"ALL ritual is fortifying," one of Rudyard Kipling's characters
says. "Ritual is a natural necessity of mankind." If the current
proliferation of rituals is anything to go by, he has a point.
For Kipling, ritual was a vital adjunct of empire. It dignified
its power, steadied its agents, and awed its subjects. In our
post-imperial and supposedly secular era, it might have been
supposed to wither away; in fact, the opposite seems to be
In the personal life-course, for example, we have seen recently
the rise of pregnancy rituals, school-leaving proms, new kinds of
funeral "celebration" and "grave decoration", to name a few.
Similar expansion is also evident in relation to civic, national,
and global ceremonies.
Rituals seem to be getting bigger, bolder, and more
TWO of the leading organisers of global ceremonies debated such
questions on Thursday of last week, in an event that I chaired at
the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, in London: the Dean of
Westminster, the Very Revd John Hall; and the producer of the
opening ceremonies of the Olympic and Commonwealth Games in Athens,
London, and Glasgow, Clare Amsel.
Both confirmed that demand for ritual on a grand scale is
growing. Ms Amsel's industry has been around for only about 30
years. It has its roots in "experiential marketing", which places
new products in a staged setting to enhance their appeal - think
Apple, and the launch of a new product. The ceremonies surrounding
the Olympic Games have expanded in this context. The sums invested
are vast, and their audience is global.
Dean Hall observed some similar trends in relation to
Westminster Abbey. An event such as a royal wedding is now watched
by audiences around the world. It, too, has become a global rather
than just a national or family celebration.
So those who design these spectacles do so these days with an
eye to the world. They have to think about camera angles, symbols
with wide resonance, and how things will be received in different
Even so, there remain some obvious differences between a Games
ceremony and one in the Abbey. The Abbey holds a huge variety of
ritual events: in recent days, for example, a "Service of
thanksgiving and rededication for the Battle of Britain", a service
for HM Revenue and Customs, and a national pilgrimage to the shrine
of St Edward the Confessor. Memorial services for individuals are
also in great demand.
Compared with the Games, some of these ceremonies are familial,
or civic rather than global. They adapt ancient Christian
liturgies, are not obviously commercial, and are explicitly
THE Dean of Westminster and the producer of Olympic opening
ceremonies are very different sorts of people, formed in distinct
worlds. The latter represents the recent growth of
extra-ecclesiastical ritual; the former the flourishing adaptation
of the ecclesiastical kind.
Yet the overlap in what they do is also striking, and takes us
to the heart of ritual itself. Ritual is a focusing lens. It
involves patterned bodily actions and symbols which serve to make
things special. Rituals set boundaries and elevate their objects,
separating what is sacred from the ordinary world that surrounds
Thus, these two practitioners speak in remarkably similar terms
about how a ceremony is devised. The trick is to get right the
central symbol, story, or theme. From that, everything flows.
If ritual really is a universal human need, it is here, in the
essence of ritual, that we surely find the explanation. As long as
individuals, institutions, and societies wish to signal that some
things are particularly important to them, ritual will endure.
What is placed in the centre of the ritual focusing lens,
however, changes. Even something as ancient as the Coronation
service has evolved. Dean Hall has speculated on what the next one
might look like: he believes it will remain Anglican, but notes
that many services in the Abbey are now inclusive of other faiths
and no faith at all.
IN TERMS of resurgence and revitalisation, what seems to have
happened in the past few decades is that ritual has drifted further
from its ecclesiastical, civic, and national moorings. It has been
There is now more experimentation by more people, aided by
travel and the internet. In addition, corporate and commercial
interests have come more to the fore.
This is not a straightforward secularisation of ritual, and, as
Westminster Abbey demonstrates, it is not necessarily bad news for
the Church of England. It can be treated as an opportunity to
capitalise on its ritual traditions and expertise.
Change and continuity go together. Our ritual life has altered
dramatically since Kipling's day, but Britain remains a leading
supplier of ceremonies to the world, and one of its greatest
innovators in rituals.
Linda Woodhead is Professor of Sociology of Religion at