Should churches obey government restrictions on public services due to COVID-19? This has been a controversial question among Christians, and this essay will not answer it. Partisans on both sides, after all, are motivated by non-negotiable common goods: health on the one hand, religion on the other. Many Americans, of course, are particularly concerned with protecting religious liberties. But another angle on the issue, unnoticed by most Americans, should be obvious to Anglicans: one of the great tragedies of our response to the pandemic is that we have been deprived of the common good of ritual. In this essay I will argue for two points: first, understanding the general human need for ritual is key for understanding the spiritual challenge of our present situation; second, Anglican churches are well-suited to rise to this challenge and flourish in the absence of public liturgies.
The Need for Ritual
What is ritual? It’s a perplexingly broad category. Graduation ceremonies and Thanksgiving dinners, handshakes and first dates, all fall under this category—and so, of course, do Morning Prayer and Holy Communion. “Ritual” is the genus of which “liturgy” is a species: Christians know that prayer and sacrament are more than rituals, but Anglicans know that they are not less.
In our individualistic American culture, we may feel that we have outgrown ritual: Christian Americans cite chapter and verse about “heaping up empty phrases,” while secular Americans might simply never think about the topic. Even the word “ritual” itself conjures up images of teenagers sleeping through commencement speeches on one hand and hooded witches scratching pentagrams into the floor on the other. Who refers to their wedding or the World Series as a “ritual”?
So is ritual all that important after all? To find an answer we’ll cast our net a bit wider. According to the ancient Chinese philosopher Xunzi, a follower of Confucius, ritual is important because ritual is a means of developing virtue. His argument goes like this. Humans are born with natural desires that tend to disorder. Think of aspects of life that tend to be ritual-heavy: sex and marriage; government and patriotism; birth and death. All of these events evoke powerful feelings which bind us together as families and communities: a husband’s love for his wife creates a family, and a citizen’s love for his community creates a nation. But sexual desire can also lead to promiscuity and perversion just as patriotism can lead to xenophobia. Our desires, left to themselves, inevitably lead to sin, death, and social collapse.
Xunzi’s solution is ritual. The passion of young lovers is not left to dissipate over the years, but is compacted into a rock-solid contract: a wedding balances passionate honeymoon love with membership in, and obligations to, a larger community. A funeral gives both channel and closure to grief: we weep for our loved ones as they’re lowered into the ground, but we also know that soon the service will be over, and we will need to go home and make dinner. Professional sports give a healthy outlet to our need for loyalty and physical confrontation: I cheer for my tribe and jeer at yours, and after the game we can go out for drinks like it never happened. Ritual channels and focuses our thoughts, feelings, and imaginations, turning them into means for developing virtue. Ritual makes possible the emotional balance necessary for virtue: it directs emotion without suppressing it. In Xunzi’s words, it “cuts off what is too long and extends what is too short…It achieves proper form for love and respect, and it brings to perfection the beauty of carrying out righteousness.”
The Loss of Ritual
Xunzi’s account of ritual helps us understand how the pandemic—rather, the response to the pandemic—has harmed society in a way that may not be immediately obvious to the American mind. His secular account of ritual has given clarity to this Anglican’s inchoate thoughts about liturgy: although not a saint himself, he reminds us why we hunger for the gathering of the saints. And although Xunzi lived before Christ, his account of ritual can teach us a lot about how churches can approach the situation. For although liturgy is more than ritual, it is not less. Ritual channels our feelings and longings, walking the middle way between excess and defect; liturgy focuses our minds and bodies on God. Ritual develops the political virtues; liturgy opens us to the infusion of grace. Ritual integrates us into human society, teaching us how to be ourselves without harming others; liturgy fits us for the New Jerusalem. In the liturgy we learn how to express doubts without apostasy and fear without blasphemy. By acting faithful, we become faithful. By acting like one body we become one body. This only happens because of God’s grace; but ritual is one of His principal means of grace.
But now the churches are empty and the stadiums are closed. Weddings are limited to bride, groom, and minister. People eat without friends, pray without a church, and die without family. Rituals of belonging have been replaced with rituals of isolation: wearing masks, washing hands, and smiling awkwardly to strangers as you cross the sidewalk to keep your distance. Many Christians who would ordinarily adopt a “me and Jesus” approach to spirituality are suddenly angered at restrictions on church services: whether we realize it consciously or not, our devotion longs for a ritual expression that it cannot now have.
