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SATURDAY, DECEMBER 30, 2006
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Scott Molar, left, Dylan Bargas and Cindy Molar light candles during a Christmas Eve service at Decatur Christian Church.
Daily photo by Jonathan Palmer
Scott Molar, left, Dylan Bargas and Cindy Molar light candles during a Christmas Eve service at Decatur Christian Church.

Rite or not?
Christmas traditions point to
debate over ritual in worship

By Melanie B. Smith
msmith@decaturdaily.com 340-2468

During Christmas, something propels many Christians to light candles, sing old songs, take Communion and follow other traditional forms of worship, even if they don't practice their faith that way on a typical Sunday.

Some of the faithful carry out specific activities generation after generation, such as attending a late night service on Christmas Eve or making sure their children play a shepherd or a lamb in a Nativity play.

Phillip Warnick said although his church, Decatur Christian, observes the Lord's Supper every Sunday, he seeks to keep it fresh by recalling Christ's sacrifice.
Daily photo by Jonathan Palmer
Phillip Warnick said although his church, Decatur Christian, observes the Lord's Supper every Sunday, he seeks to keep it fresh by recalling Christ's sacrifice.
Yet others scoff at doing traditions over and over, worrying they'll be following empty rituals.

The viewpoints reflect an ancient controversy over right ways to worship God.

For instance, the Pilgrims, those influential early religious settlers in Massachusetts, believed that Christmas and Easter celebrations were unscriptural and repugnant.

These holidays were manmade to memorialize Jesus, a presumption "too much for any mortal man," said the Pilgrims' pastor, John Robinson.

According to mayflowerhistory
.com, the Puritan Pilgrims believed that most rites of the church from which they separated — the Church of England — were inventions of man.

Others have viewed traditional forms of worship as essential to the continuity of Christianity.

Unresolved

American believers are not done with the debate.

Florida State University religion professor Amanda Porterfield said rituals are important to Christians, even if their churches reject official rites.

"I think it's important to note a distinction between the practice of religion in ordinary life and rituals of formal religious observance. While Protestants have sometimes, but by no means always, resisted the latter, they have emphasized the importance of practicing faith in ordinary life," Porterfield told The Daily.

Phillip Warnick of Danville said attending Christmas Eve candlelight communion service at his church, Decatur Christian, helps him focus on Christ as the center of the season. He was there this year to sing songs, take part in the Lord's Supper and listen to a sermon.

Warnick said the service is an important tradition for him, even though his church doesn't practice what he thinks of as ritualistic worship.

Meaning

How can a believer follow religious traditions and not let them become trappings?

Warnick said his church observes the Lord's Supper every Sunday and he seeks to keep his observance fresh by recalling Christ's sacrifice.

He said he tries to let the ceremony renew his mind and would never let it get humdrum.

"It means too much," Warnick said.

The Rev. Ray Remke, pastor of Annunciation of the Lord Catholic Church, said to keep religious traditions fresh, worshippers should care about and understand what's behind them.

Remke also said as a priest who
celebrates the sacraments over and over, sharing the rites with fellow believers — being with them — keeps them from feeling stale.

More than feelings

Fred Craddock, emeritus professor at Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, warned of the danger of letting feelings hold the gospel captive as a backlash against empty ritual.

He wrote in "The Christian Century" that "some things are more important than how we may happen to feel about them on any given day."

Craddock said the Christian faith, being incarnational and historical, involves times, places, memories, traditions and communities.

"Separated from these, faith evaporates into a mood," he wrote.

Some contemporary worship leaders are giving Christian rites a second look. The Rev. John Throop of Peoria, Ill., wrote in "Ending the Worship Wars" that the liturgy isn't to blame if a service using it seems "dead." The leaders' spiritual life may be routine or empty, he said.

Throop every church, even one whose services feature praise choruses and skits, follows patterns that give comfort and a sense of memory.

Porterfield observed in "Contemporary American Religion" that since the 1960s, Americans have created new forms of ritual practice and gained new appreciation for old ones.

Remke said he's noticed traditions familiar to Catholics, and to others in liturgical churches, show up in new places. For instance, he recently saw an Advent wreath in a church that doesn't use the church calendar.

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