The first of three volumes (you can call them books if you like) I’m composing in the bricolage of blogging is about conventional “Christian” weekly gatherings of persons who have roughly the same convictions — which means, in practical terms, about the same socioeconomic levels and in enough proximity to attend conveniently. The middle volume will consider a variety of examples, anthropological and otherwise — of people thrown together or grown together. The third looks at the neurology of intense experiences and the means of designing them.
The dimension that makes gatherings “religious” is two-fold. First is a concern for survival in the circumstances of the community which will be partly a center that defines the group, holding them together around an identity; and partly a response to the demand for change to better fit changing circumstances. If it’s major enough, we can call that a “paradigm shift.” A healthy community must do both things.
Related but not the same, religion is often concerned with reconciling the individual with the group, so that one does not destroy the other. The more powerful and effective the group is, the more the individual will suffer; the more disruptive and original the individual is, the more the community must struggle to keep its identity. (I’m not going to deal with demagogues and wealthy powerful minorities able to impose death or slavery on a larger group.) We are still torturing and killing dissidents; we are still bombing communities to rubble. But we are deserting the US Sunday morning churches self-identifying as Christian.
When most of the people in the ecological/geographical area experience the world in similar ways, then ceremonies gradually accrue and develop to suit most of the people. When there is much mixing of populations, as we struggle with today, the work of developing community sharing on a regular basis must address two levels. One is the content of the philosophy/theology/mythology of the specific group and the other is the practicality of what to do and how to do it.
Issues may be specific and time-limited, which may mean Robert’s Rules of Order becomes the spine of the order of worship, esp in small groups that become political. But the task of organizing a community service that must reconcile people with different backgrounds and assumptions, or a community that is so new that there is no guiding history of customs, thought must go deeper. For instance, at the moment on a grand scale, this nation must answer the question of who we are, what unites us, how to deal with the terror of the Unknown, and how to find common cause with the Other. In short, what must we do to save ourselves — and what about all these Others who are not in sympathy? Can this be done via the internet, which is a virtual community?
These are important issues and certainly religious in the sense of institutions, but what do they mean on Sunday morning or Friday evening or Saturday at church, synagogue or mosque, which are the practical considerations of time and space. The most obvious and yet probably least considered issue is who may enter. Most churches and synagogues will welcome everyone who is not disruptive and is otherwise honorable.
No one guards the door to exclude certain categories of people considered undesirable, not even in the way that doorkeepers guard nightclubs to keep out the boring, or dinner party hostesses who consider their guest lists to create compatible but stimulating tabletalk. No Christians that I know of require admission fees or even free tickets to sit in church pews these days, though that was been the practise in early American days when church and state separated so that no more tax money came to churches. Families “subscribed” to seating boxes for their family and friends, pews that actually had little gates and labels, like sports events or opera boxes.
Traditionally Jews must pay dues for High Holy Days, which are right now. This has become controversial.
Often little subdivisions within the religious community form. Since Western institutions can never resist hierarchies and bureaucracies, there will always be a secluded “board” or a committee or a more intensely devout circle that might be in or out of the institution. Some of them are focused on worship issues. Convents and monasteries may be cloistered.
What I’m after here is heightened consciousness of the choices that can be made by a community when they are either new or seeking renewal, small enough to be experimental, thoughtful enough to relate broadly to the greater citizenship in a praiseworthy way. I would exclude violence but include demonstrations, civil disobedience, spontaneous street groups or creativity along the lines of political puppet groups, like Bread and Puppets.
The first thing, of course, is getting the people into the space, the “headspace” as much as the physical seating space which may or may not be aesthetically designed to evoke sacredness: high ceilings, stained glass windows, a focus for a speaker, statuary, icons. Architecture is an important component of religion though we are more used to thinking of it from the outside of the building. Some groups meet in secular spaces. Others might meet in the out-of-doors, structured around a central fire or in a clearing.
The attendees should be able to tell whether they are “in the circle” or still outside. The value of a vague or permeable boundary that lets the uncommitted observe can be debated. Is it a breach or a doorway or both? What is the likely reaction of the outsider? How much must privacy or even secrecy be protected? Is this a social action group that wants to be heard or a therapeutic group like AA that needs discretion?
In northern climates a “cloak room” where people can take off heavy coats and galoshes can be a transitional space where people still visit and greet in a casual way, but the fact of wearing inner layers of clothing means that they are discarding their anonymity. In the vestry the celebrant and possibly the choir put on special garments, the celebrant in order to be separately identified and the choir to become a group.
The conventional ways of opening a “worship” service include a musical prelude, maybe entrance down the aisle by the choir and celebrant. In some cases the people all stand until these adjuncts are in place. Sometimes there is group singing or maybe just the choir singing as they walk. When movement stops, sometimes there is a prayer or some other welcoming statement. We’re all familiar with the traditional opening of weddings and funerals, “Dearly beloved, we gather today to celebrate . . .” The Valier town council begins with the “Pledge of Allegiance” to the United States. Ball games and political events begin with singing “The Star Spangled Banner.”
These are secular or semi-secular, rather formal and traditional ways of organizing events. To address the kind of spiritual service that intends to reach out for the Holy, possibly in a Pentecostal or Quaker way (to mention two contrasting aesthetics) demands more thought, especially in a time of New Age chemical shortcuts. But even the taking of theogenic substances needs to be in some kind of setting and time-frame, possibly with orderlies like those in Plains Indian ceremonies who tend the hot coals of a sweat lodge or chop the leaves on the tobacco board for those passing a pipe in order to become attuned to each other.
I spent some time trying to think up new-and-startling or old-and-trustworthy ways to make an “in-gathering” that would take people over the limen (threshold) to the realization that everyone was present. Here are some of the idea categories I played with. They might be either major or minor, thus my uncertain capitalization.
PEOPLE OUTSIDE/DOORS OPEN
IMPORTANT PERSON COMES TO THE FRONT AND RAISES ARMS or a DOOR OPENS IN THE FRONT AND THE CELEBRANT STEPS THROUGH.
BEING LED IN BLIND-FOLDED
EVERYONE HOLDING ONTO A ROPE AND COMING IN
HANDING OUT SOMETHING TO EACH PERSON, LIKE THE FANS SUPPLIED TO SOUTHERN CONGREGATIONS BEFORE AC. (Often emblazoned with the name and phone number of the local funeral parlor.)
The Order of Service or a hymnal counts.
What’s needed is something that draws a line to cross, but the gathered people could be “discovered” already seated inside.
There could be a special sound, maybe a shofar or a specific prelude like the one that announces a bride’s entrance.
CANDLES could be lit.
SMUDGING or the use of incense
Everyone could be issued something once they are seated — like the order of service, or a hand-held candle, or something to put over the neck like a length of ribbon to act like a celebrant’s “shawl” or a button to wear.
GESTURES. The celebrant throws arms up in blessing. Everyone lifts up hand of greeting. Handshakes with neighbors. (Hugs are controversial because they can be dangerous, invasive.) Catholics cross themselves. Touching Holy Water counts. Genuflection.
Taking a voluntary collection counts as a way of indicating membership, a willingness to contribute, and a boundary.
The Western religious tradition that reaches back to Abraham and tries to serve the entire planet has many internal resources that developed as the original assumptions spread through other continents, other worlds. Literacy in this history is very helpful and helps to break up the bubble assumptions confined to one small demographic.