Ritual, Religious

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RITUAL, RELIGIOUS. Ritual is one means by which a society expresses its beliefs both symbolically and explicitly. In the late medieval and Reformation era, the performance of religious rites reconfirmed traditional precepts and instructed each new generation afresh. Whatever a church's intentions were, such ceremonies did not remain static, but evolved. We can assume that as conditions changed the meanings that people attributed to such acts also altered.

Religious ritual and ecclesiastical ritual overlapped, but they were not synonymous. The former expressed people's views of the supernatural world and its bearing on daily life, as by praying and crossing oneself before going to bed or saying grace at the table. These might be far more than ritualized behaviors; they could be fairly elaborate and regular, like going on a pilgrimage to a nearby (or more distant) shrine in order to be healed of an illness. Ecclesiastical ritual was presided over by a priest or, later, a pastor and usually took place within or in proximity to a church. It adhered to more and more narrowly prescribed models. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Catholic and Protestant authorities strove for uniformity and precision in the rubrics they introduced.

Prior to the Reformation, the division between these two kinds of religious ritual was blurred. A great strength of the Catholic Church during the centuries of its gradual conversion of most western Europeans was its tolerance of folkish elements and its willingness to express by means of its ceremonies the telluric concerns of the unlettered masses. It gladly lent the strength of the Mass, via the priest's blessing, to water, salt, wax candles, bread, and crops. People could bear the more portable items home to radiate their heightened benefits upon all who used or consumed them. In June, during Rogation Days, the priest led peasants out to their fields and blessed their crops. At other times, he sprinkled holy water on their houses, and in Germany, he often received a loaf of bread from each household in recompense. On Corpus Christi the elaborate circumambulation of parts of the city by clergy, magistrates, and guilds, besides displaying the Host, implicitly told the populace of the protective powers of the Body of Christ. No church building alone contained all ecclesiastical ritual.

In the performance of their holy ritual offices, priests were, and within Catholic Reform remained, charged personages. On those occasions when they said or sang a full Mass (rather than a so-called dry Mass or missa sicca ), they entered the sanctuary in procession, garbed in vestments that were sometimes elaborately embroidered with symbols, with acolytes bearing the emblems of their functions and their special connection with God. Their signal capacity lay in transubstantiating the bread and wine, by means of the verbal formulae Hoc est corpus meum and Hic est sanguis meus, into the true body and blood of Christ. So potent was this veritable miracle that every person and object associated with the Mass acquired some degree of sanctity.

In a number of respects, the Protestant Reformation in its several salient forms has been shown to rely on late medieval precedents. This is only relatively true of the celebration of the Eucharist. To be sure, voices against the powers of the Mass could be heard in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, but they were muted. The Reformers as a group broke radically with the assumptions underlying the Mass. Because the messages it conveyed symbolically were now rejected, the symbolic acts and artifacts were themselves eliminated. Protestant groups as they emerged nevertheless took varying stances on particular aspects of the Lord's Supper. Luther's theology of consubstantiation left intact the Real Presence even as it demolished the priest's sacral power of producing Christ's body for the communicants' ingestion. The sacral space, whether intentionally or not, remained quite highly decorated with biblically attested stories depicted in altarpieces and other paintings, colored windows, and crucifixes. Organists and choirboys, along with congregational singing, made a joyful noise, and church bells continued to toll. Luther himself permitted the elevation of the Host and the Chalice until 1542, and although he preferred a simple choir robe when presiding at services, by the end of the century Lutheran divines might again be decked out in admirable vestments even though not cloth of gold. By century's end, all pastors faced their congregations and had added Communion tables at the outer edge of the altar dais, from which males and females, at their respective corners, received the dual elements of the sacred meal.

