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A signal of what really matters

26 September 2014

Rituals, sacred and secular, are more prominent than ever, argues Linda Woodhead


Ritual actions: the Industrial Revolution dramatised at the opening cere­mony of the 2012 London Olympic Games

Ritual actions: the Industrial Revolution dramatised at the opening cere­mony of the 2012 London Olympic Games

"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 true.

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 frequent.

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 cultures.

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 religious.

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 it.

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 "deregulated".

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 Lancaster University.

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