Ritual, Symbol, and Ceremony

The attraction and staying power of religious tradition rests largely in the appeal of ritual, symbol, and ceremony. Quakerism—and other spiritual movements within Christendom that became devoted to outward simplification—did not forsake ritual and symbol, but reshaped certain aspects of these religious forms and, in some cases, invented new ones.

Ritual and symbol in religious practice provide a sense of comfort and consistency. These qualities are crucial to the way they work. Early Quakerism radically pruned away the rituals and symbols of 17th-century Christianity in expectation that forms of greater authenticity and spiritual vitality would emerge from the rootstock of the tradition as portrayed in the Gospels and early Church writings. Although Quakerism radically discarded conventional ritual and symbol, it reinvented ritual forms and visual symbols that advanced the collective self-understanding of the movement.

While the importance of most of these early rituals and symbols such as plain speech, plain dress, meetinghouse architecture, and the undoffable hat has receded, there are, in particular, one ritual and one symbol that not only have endured but have come to define Quaker worship in the unprogrammed tradition: the ritual of meeting in silence and the symbolism of seating within the meeting space. These enduring forms reveal Quakerism’s sense of ceremony. Traditional Quaker worship, having discarded virtually all ritual and symbol, is paradoxically resilient and fragile. Traditional Quaker practice is resilient because it fosters diversity and has endured in part because it can emerge in almost any setting where people share a certain sense of the spiritual. I t is fragile, however, because the strength of its ritual effect depends on the quality of participant contribution at any given meeting for worship. The quality of contribution is manifest in both silent presence and spoken message—factors that vary over time and circumstances.

Symbols in Quaker practice are simple, but are cherished nonetheless. The design of traditional meetinghouse interiors is as singular a symbol as the silent meeting is a ritual. The arrangement of facing benches in place of altar or pulpit is clearly symbolic of the association that occurs in the meeting space. The face-to-face community and the "presence in the midst" are objectively symbolized in this seating arrangement.

Another aspect of association and relationship is clearly evident in the interior of traditional meetinghouses. Facing benches generally have only a fraction of the seating capacity of the whole meeting space, and these facing benches are typically elevated a bit. I n the past, the elders of the meeting occupied these benches. With this practice, another important symbol was layered into, and modified: the basic egalitarian nature of Quaker meeting. Changing social mores have now modified the leadership symbolism of the facing benches. Children and young people, as often as not, may be found seated there as well. The symbolism remains intact, but the openness to emerging leadership has now changed and welcomes a more diverse group of participants.

This change can also be seen in the circle seating of many small meetings, and in those taking place in temporary locations. Circle seating now seems to be the preferred arrangement whenever the number of participants and the place of meeting permit. Here, too, is the great power and comfort of symbolism among Friends—the egalitarian, face-to-face seating for "presence in the midst."

The movement in Western Christendom that discarded ritual and symbol in religious practice began with the Anabaptists and the Radical Reformation in the 16th century. This movement was partly a reaction against the corruption of the Roman Church, as well as against Martin Luther’s Reformation, for not going far enough—for not reverting to the model of the early Church. But something else was also afoot—a precursor to the Enlightenment period of the 18th century when the hold of religious doctrine and church hierarchy was broken wide open and various options of belief and worldview became credible.

The critical factors that began this upheaval were the technology of moveable type and the printing and distribution of the Bible and other religious writings, along with increasing literacy. These changes stirred into motion the idea that people could ponder the meanings of religion, spiritual life, and social and economic relationships for themselves. Certain people, like George Fox, with no theological training but endowed with a sense of guidance, and the ability to reason systematically and communicate effectively, became serious thinkers and religious teachers. The reformers of the Radical Reformation, and later people like Gerrard Winstanley and George Fox rethought the foundation and practice of the Christian religion. This was the first glimmer of the Enlightenment, the beginning of critical thought and experiential alternatives to what the Christian tradition had become under the auspices of the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Reformation.

Quakerism, as it arose in the 17th century with the guidance of just such readers, thinkers, and communicators, carried the experiential approach to religious practice just about as far as the impulse for deeply inward, unencumbered spiritual experience could carry it. But even in this radical effort to reach and remain at the root of what wells up in human experience as religious feeling, it is clear that ritual, symbol, and a sense of ceremony are still present—in ways, it seems to me, no less powerful, comforting, and binding into community than practices of High Church.

Sitting in meeting for worship is not casual. I t is ritual, and as ritual it has the potential to foster a range of experience and sense of ceremony. I t can be as simple as bringing a sense of comfort (a home for the soul), or transporting the participant into a trembling sense of urgency and responsibility for speaking a message. I t spans every level of attention and prompting in between. High Church ritual may sometimes accomplish something of the same, but it seems mostly to stop short of revelatory potential. I n High Church ritual one knows what to expect, and the outcome is in sight. I n the ritual of Quaker meeting—expectant waiting—the practitioner never knows quite what to expect, and the outcome can be surprising. Quaker meeting is ritual in a deep and soul-engaging mode. I t is not just handed to you; it requires full attention and conscious participation to reveal its potential.

The ceremonial practice of face-to-face and circle seating was clearly not a Quaker invention, as anyone familiar with the talking circles and council meetings of Aboriginal cultures knows. This social form comes from experiences widely rooted in the human story. What is interesting here is that it reemerged in Quakerism when Friends turned in expectant waiting for guidance from the Inward Teacher of right relationships. We can see an ancient template of best practice in human community at work in Quaker meeting.

The symbolic power of face-to-face and circular seating arrangements is now often manifest in the interior architecture of modern churches. Many religious groups now practice circle seating for various kinds of programs and events. There is nothing peculiarly Quaker in this practice, but the symbolic power of egalitarian seating arrangements was pioneered—in Christendom— by Friends practice, and continues today as a leavening witness in modern social and religious life.

While it is true that ritual and symbol in Quaker practice have been pruned down almost to the root, they offer, for this very reason, a great amplitude and resonance of engagement. The more one sits with Quaker ritual and symbol, the broader and deeper and more luminescent they become.

They derive their power of attraction from a sense that the whole of life is ceremony. The sense of ceremony derives from the realization that everything runs on relationships, and that relationships, to be kept right, require attention. The good life and the good community are not automatic endowments; they require maintenance in the form of the ceremonial enactment of the relationships of which they are composed. That ceremonial enactment is built up within a sense of guidance—for Quakers, guidance identified as the Light, as the Inward Teacher of right relationship.

The highest function of ritual and symbol is to be a vehicle for the guidance of the Light. Friends practice of ritual, symbol, and ceremony carries forward a transaction with this guidance that remains an ongoing opening into the future.

Keith Helmuth

Keith Helmuth, a member of New Brunswick Monthly Meeting in Canada, is one of the founders of Quaker Institute for the Future.