Followers of Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvinthose of the latter including Puritans and Dutch Reformeddecisively rejected the doctrine of Christ's physical ubiquity and conveyed their conviction fittingly, in the radical simplification of ritual space. Zwingli's Eucharist was strictly commemorative, and Calvin wrote of spiritual nourishment. Determined to abolish "idolatry," the Genevan reformer followed Zwingli in recommending the removal of every possible decorative accompaniment to worshipstatues, stained glass, paintings, altars together with their daises and niches, candelabra, monstrances, pyxes, thuribles, rich chalices and patens, baptismal fonts, church bells (except in France), organs, and all singing except the unison intoning of metrical Psalms. Occasionally, a tablet displaying the text of the Ten Commandments hung over the Communion table, which was now often at the foot of the pulpit. Where new churches could be built, their architecture avoided a place for an altar. The whitewashed walls in both old and new churches provided an interplay of light and shadow that attracted many painters of Dutch interiors. These seem to signify God as a spirit, for they offer no place for the eye to rest.

Protestant innovators retained baptism as the second biblically validated sacrament. Luther pared down but still retained exorcism, which some, but not all, of his followers abolished late in the century. Zwingli and Calvin removed this act from the rite, along with the sign of the cross, immediately. They also insisted that infant consecration take place before the gathered congregation and that biological fathers be present beside the godparents. Luther advocated, but the Swiss reformers rejected, the emergency baptism of infants in the birthing chamber, and the same respective opinions determined the preservation or abolition of the churching of women after childbirth.

When the Reformation began, only nobles, magistrates, and sometimes nursing mothers and elderly women had seats in churches. Throughout the later sixteenth and on into the seventeenth century, pews appeared everywhere, including Catholic churches. They should be regarded as an aspect of ritual in that they held the people's bodies in place and directed their attention more pointedly to the drama of the ceremony, including preaching. Pews also expressed the new Protestant requirement that the laity attend church. Because people sat in the same places, any absence could be detected.

Binding all wings of the Reformation together, from Canterbury to Lund and from Geneva to Königsberg, was the centrality of the sermon. The preached Word took the place of the transubstantial moment as the ceremonial pièce de résistance. Pulpits replaced altars as the focal point in sanctuaries. By the seventeenth century, some formal training in homiletics, an extension of the humanist curriculum in rhetoric, was a requirement for entering the clergy. The hearing of the Word was often a prerequisite of enjoying Communion, having one's infant baptized, or getting married; visitation records and other assessments of lay behavior record people's coming to church only after the sermon, a serious but ultimately irremediable transgression. Preaching was regarded as crucial because it enabled the Holy Spirit to fructify the faith of the elect. Promoting this function was surely one factor encouraging the printing presses from the mid-sixteenth to the mid-eighteenth century to pour forth sermons in tangible, legible rather than audible form. Throughout northern and central Europe, households of adequate substance acquired small numbers of such books for the edification of their increasingly literate members, and for "house-fathers" to read in family devotions. Whereas the Mass had lent its power to the community by means of priest-blessed objects, the sermon extended its benefits via the printed book.

Post-Tridentine Catholicism adhered to medieval liturgical patterns even though, in 1588, the church founded the Sacred Congregation of Rites and Ceremonies. After 1614 and the publication of the Rituale Romanum, the central hierarchy urged adherence to its new standard upon all quarters. Regional and local tropes and altarpiece representations of unattested saints were to be cleansed from the churches. No study exists of the extent to which local and regional churches complied. Certainly there was much resistance, even if for political reasons, to the decrees of Trent. Carlo Borromeo (15381584), Archbishop of Milan (from 1560), provided detailed instructions for the administration and elaborate decoration of churches in his archdiocese. His influence, via his Instructiones and other writings, was broad. He urged catechetical instruction for all children, which might have provided the laity with a better basis for understanding Catholic ritual. He is credited with introducing the confessional box as we know it today and with promoting frequent confession.

