Thursday, 26 January 2012

Rituals and Ordinances

Virtually every religion throughout history has a ritual component - in fact, most aspects of life are partly ritual. I'm defining 'ritual' here to mean a set of events or actions with no fundamental significance. Something as simple as singing a hymn or saying a prayer is ritual under this definition - there's no eternal significance to all singing together, nor to the specific actions we take in praying (for a Latter-day Saint, these might include closing our eyes, kneeling down, folding our arms, saying the ritual opening words 'Dear Heavenly Father'... you see my point). Outside of religion, what's the fundamental purpose of dressing up for a party? Note that I'm not saying ritual is pointless. Far from it! The actions we take are to put us in a particular mindset, or to teach us some lesson. They do not directly affect our eternal wellbeing, but they are important nontheless.

On the other side of the coin, we find ordinances. I'm going to define 'ordinance' to mean any action or set of actions which does have a fundamental significance. To take up the prayer again, it's also an ordinance - we believe that the words we say, the non-ritual part, go to Heavenly Father and are heard, sometimes answered. The ordinance, really, is Heavenly Father's response - the working of the power of God in our lives. In the outside world, we might say that being vaccinated against disease is an ordinance - it serves a direct, specific purpose.

In the LDS Church, we have both rituals and ordinances. Actually, that isn't strictly true. What we have - and what other churches have - are ordinances with ritual components. The trouble arises when we forget this fact - when we come to think of the ritual as more important than the ordinance it supports. To support this assertion, let's have a few examples.

Baptism & Confirmation

The first two ordinances of the Church are baptism by immersion for the remission of sins, and receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands. Since you'll find it hard to get the one without the other, I'm going to deal with them together.

The ritual components of baptism are obvious. We dress in white clothes, stand in a body of flowing water, and after some ritual words are spoken, are dunked under the water. All we physically get from this is a bit wet, hopefully not too cold, and possibly a mouthful of water if we're not quick enough. To add to the ritual, we have two witnesses making sure everything is done correctly, and did you notice I started too late? The ritual of baptism nowadays begins with an opening hymn, a prayer, and two talks (often on Baptism and the Holy Ghost, respectively). It doesn't end with the dunking, either - we have the ritual Welcome By The Bishop, along with a closing hymn and prayer.

All this is ritual. It's not all set, specific actions - the talks are written by the speakers, and can be on a wide range of topics - but it is ritual. It's a pattern we have to follow, nowadays, to Be Baptised Right. The ritual has changed - it used to be just the dunking, and usually in a river - but it still exists.

The ordinance, on the other hand, is quite simple. When we are ritually dunked, we believe there is a fundamental change enacted by divine power. Our sins are remitted. We are washed spiritually clean, not by the water, but by God's power. This isn't ritual - it's an act of God, an ordinance. At the moment, one way we're allowed to access the ordinance of remission of sins is through the ritual of baptism. The ritual could change - conceivably, could leave the water behind entirely - because the ordinance is the important part.

What about confirmation? The ritual here is less obvious, but it's still there. We sit on a chair in view of the congregation. A circle gathers around us. Hands are placed on our head in an approved manner, and - yes - ritual words are spoken. Then a blessing is given, before we stand up and partake of the ritual handshake (a popular Mormon ritual, that).

So what's the ordinance here? There are two, to my mind. First, the Gift of the Holy Ghost is given to us. This is, again, a direct act of God - He has sent His Spirit to be with us always (whatever that means - have you noticed the actual purpose of these ordinances is a bit vague? What's the difference between the washing clean of baptism and the effects of repentance through prayer? Between the Spirit always being with us, and the Spirit speaking to us when He needs to?). It's not an effect of the ritual - they're not magic words - it's God's response to our faith in partaking of the ritual.

Secondly, we have the blessing. As with all Priesthood blessings, the words spoken come from the one who speaks them. The Spirit isn't sitting in anyone's throat throwing words out through their mouth. However, we have faith that He will prompt the speaker with thoughts that will lead to the words spoken being God's words. Again, the prompting is a divine action, not a human one - it is ordinance, not ritual. And, yes, once again: what makes a Priesthood blessing different from the promptings we can receive ourselves, through prayer or study?

The Sacrament

The Sacrament is the LDS equivalent of Mass, Eucharist, the Lord's Supper - whatever name you give it. By now I'm sure you can spot the ritual. We sing a hymn while the bread is broken in front of us. A ritual prayer is spoken. We sit in silence while the bread is brought round to us. After a second ritual prayer and passing, the Priesthood holders performing the ritual are often ritually dismissed. So far, so utterly insignificant.

The ordinance involved here is a complex one. We are there to renew our covenants - and since that includes the baptismal covenant, we are also partaking for the second time in the ordinance of remission of sins. But hang on - is a covenant, either first made or renewed, actually an ordinance? For that, you'll have to read part 2. What's certain is that the Sacrament is, in part, another ritual for accessing the ordinance of remission of sins - just as a blessing of comfort re-accesses the blessing ordinance from confirmation.

I've focussed solidly on the significance of ordinances, and have perhaps been a little dismissive of the ritual component. Humans are ritualistic animals - we've been using them since the dawn of time. There is a reason for that: ritual is a wonderful way to teach, and to put people in a certain mindset. Consider the Sacrament again: we sing a hymn, hear a prayer, and sit in reverent silence. All of this is intended to get us thinking about God, about Christ, about what we've done and what we hope to do - in other words, to get us ready for religious teaching. Then we are passed the bread - 'in remembrance of the body of Thy Son' - and we think about the Christ's sacrifice, and perhaps the Spirit whispers to us - or perhaps, this week, He doesn't. But we stand a better chance of being in the right place, and of listening when He does, if we're working through the ritual.

Or most of us do. The problem with rituals, particularly old ones, is that their symbolic meaning can be lost on many people. To pull one tiny example from the Temple Endowment - how many of the people who go through the ritual nowadays know that a pair of compasses can be used to draw a circle, or to chart a straight course across a map? There's learning to be had from that, but many people simply won't register it - they'll end up thinking it's silly and pointless, when in the nature of ritual, it is far from it.

Continued in Part 2: Gifts and Covenants

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