Brendan Hoban: Sometimes you can have too many rituals

Western People 27.9.2022

I don’t know quite how to put this but did you by any chance and at any stage raise an eyebrow at the excess of ritual that attended Queen Elizabeth’s protracted funeral rites? Or how to suggest, however mildly, that the ceremony was a mite overdone, overblown and overlong?

It may be that the committee sitting on it, as we say, for more years than they care to remember, kept trying to keep their interest alive by adding to the sum of its parts in the mistaken belief that more meant more when what was needed was much less.

I wondered what was the point of: the herd of black horses; the ocean of gold braid; the gun salutes followed by puffs of smoke; Queen Victoria’s gun carriage; the hundreds of Grenadier Guards in their black bearskin headgear; the long, slow, tedious march of the synchronised movements of the soldiers carrying the queen’s coffin to its place of rest; the Everest of flowers; the weight of medals; the endless and pointless queue transmuting itself into an ungodly pilgrimage; and the pretence that the remains of a religious pulse can still be detected in bombast and bluster if enough people turn out for the big day.

For pageantry to work, for ritual to stand its ground, the detail needs to fit or at least make sense. Otherwise, it has to be camouflaged by excess. And the  notion that buried within sight in the unrestrained and extravagant exhibition  is a yearning for the mysterious and sublime, even for some the transcendent, won’t stand up to examination. To misquote Patrick Pearse, too long a liturgy can make a stone of the heart.

Experts on the human condition whose job it is to decipher what to the rest of us may seem indecipherable are said now to have concluded that humankind acts in two different ways. One is by what are called ‘instrumental’ actions. That’s when we do something because we know that there is a clear and logical result to be expected from it. I do something. I perform an action because I want to experience a predictable result from what I do. Matthew Syed, a columnist in the London Times, explained instrumental actions like this: ‘This is where we go to the shop to buy food, or brush our teeth to protect them from disease, or rush to the station to catch a train. We infer motives on the basis of such actions, and perform actions on the basis of their expected consequences’.

But those who understand complicated actions like rites, rubrics and rituals – religious and secular – see them as actions that say something about us rather than what it is that we want. Thus, Queen Victoria’s gun carriage became an essential part of the royal pageant because it always was an essential part of corresponding occasions in the past. It was ‘what was done’, what they do, and unless they replicated it they would feel and seem at odds with themselves. Not to do so would be to betray ‘tradition’.

In the same way those who believe that the only real Mass is a Latin Mass and the only way we can authentically celebrate Mass is the way it was celebrated after the Council of Trent more than five centuries ago, while camouflaged in pious words, is really a failure of imagination.

Effectively, it’s evidence of ‘living on a different planet’, inhabiting an Alice in Wonderland world, where things mean whatever we want them to mean. So a dead language becomes the choice of worship, even when people have no idea what the words actually mean.

A story told by the Indian Jesuit, Anthony de Mello, confirms the point. A guru, distracted at his evening worship by a wandering cat, ordered that the cat be tied up. After the guru died, the cat continued to be tied up and, when the cat died, another cat was brought in and tied up. And on and on it went. Centuries later treatises were being written by the guru’s scholarly disciples on the liturgical significance of tying up a cat during evening worship.

An equivalent experience was a recent Mass where a very elderly priest had forgotten to light the candles on the altar. As often happens no one actually noticed until a man rushed forward from the body of the Church and caused a huge fuss about what he obviously felt was a lack of something fundamental to the proceedings. But, of course, originally candles were used at Mass not because they had some important symbolic meaning but for the practical purpose of providing light – in an age before electricity. Like de Mello’s cat, sometimes the practical can explain the significant.

Ritual, secular or religious is not meant to make sense. But, if it arrives at a point where a practice, though hallowed with time, becomes non-sensical, it ceases to carry its weight. 

