Some words seem problematic for the secularist. There was a good to-and-fro recently about ‘ritual’ on the blog a while ago and, in Funerals Without God, Jane Wilson says (a little sniffily to my mind) that Humanists talk about ‘ceremonies’ rather than ‘services’ because ceremonies are about celebration and mutual support while ‘service’ merely implies something done for God.
‘Service’ is one way in which the old word liturgy is translated and, if ‘service’ alarms the secular cats, liturgy puts their ears flat and their fur on end. As far as I can make out there are (at least) two reasons for this. The first is that the word has always been a religious expression. The second is that liturgy implies a fixed order of service: words said and actions done in a prescribed way. And, of course, we celebrants aspire to the ideal of unique and individually tailored services.
I don’t want to spend too much time on the religious objections. It matters, but the argument that religion has – for far too long – been allowed to colonise and define what is important and intrinsic to each of us, or that part of our job here should be to insist on reclaiming it as a right (a sort of Arab Spring of the spirit), can wait for another day.
No, I want to think about liturgy as something that could be important to take into account in the ceremonies I (we) have been creating.
Sure, we do wonderful things – flowers, doves, candles, music and motorbikes – but, if we are honest, aren’t these memorable because they are the exception? I’m not saying that our ceremonies aren’t individual, that we don’t try to tailor what we do, or that the elaborateness of the ceremony is any guide to the depth of feeling but…but… is it just me or does everyone get tired sometimes of the sound of their own voice? Are we all sweating over words that try to bring out something more of the meaning and value of the ceremony we are creating? Do others lie awake thinking of ways to engage people more in what is being enacted in front of them?
Liturgy is also translated as ‘the work of the people’ in the sense that, in religious services, God is asked to do something, but the congregation are expected to work too – through prayer, repentance, and all the regular religious ducking and dancing. In this sense Liturgy is less about words than the expectation that, when you are in a service, you are expected to do something too. Quakers sitting in silence waiting for the spirit to move them are practising a liturgy.
Of course the religions have this nailed down now. People who take part in religious services know what is expected of them. Are we letting people down by not expecting ‘work’ from them in our ceremonies? They aren’t services for God but shouldn’t celebrations also be services for the support and comfort of the people gathered together?
Isn’t there work to be done?