Types of Ritual

communion-200x300 Some of you may have noticed I recently started a new thread on ritual crafting and started by tentatively articulating how we run some of our home gatherings. Why did I call it ritual crafting? Well because I want to go way beyond talking about alternative worship.

But before I get too deep into this I’d like to sketch out a basic framework for how to understand ritual. In “Understanding Folk Religion,” Hiebert, Shaw and Tienou offer a threefold model I have found particularly helpful:

Rituals can be divided into three major types: rites of transformation (to create new order and move individuals and groups through life), rites of intensification (to reinforce existing order), and rites of crisis (to enable people to survive emergency situations). Each of these serves an important function in the life of communities and individuals.

Now, there are plenty of alternative models, some of them using the same language in different ways, but I’m not going to belabour that here. What I do want to make clear is just that there are different types of ritual and that understanding this can help you to navigate an otherwise confusing terrain. So, to elaborate further:

Rites of Transformation. These rites focus, “not on restoring an already established order, but on creating a new one in which individuals and communities are radically changed. They do so by creating an expectation of something new, and by involving participants in intense experiences of liminality, spiritual encounter and communitas.” In short, these are your rites of passage and include events like weddings and group initiation ceremonies.

Rites of Intensification. These rites “publicly reaffirm the existing social and religious order, which become blurred and forgotten in ordinary life.” They are characterised by predictability and are often cyclical, occurring daily, weekly, monthly or annually. Secular examples include birthdays, festivals and anniversaries. Sometimes this reaffirmation “is achieved by reversing normal status and roles for a time to show that changes only lead to chaos.” An example of  intensification by reversal is Halloween.

Rites of Crisis. These rites tend to be unscheduled and come into their own when disastrous change strikes the community, or threatens it in some way, creating anxiety and uncertainty. These crises may involve individuals, families or the community as a whole. The rites effect healing and hope by reinforcing bonds and pointing to the transcendent beyond everyday experience. The spontaneous outpouring of grief at the death of Princess Diana could be regarded as an adhoc crisis rite that brought people together.

So, where does Christian ritual sit within this framework? In “Anthropology and Theology” Douglas Davies writes:

“…if Baptism is the symbolic rite of initiation, involving the death of the old self and the birth of the new through contact with the divine Spirit, then the Eucharist is the prime rite of intensification…”

Are these our only rites of transformation and intensification? And what are our rites of crisis? And are we locked into the past? I want to explore all this and more in future posts.  

5 thoughts on “Types of Ritual

  1. Great post, Matt. I will be delving deeply here, as I am in the midst of visioning a counter-cultural church planting scenario. These kinds of rituals will be very important and I am grateful for the structure you have provided for some of my pondering….
    I can already see many kinds of rituals in mind, but I believe it is helpful to call them what they are and acknowledge our need for their kind of work in our lives.
    As with so many other things, we all have rituals…we just don’t consistently acknowledge them or call them that!
    The void of helpful crisis rituals is a particular failing of the church, in my mind. The perception that the Christian does not grieve or get angry if they are “real” is such a terrible thing that robs the church of power in the midst of life to transform and reconcile.
    Thanks, again.


  2. Glad you found it of value Peggy and can already see some of the possibilities. This is all stuff I’ve been pondering on and experimenting with for a while, but until now I haven’t felt ready to really speak on it. I think we do have more crisis rituals than we realize but it is a comparatively underdeveloped area and one I would like to focus on.


  3. Baptism, marriage, confirmation, ordination are rituals of transformation.
    Eucharist and various annual, weekly and daily festivals and rituals are rites of intensification. These would include memorial services for the dead, family celebrations and the like.
    Funerals, ministry to the sick would belong to rituals of crisis.
    In the Orthodox there are services of intercession (Molieben/Paraklesis) which belong to both intensification and crisis.


  4. Thanks Steve.
    Yes, I was thinking it would be helpful to look at the sacraments, mysteries and ordinances of the Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant traditions in parallel.
    Of the seven sacraments Catholics acknowledge I think the only one you haven’t mentioned is penance / confession which I would take as both a crisis rite and an intensification rite, depending on the circumstances.
    Other rites I would like to examine are pilgrimage, foot washing, exorcism / deliverance, alter calls, pentecostal healing services, retreat, labyrinths, fasting … the list goes on.
    I would then like to examine how these sit within our multi-cultural urban post-Christendom context. As you might imagine I want to stir the pot a bit.


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