Liturgy and Civic Ritual


The Australian Academy of Liturgy (AAL) recently held its annual conference. The AAL is an association of liturgists from a variety of Christian traditions. Through the work of its members the association seeks to animate the liturgical spirit of the traditions and congregations in Australia.
The conference theme was "Out of the Depths: Religious Ritual in Public Life". The focus was on the way we ritualise events in the wider life of the community. It grew out of the experiences of Australians during the last five years in which the Church was called to respond to significant community events such as the Port Arthur tragedy, the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race disaster, the Blackhawk accident, the Thredbo landslide and the HMAS Westralia fire. The first two of these occurrences impacted greatly on the people of Hobart which was the venue for the conference.
With the coming centenary of Federation and other significant anniversaries, it was thought appropriate that the conference should explore the way in which Christian theology, liturgy and hope can ritualise the deepest yearnings of the wider community.
Sometimes people are hesitant to approach the Church for help in preparing civic rituals. They may be afraid of the Church and its judgments, or fear that the Church may use the occasions for its own ends. Our "churchy" language too is often a barrier to communication with the wider community.
It is important that the Church build ongoing relationships with the community so that the climate exists for close co-operation when times of need arise. Such relationships are forged if the Church reaches out to the community in welcome and if its members involve themselves in the life of the world around it. Our expertise in liturgy can be offered to the local community to help mark "little moments" in its life, not just the big events and tragedies. Sometimes we are reticent to offer our services, perhaps because of lack of confidence in our skills in the area of ritual. Our experience of using words, symbols and gesture in public worship is a gift we can bring to people wanting to ritualise deep personal feelings.
In times of crisis or of special significance, people often express the desire for something "inspiring" or "spiritual" without knowing exactly what to ask for. Talking with those concerned about the event is the starting point. The words and phrases they use can be incorporated into the liturgy so that they truly have ownership of it. It is important also to consider who the rite is for, where it will be held and what gestures and symbols might have a place. People can often be assisted to create their own ritual based on simple objects such as cloth, candles and water. The elements of worship to which we are so accustomed can be translated to meet most situations: gathering and greeting, call to worship (naming the situation and our feelings), affirmation (naming our hopes), intercession, ritual action and blessing and sending out.
The key is elegance, simplicity, dignity and brevity. It is not about preparing magnificent rituals but enabling people to express their grief and hopes together.

Elizabeth Harrington