Despite not personally being high risk, I practice social distancing as an act of love toward my neighbors. What a sad irony that I am cut off from the very rites—communion, baptism, hymn-singing, peace-passing—by which the Holy Spirit implanted and refined the virtue of charity in me! I am the father of a child with special needs, whom COVID-19 would likely kill, and a worker in an industry that has been devastated by pandemic containment measures. Church has always been the place where I can express my fears and doubts openly. In the liturgy I cried out to God while also being reminded of and strengthened by the truths revealed to me: I developed the virtues of faith and hope. But now that door is closed. And I’m not alone in this loneliness. It’s no surprise that people are wondering whether we’ve made the right choice as a society. They have good reason to wonder.
How Anglicans Can Respond
Whether or not the decision was right, the fact is that many of us have lost access to our ordinary liturgies. For some of us this is due to government fiat; for others (like my son) it is a consequence of their own health. Whether or not this was the right move for a state, a city, or an individual is not the question in this article; instead, what I want to argue is that Anglicans are in a unique position to respond well to this crisis, because of and not in spite of our emphasis on ritual. In our tradition it’s obvious that liturgy is vital to a healthy Christian life, and one of the great advantages of our tradition is that we have such a breadth of historical resources to draw from, freeing us from the straitjackets of excessive authority and obsessive novelty. Our tradition has prepared us to ask: Why is ritual vital? How does it direct our thoughts, imagination, and emotions? What virtues does it implant and increase within us? How does it make us like Christ? Once we’ve answered those questions, we can then ask: given that we can’t accomplish these goals in our ordinary way, what new, temporary ritual practices can we develop to accomplish the same goals?
Let me use my own church as an example. Before all this, my church served Holy Communion each Sunday. Once we were unable to meet in person, we revived the longstanding Christian ritual of spiritual communion, substituting a devotional prayer for the actual reception of the elements. Spiritual communion is an ancient devotional practice for individuals who do not have access to a priest—nothing particularly innovative there. Here’s the twist: we do it together, over the internet, as part of a livestreamed Holy Communion service; and even now, when we’ve resumed meeting in-person, we continue to practice spiritual communion as a church body, those attending the service praying on behalf of those who cannot—like my wife, my son, and I.
This practice of spiritual communion has shielded me from fear, anger, and bewilderment in my isolation. By allowing me to be as much a part of the Holy Eucharist as my current station in life allows, it has encouraged me to treat remote services with the same seriousness and attention as I would in person. It has inspired me to surround Sunday morning with regular ritual practices that give my toddler a sense of the beauty of holiness: serious practices like decorating the buffet table as a home altar, and silly practices like breaking out drums and maracas and flutes for the last song. The new ritual of public spiritual communion has been a lifeline for me.
And yet this “new ritual” isn’t all that new. Although spiritual communion is typically a private or family devotion (for obvious reasons), the Dry Mass or missa sicca has been performed publicly in times past. What’s new is the combination of the Dry Mass with an actual mass: both those actually receiving and those unable to receive pray the prayer together. But even this is not terribly innovative: there is a longstanding tradition of Christians praying first-person prayers on behalf of others (praying Psalm 71 on behalf of the old when you are not old, or praying Psalm 41 on behalf of the sick when you are not sick). Similarly, when communicants at my church pray the prayer of spiritual communion, they pray it on behalf of those of us who can’t be present, praying for us to someday be able to join them—and O, am I sensible of their prayers! So, rather than inventing a novel ritual wholesale (an almost surefire path to error), my church has combined two ancient tools of private devotion (spiritual communion and first person prayer on behalf of others), raised them to the rank of public liturgy, and used a new technology (livestream video) to weld the whole edifice together. This creative traditionalism is spiritually edifying and characteristically Anglican.
Under present circumstances, it’s not obvious to me that churches should defy the state (granted, circumstances may change!). However, churches do provide an essential service: structured rituals that foster gratitude for community, space to express our highest joys and deepest fears, and a sense of purpose that expands our horizons beyond our immediate needs and desires. And Christians know they provide much more than these. If they can’t do this in public, they must learn to do so in private. The constructive question to ask is not, “Should we hold services?,” but “Until we can hold services (or hold them at full capacity, with full participation), what can we do to develop temporary, substitute ritual practices? What gift is God giving us through the liturgy, and how can we use the resources of our tradition to administer that gift in a new way?” One of my great joys in this dark time has been seeing how Christ’s Church is rising to this challenge; and I pray that it continue to do so.
- Xunzi (trans. Eric L. Hutton), Xunzi: The Complete Text (Princeton University Press, 2016), ch. 19, l. 304, p. 209. ↑