the stately and the ceremonial, the proper occasion for pomp — and the very fact that pompous is now used only in a bad sense measures the degree to which we have lost the old idea of “solemnity.” To recover it you must think of a court ball, or a coronation, or a victory march, as these things appear to people who enjoy them; in an age when every one puts on his oldest clothes to be happy in, you must re-awake the simpler state of mind in which people put on gold and scarlet to be happy in.

Above all, you must be rid of the hideous idea, fruit of a widespread inferiority complex, that pomp, on the proper occasions, has any connexion with vanity or self-conceit. A celebrant approaching the altar, a princess led out by a king to dance a minuet, a general officer on a ceremonial parade, a major-domo preceding the boar’s head at a Christmas feast — all these wear unusual clothes and move with calculated dignity. This does not mean that they are vain, but that they are obedient; they are obeying the hoc age which presides over every solemnity. The modern habit of doing ceremonial things unceremoniously is no proof of humility; rather, it proves the offender’s inability to forget himself in the rite, and his readiness to spoil for every one else the proper pleasure of ritual.— C. S. Lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost, p. 17 (paragraph breaks added).

Now, here's some good stuff from the blogger, a pastor:

Imagine what Lewis would say today if he saw the clothes that are worn, not just by congregants but by pastors. We have embraced the casual and we have almost completely lost any sense of solempne. Even the examples that Lewis provides probably sound archaic to many of us.

About the only time we experience solempne today at all, I suspect, is at a wedding. For the most part, brides and grooms still want their weddings formal. They want the bride to be glorious in white, the groom next to her in black, the wedding party, not in shorts and T-shirts but in more glorious clothing (except for those cruel brides who choose ugly dresses for their bridesmaids). As well, we still expect to hear certain formal words during the service (”till death do us part” or “so long as you both shall live” or something like that), though even here we find the encroaching grubbiness of our obsession with casualness, as couples have started writing their own vows and generally doing a sloppy job of it.

Still, weddings give us a taste of solempne. The wedding isn’t gloomy. We’re rejoicing. But a hush falls over the audience as the couple exchanges vows, and few people would think it an improvement if the pastor cracked a joke at precisely that moment. During the couple’s first dance, no one would appreciate hilarious commentary from the DJ. Weddings may be the closest we come to solempne.

...The older emphasis on solempne had to do with the specialness of the occasion and that had everything to do with who was present and what was being done on that occasion. Today, it seems, we want special occasions without special language or special clothing or special behavior. Lewis might conclude that that simply means that we don’t want any occasion, least of all a church service, to be truly special.

He must be right about weddings; it was the first example that came to my mind too, for this post. And I think I need say nothing further to build a case for robes and vestments and chasubles for priests and other ministers!

As if I needed more support (for my claim that people need and want this kind of a church), a commenter chimed in:

Lewis is dead on here, as he is in his introduction to “Athanasias on the Incarnation,” when he talks about the need to keep the clean sea breezes of the past blowing fresh through our modern minds as a corrective to the largely unrecognized errors of the day. In fact the reason (or one of them) that we don’t have a sense of solempne today is because we haven’t done enough reading and understanding of old books. We think that because they used quills and we laptops, they have nothing of relevance to say to us. The world is a different place, true, but often not in a good way. This is why [my wife] and I had (until the most recent silliness and heterodoxy-praxy of the Anglican Church of Canada) found a good fit in the solempne of the Book of Common Prayer liturgy in the Anglican church.

I included this comment not just because he recommends Anglicanism, but also because of his little nutshell of Lewis: "the need to keep the clean sea breezes of the past blowing fresh through our modern minds as a corrective to the largely unrecognized errors of the day." We know many evangelicals who have become Anglican (or Catholic or Orthodox) because they were attracted by the grounding of tradition, by the teachings of the early Church Fathers, by the prayers and the forms of worship that have been handed down since the earliest days of the church. They were standing at the crossroads and asking for the ancient paths.

If you've ever worked through the Experiencing God Bible study (highly recommended), you know that concept of looking to see where God is working and joining Him. We feel so privileged and blessed to be smack in the middle of something that we see God doing in American Christianity.


Jennifer said...


I loved this post :-)

A couple of thoughts...

1. Have you seen Colleen Carroll's book "The New Faithful"? Its a few years old now, but its still helpful, I think. The book is based on her research into why so many young people are turning to churches that embrace liturgy, mystery, symbol, etc.

2. I think the whole emerging church movement is taping into this same desire. For our family, there simply isnt a traditional church that embraces ritual, symbol and liturgy that is alive and accessible to us. And we just cant go back to the traditional evangelical church. So, we've found the emerging church to be a place where the desire for these things (ritual and symbol) is fulfilled, though its done in a way that appeals to people in their 20's and 30's more than to anyone else (and there are issues and problems with that..)

Hope there are more posts in this series :-)

Jen in Seattle

Jenny in Ca said...

Hen, I thought the wedding example was spot on to paint a picture of solempne. Really a thoughtful post, thanks for making us think.

At A Hen's Pace said...

Thank you both for your encouragement! Glad it's making sense.

Jen, I'm not familiar with the book, The New Faithful, but I've heard the term used to describe the generation that is seeking the ancient paths. I'll have to read it!

I find the emergent church to be a mixed bag as well. There's a lot of youthful enthusiasm there that needs the traditional structures! :)

"And we just can't go back to the traditional evangelical church."
--See, now you're the fifth person to say that to me in the past few weeks!


Jennifer said...


The one thing I will say about the emerging church is that you can't beleive everything you hear :-) I've heard people say "they dont believe in real truth and dont teach the Bible" or "they dont believe salvaiton comes from Jesus". Comments like that just amaze me since, in our experience, nothing could be further than the truth. A lot of people are afraid of the emergent church, and you can hear that lurking behind some of the critical comments.

"The New Faithful" does a good job of looking at the trends of young people being drawn to some of the practices you have been talking about - observing the hours of prayer, etc.

Love your posts along this line!!!

Jen in Seattle