So sometimes, despite the practice of centuries and the weight of custom and tradition from time immemorial, we need to divest Ritual and its close cousins, Rites and Rubrics, of some of the embarrassing accumulations from the past. For instance, the British talent for ceremonial could be significantly enhanced if King Charles could persuade the royal family to jettison their paramilitary outfits and leave their medals – such as thy are – at home in a drawer. In this, as in other areas, more sometimes just means less.

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  1. Joe O'Leary says:

    Very well observed, Brendan. Brexit England has to keep believing that the worship of its traditions makes its splendid isolation worthwhile. But what is left of the magic? The Last Night of the Proms tries to squeeze every drop out of it, but it has become a desperate threnody for a fading dream.

    The idea of King Charles III is a jokey anachronism. Unlike Germany, where the ordinary public are free to roam the countryside, 90% of British land is in private hands and trespassers will be prosecuted. Jacob Rees-Mogg represents the ultimate epitome of aristocratic Englishness, another sublime joke.

    English literature has boiled down to increasingly tawdry BBC adaptations and the tourist appeal of Sherlock Holmes and Miss Marple (no one bothered to commemorate Milton in 2008 or the Keats and Shelley bicentenaries this year and last). English (and British) identity and confidence would thrive better within Europe, without any need to be embalmed in an unchanging past.

    (PS It was Yeats, not Pearse: we studied that poem together in First Arts.)

  2. Sean O’Conaill says:

    #1 “ English literature has boiled down to increasingly tawdry BBC adaptations and the tourist appeal of Sherlock Holmes and Miss Marple…”

    How could you have forgotten Ian Fleming’s James Bond, Joe – a thriving movie franchise that celebrates the continuing global need for British imperial heroes? It seemed he even died heroically in the most recent iteration, but that must surely have been a ploy to give him a well-earned holiday somewhere, and a cinematic makeover.

    And who can be sure that Eton will not yet produce a great novelist who will reveal exactly how the great Boris Johnston became the towering European we have so badly needed, the one who always knew that Brexit would end badly and deliberately accelerated the process – at the cost of his own premiership and prestige – to put an end to the experiment as soon as possible?

  3. Joe O'Leary says:

    Queen Elizabeth, in her latter very maternal and sunny years, was happy to play along, arranging a parachute stunt with Bond at a Jubilee event and a video of receiving him at the palace. At least she did not do Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter stunts. How long a way she had come from the time when royal patronage injected forbidding starchiness into cultural products such as Britten’s Gloriana. Rowan Williams relates his surprise to find the Queen so approachable and lovable (in the post-Diana and post-Queen Mother time). Hearing he was going to Iraq, she advised he wear a disguise as a safety precaution, ‘but it can’t be a beard, as you already have one.’ Coincidentally I just heard the voice of Boris Johnson, his hearers simply rocking with delight, — such a relief from the ill-concealed gloom of the new PM and her Chancellor of the Exchequer.

  4. Sean O'Conaill says:

    Re the meaning and purpose of ritual, is it sensible to suppose that Jesus intended the ritual of the Eucharist, the Mass, to be an end in itself – the central and definitive and sufficient Christian ‘obligation’? Was it not instead the extra-liturgical obligation of practical love of one another to which his followers were called – not by the Holy Thursday ritual but by the Good Friday fulfilment of it, which was NOT a mere ritual but an actual and total self-giving?

    I have yet to hear a homily in which the celebrant would insist upon the primacy of loving Christian action in the world as the only convincing evidence that the Mass has a meaning and purpose that goes beyond itself, beyond mere repetition of more and more Masses.

    The disconnect between ritual and practical self-giving is virtually total, to the extent that we are now sometimes assured that if there are no more priests to say Mass there will be no Church either – in defiance of Matthew Ch. 25 where Jesus does not mention ritual at all but insists instead upon ‘caritas’ – mutual care and love, and especially care of the least fortunate.

    Paradoxically it is that clericalist elevation of ritual above practical Christian action in the world outside that most threatens the Mass – because it leaves unanswered and unanswerable the most obvious question: what is the point of it all?

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