As some of you will know, much of my thought and reflection over the past year or so has been shaped by Rod Dreher’s recent discussion of what he terms the “Benedict Option”. If you’re new to the term don’t read another word until you’ve had the time to digest this helpful introduction to the topic here.
I’ve found Dreher’s contributions to be very stimulating personally. While much (probably most) of what he calls for is simply a faithful expression of historic Christianity the perspectives and practices he calls for are things that we vitally need to recover and explore if Christianity in the West is itself to remain vital. There are many things I appreciate about the Benedict Option (and I’m eagerly awaiting the publication of his book on the subject in March, 2017) but in this article I want to consider a more specific issue that has arisen in the conversation surrounding the Benedict Option – namely the role of ritual.
Drawing on the writing of Patristics scholar Robert Louis Wilken, Dreher has repeatedly highlighted the central role of ritual in the formation and transmission of the Christian faith and life. While Dreher (who is Eastern Orthodox) goes out of his way to cast the Benedict Option in Ecumenical terms, he himself openly wonders if, “The lack of ritual in most Protestantism and much of modern Catholicism — [impedes] our ability to remember?” While I would share Mr. Dreher’s concern that much of modern Protestantism (especially in its non-denominational and broadly evangelical expression) lacks the thick practices and habits which form Christian character and preserve Christian culture, I think it’s important to recognize that this hasn’t always been the case, and as someone who is writing out of the Reformed tradition I think Dreher’s concerns can serve to push us to reflect on our own Reformed rituals.
Now it may strike you that the term “Reformed ritual” is nothing more than an oxymoron. Certainly, the language of ritual has traditionally been avoided in most of the Reformed tradition (often out of a well founded distaste for ritualism) but defined correctly, Reformed piety and practice has rituals because “ritual” is just another term for that piety and practice. So what, then, are the practices which constitute Reformed Ritualism? Here are a few that came to my mind:
I. Family Worship
The Reformed tradition has long preserved and promoted the practice of family worship. Building on the biblical commands which God gave to His covenant people in the Old Testament, the Reformation argued that the family is to be a “school of Christ” and a “little church”. Without in any way undermining the unique priority and role of God’s corporate people groups such as the Westminster Assembly encouraged families to cultivate the daily practice of family worship. In addition to the more famous Westminster Confession of Faith with Larger and Shorter Catechisms, the Westminster Assembly also produced several additional documents for the benefit of the church. Among these was a document entitled The Directory for Family-Worship. The main features of family worship are well outlined in the second paragraph of the Directory:
II. The ordinary duties comprehended under the exercise of piety which should be in families, when they are convened to that effect, are these: First, Prayer and praises performed with a special reference, as well to the publick condition of the kirk [church] of God and this kingdom, as to the present case of the family, and every member thereof. Next, Reading of the scriptures, with catechising in a plain way, that the understandings of the simpler may be the better enabled to profit under the publick ordinances, and they made more capable to understand the scriptures when they are read; together with godly conferences tending to the edification of all the members in the most holy faith: as also, admonition and rebuke, upon just reasons, from those who have authority in the family.
The paragraph quoted above already points to the next Reformed ritual worth considering: the practice of catechesis. In a very helpful article (which contains links to a number of solid resources on the subject), Camden Bucey offers some sound reflections on the Importance of Catechesis:
Reformed catechesis in the home, especially, grounds a child in the reformed doctrines and solidifies them by building a foundational structure. Whenever a catechized child encounters a new doctrine, its claims pass through a reformed grid. Catechesis, then is not simply instruction, but foundational and provides guidance and counsel to children when parents are not directly available to provide instruction – even as they grow up and move out on their own.
III. Christian Education
These first two rituals flow naturally into the next: Christian Education. It is significant that part of the work of the Reformation was the promotion of learning and literacy. Early American settlers (for example) would often form themselves in communities around the twin institutions of the church and the school. The first great institutions of higher learning in this country (whether Harvard, Princeton, or Yale) all have, not only Christian, but specifically Reformed roots. The emphasis on Christian education has in fact been a feature of almost every expression of the Reformed tradition (whether Dutch, Scottish, English or American). Ben House delves into some of that history in our own country in his article: Classical Christian Education: A Look at some History
Typically the schools in early American history were Classical Christian schools. The instructors were usually ministers whose training was a combination of classical languages and literature and Protestant theology. In other words, they studied the Bible in its original Hebrew and Greek, and they read Homer’s Iliad in Greek, Tacitus’ histories in Latin, as well as studying John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. For example, Moses Waddell, a Southern Presbyterian preacher and teacher (1770-1840), began studying Latin at age eight, and after six years of school, he had finished courses in Greek, Latin, and mathematics.
IV. Psalm Singing
The Reformers were famous for their radical re-centering of the Christian life around the Word of God. This found expression not only in the preaching of the church but also in the praise of the church. Many early Reformers were in face exclusive Psalmists (they believed that the only acceptable source for singing in Christian worship was the inspired Book of Psalms). While the Reformed tradition has often (though not always) moved away from the exclusive Psalmody position of these early Reformers, the Psalms have nevertheless played a central role in historic Reformed worship. Psalm singing often shaped not only the praise but the practical piety of Reformed believers.
V. Lord’s Day Observance
This leads naturally to the final ritual I wish to highlight which is Lord’s Day observance. Again, this is a practice which has experience too much of a decline in our own day despite the fact that it was central to our forefathers. In fact, earlier Reformed believers saw Lord’s Day observance as so vital that they often made statements like this from J.C. Ryle:
The subject is one which is of immense importance. It is not too much to say that the prosperity or decay of organized Christianity depends on the maintenance of the Christian Sabbath. Break down the fence which now surrounds the Sunday, and our Sunday schools will soon come to an end. Let in the Hood of worldliness and pleasure-seeking on the Lord’s Day, without check or hindrance, and our congregations will soon dwindle away. There is not too much religion in the land now. Destroy the sanctity of the Sabbath, and there would soon be far less. Nothing in short, I believe, would so thoroughly advance the kingdom of Satan as to withdraw legal protection from the Lord’s Day. It would be a joy to the infidel; but it would be an insult and offence to God.
I’ve only pointed towards some of these practice but each of them deserves (and have elsewhere received) a more thorough discussion. Nevertheless, it is my hope that Dreher’s writings on the Benedict Option can help Reformed Christians to more intentionally and thoughtfully reengage with the practices and rituals which have formed our tradition through the centuries. Many of these practices which were so vital to the preservation and propagation of the Reformed faith have fallen on hard times. If we are to survive the dark days ahead we must work to revive practice such as these.