The Catholic Church in the age of the baroque everywhere adopted a Protestant stress upon preaching. Even though the sacrifice of the Mass remained central, the proliferation of baroque high pulpits throughout Catholic Europe bears witness to the integration of the sermon into the service. Members of the Capuchin and Jesuit orders turned preaching into a high art, the outcome of concerted training in homiletics. In the Catholic world, too, the sermon gradually became a ritual artifact. Holy Week preaching marked the apogee of the annual cycle and was designed, along with the late-emerging Stations of the Cross, to move the faithful to tears. Ritual repentance as contained in the sacrament of penance was closely tied to this affect, for a sense of personal complicity in bringing about Christ's torment was to produce frequentmore frequent than the once-yearly enumeration of sins demanded by the Fourth Lateran Councilresort to auricular confession.

Catholicism continued to regard marriage, the anointing of the dying (extreme unction), and priestly ordination as sacraments. Confirmation, long officially of sacramental status yet neglected, underwent a revival as the church acknowledged the need to better inculcate its precepts via the catechism upon each new generation.

Nowhere were liturgical practices more contested than in the British Isles. The ambiguity of the Anglican Church's early history permitted varied preferences to be expressed. On the return of the Marian Exiles at the accession of Elizabeth, a socalled Puritan party gradually appeared with its pro-Genevan inclination toward spare and didactic liturgy. Puritan divines objected to the ornate traditionality (which is to say, at least the potential idolatry) of the forms provided in the Edwardian prayer books. They objected to the outpouring of cathedral music during the Restoration. Like their confreres on the Continent, they would not brook funeral sermons, for these elevated individual human beings, the deceased, to an undeserved height. They objected to clerical vestments, wedding rings, and churching. As heirs of Calvin, the Puritans stressed interiority and cared little for outward ritual acts. Their services intentionally bespoke the unworthiness of humans and the omnipotence and separateness of God. In Scotland, Presbyterian leaders, too, favored the utmost simplicity. Under pressure during the English Revolution, the Reformed creeds accepted compromise among themselves in adopting A Directory for Publique Worship in the Three Kingdoms (1644). Although disputed, in Low Church parishes this rubric would remain a basic guide for centuries. On the High Church side, the Book of Common Prayer of 1662 restored some of the language (priest instead of minister) and practice of Catholicism but avoided extremes. Owing to its bifurcated past, the Anglican Church down to today affords its adherents a spectrum of liturgical choices, from Protestant plainness to near-Catholic elegance.

Two contrasting trends characterize the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: the heightened mysticism visible in Pietism and the Catholic baroque, and the rational approach to religion claimed by leaders of the Enlightenment. Most ordinary Christians would not have been conscious of the qualitative changes effected at theologians' behest. Johann Sebastian Bach's (16851750) music finely embroidered Lutheran worship and moved hearts by its own devices; Philipp Jakob Spener (16351705) verbally urged the imitation of Christ and a heartfelt longing for moral improvement as a precondition of the experience of God's presence. Everywhere the states' ties to their territorial churches found expression in the nobility's elaborate grave monuments within and near sanctuaries and in longer prayers for the well-being of rulers. Educated city dwellers of means could espouse Enlightenment calls for the daily, practical application of ethical and neighborly principles. This class might be persuaded by voices critical of the irrational, "superstitious" dimensions of all religion. However, the masses uncritically entered their local churches as always and participated in the ceremonial patterns established in the sixteenth century, or, in the case of Catholicism, long before. Eighteenth-century urban congregations did begin to feel the effects of the state's withdrawal as an enforcer of religious conformity. Increasingly, people could select from more than one theological position. Available positions were most immediately communicated by means of liturgy. Throughout the early modern period, ceremony informed even the unlettered laity and involved it in the tacit affirmation of the tenets on which it was based.

See also Calvin, John ; Calvinism ; Church of England ; Luther, Martin ; Lutheranism ; Pietism ; Puritanism ; Reformation, Catholic ; Reformation, Protestant ; Zwingli, Huldrych .


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Susan C. Karant-Nunn