Resurrection Ritual

As the 1995 SoF conference prepared to focus on rituals and symbols in one of its three major strands, Priscilla Morton reflected on a relevant local group discussion. Priscilla is a retired social worker, a member of Women in Theology, and involved in feminist liturgy groups.

A week after Easter, our North London group talked about the festival - our experiences of it and its meaning for each of us. There were ten of us. Almost all, it seemed (good, exploring, deconstructing SoFers all) had found our way to some place of worship on Good Friday or Easter Sunday or both. Realist or non-realist—or questioning any such labels—this festival mattered to us. Catholic, URC, Anglican, atheist, most of us sit lightly to whatever affiliations we may have hung onto, and seek our spiritual sustenance in diverse places. What were we looking for and did we find it?

Between us our experience took in varieties of Catholic mass (Latin included), Hampstead Unitarians and high Anglican veneration of the Cross, 1662 matins in village churches, nonconformist morning prayer and solemn liturgies in town parishes—and one member completed his Easter celebration with a visit to the Sherlock Holmes museum and was fascinated to find there a definitely flourishing living myth.

One person had a valued personal Holy Week ritual created over the years, culminating in Good Friday liturgy and wonderful music in a City Lutheran church; another experienced lively preparations for Holy Week festivities in Cordova (its unprepossessing Catholic church set incongruously within an ancient and beautiful mosque). Someone who had both Orthodox and Jewish contacts raised the question of why Orthodox and other Christians could not celebrate together, and why Jewish and Christian neighbours could not connect through Passover in their common heritage.

An Easter mass proved largely nostalgic to one person he appreciated the music but found little in the liturgy which now spoke to him beyond the Lord's prayer; another was very conscious of the "unconnectedness" of people in church, and found more sustenance from the family gathering later. One person with a non-religious upbringing and classical background felt that ancient myth seemed to fill a similar role for her to that of the Easter story for others - but was there something missing without the annual ritual? Yet we recognised the universality of resurrection myths and the degree to which Christian rituals and celebrations are infused with wider mythological cultural associations.

Running through all our discussion, and whatever we had or had not experienced, there was an awareness of something here that tapped deep into our psyches; that Good Friday followed by Easter Day symbolised something more powerful and more significant than any other event in the Christian calendar. It was central to our understanding of what Christianity was about, what life was about - and why we still tried to make connection between the two; and the degree of common feeling among us probably said much about why we were in Sea of Faith.

It had little to do with whatever we actually believed about the historicity of the Gospel accounts, and nothing at all to do with doctrine - "atonement" had little relevance for us; but it had everything to do with the way this story of suffering, death and resurrection spoke to our lives today. We needed this story, it seemed, in our struggle to make sense of things, because for many of us the Christian myth is our story, part of our culture and inheritance - and we all need our own story.

But the church distorts the story by its continuing emphasis on sin and guilt, as we all felt strongly. And it was suggested that this preoccupation with guilt could displace grief - which resonated with many of us. It seems that guilt can twist and destroy and drive out the capacity for feeling, can paralyse activity; and perhaps we need our individual and collective grief and pain - we have to experience Good Friday before Easter - to move us on. So the devotions and liturgies of Good Friday, personal or shared rituals, great music such as the St Matthew Passion (mentioned by several), all can give opportunities for "making connections" with suffering, their own or that of others; can put us more deeply in touch with ourselves, and with our world, and so lead us into - and free us for - the hope of resurrection, the promise and joy symbolised in the risen Christ of Easter. Can free us for living, in fact.

Of course, as someone said, we can and no doubt do experience these things at any time, and don't need a special time for it. But most of us still need some kind of ritual in our lives to give full expression to feeling and experience - as we see them today when people who no longer find meaning in traditional rituals now create new ones, whether secular or religious, to meet their needs. And many on the fringe of the church, myself included, are involved in groups trying to create liturgy arising from our own experience, experimenting with language, helping us to relate more genuinely with each other and the world around us.

But perhaps we should not be too carried away by whatever our rituals and celebrations mean to us - and remember that they are meaningless to many. Writing in the (Catholic) Tablet this Easter, Sheila Cassidy pondered on why most people did not now find meaning or love in church. "Perhaps the language of Christianity no longer speaks to their condition... If the majority of people today celebrate the resurrection of Christ with daffodils and chocolate eggs rather than churchgoing, we should not kid ourselves that we are holier or wise than they... When the last chips are down, we will be judged not on how we spent our Easters but on how much we have loved".

Perhaps the church would begin to speak to people's condition more effectively - people might be more likely to find meaning there, even love - if it was more concerned with where people are in their lives and stories, and less with (seemingly) too many alien theological ideas and liturgical practices.

And although some of us who were rooted in traditional Christianity do still look to the church for sustenance, especially at times of great religious festivals, I doubt whether collectively our group would feel they did find what they were looking for - however each would define this. Perhaps after all it is not really a question of "finding", more to do with something powerful and timeless in the symbolism of Christianity which still holds us and contributes to our searching. So we will no doubt continue to look in diverse directions as we seek individually and with others to discover ways into some inner and compelling truth, which for many of us is somehow or other embedded in the Gospel story.

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