Tuesday, March 10, 2009

In Support of Solemnity

We live in a casual culture. The Church, in it's constant struggle to be in the world but not of the world (or however you want to put it), is pulled between getting with the times and maintaining tradition. These poles are misleading of course, because nothing is more traditional than getting with the times, and in many cases nothing is more timely than a carefully maintained tradition. However, I think it is a fair assessment to say that many clergy in the mainline protestant circles I run in have been driven by an iconoclastic impulse against formality and "rigidity" in the church.

This is a broad trend that is not new. It applies to everything from music styles in worship, to the rejection of vestments and clerical regalia, to preaching from the floor instead of the pulpit. It applies to the use of slang, our discomfort with titles, and interest in vernacular paraphrases of scripture like "The Message". It is also evidenced by our rejection of rules, desire for flexibility, and tendency to make things up as we go along instead of following a process that we repeat mechanically. We want to use consensus decision making processes instead of parliamentary structure. We like discernment, but we hate popular votes.

In many ways this describes me very well, and I think I have good reasons for some of these preferences. More and more, however, I find that I don't like where this trend leads. I am strongly convicted that solemnity is actually of huge benefit to ministry, and discarding it is a bad idea.

Even in a culture as thoroughly casual as our own, solemnity is employed to indicate what we hold important. No one acts the same at a job interview as they would at a beach party (generally). By making our rituals casual we signal to the participants that they are unimportant. Far from being approachable it makes us irrelevant. Ritual should transport the participants to an alternate world, not fit seamlessly with daily life. Solemnity is one crucial way we signify that this time, this place, these people are set apart.

Consider some examples...

I get up to preach my sermon, and between the scripture reading and the actual beginning of my sermon I say, "Hey, guys, how ya doin'?" I shift my weight from foot to foot while sifting through my notes until I find my spot and then I say, "Okay, so the sermon today is about..."

I see preachers start this way all the time. It tells the congregation that what they are about to say is totally unimportant. No different from a chat over latte - which is often exactly what they are trying to communicate. However, if a sermon is no different from a casual conversation why the hell would the congregation come to church instead of staying at home and having a casual conversation, with people they probably like better than the pastor? In some cases this is a misguided attempt to be approachable, but in many it is just lazy and unprofessional.

Can you preach with solemnity and professionalism from the floor in street clothes? Yes and yes. However, don't be dismissive too quickly of the pulpit and robe. From years in the theater I know very well how crucial a set and costumes are to a production. Donning the costume and stepping on stage are powerful aids to getting into character. Don't succumb to the temptation to treat the sanctuary like your living room. If you change your clothes from what you would wear day to day, and you change your setting in some small way it will affect your preaching in a positive way, because you won't lapse into incoherent rambling or forget what it is you are doing as easily.

I go to the local hospice for visitation in jeans and a T-Shirt. I come without any prayers, rituals or scripture to share. I just sit and chat.

Don't get me wrong, it is wonderful to go sit and chat with people in hospice. For many people that will be all they want. Some will reject offers of prayers or scripture reading, or sharing communion, and in many cases they won't care or notice what you're wearing. Some WILL notice what you're wearing though and it will effect how they treat you. Especially if there is a big age difference, arriving in too casual of attire will be an obstacle to them accepting your pastoral ministry. Furthermore clothes have the same effect here as in preaching - they remind you of the job you're doing.

What happens though when you run out of things to chat about? What if you have nothing in common with the person you are visiting? What if you are just in a foul mood on the day you are needed for visitation? If all you are bringing is yourself and your conversation you are frequently going to be inadequate. As a minister you have more to offer than yourself. You have the rituals and traditions of the church. Why rely on your witty repartee when you could rely on the Bread of Life?

A long time member approaches me and says they've never been baptized, but since most Presbyterians are baptized as babies and they're already an active member previous pastors have told them that it wasn't important. The commitment that baptism symbolizes is all that matters and since they're already committed to the church there is no reason to perform the sacrament.

If we regard the sacraments solemnly we could never say that being baptized is unimportant. If Baptism isn't even important enough to bother doing then why should we regard the things it symbolizes as important either? Why are repentance, or adoption, or regeneration, or membership in the church things to be valued?

This last example to me is a sign of where a lack of solemnity leads. It starts by saying rituals are merely symbolic actions. If so, then the solemnity with which we normally conduct them, and the rules that govern that solemnity are not necessary. We can jettison both. Once we've done that though, we are left wondering of what importance the ritual itself is. If the ritual is not important then why bother doing it at all? Supposedly only the symbolic meaning of the ritual matters, but what is missed is that rituals are not actions with symbolic meaning. Rituals enact meaning through symbolism. Without the ritual there is no meaning.

Solemnity around the ritual is intended to remind us of the importance of enacting meaning.


Heather W. Reichgott said...

Is joy part of solemnity?

Doug Hagler said...

In my opinion, it should be.

I think that what Aric is talking about as solemnity is what I would characterize as awe - that is, awe is the component that makes a ritual meaningful for me. Solemnity is one way to respond to the sense of awe, but awe is impossible without both joy and fear.

This might make an interesting post. You know, with all that free time I have right now :p

Aric Clark said...


Joy is definitely a part of solemnity - I think of the Orthodox Great Vigil of Easter as a perfect example. In fact, I'd say solemnity is almost a prerequisite for true Joy - as opposed to something more shallow like "fun" or "amusement". Because Joy means you recognize the source of your emotion as important, worthy or reverence.

@ Doug

Awe could definitely be substituted for solemnity if what I'm talking about here, though I think of awe as more of a spontaneous response and solemnity as something you can cultivate, but I suppose that's just my bias. Also I wanted to use the word solemnity because no one is against "awe" or "wonder", but some people have negative associations with the word "solemn".