Ritual is the Last Thing to Go

Christmastime is upon us, and before too long hoards of folks who darken a church door only once or twice a year will be flooding into the churches. I have to say I can hardly blame them. One Christmas in law school my wife and I attended midnight Christmas Eve services as Trinity Church in Boston. It was a fabulous service — the music and the liturgy were gorgeous, the setting was spectacular, the sermon was uplifting and extremely polished. What is not to like? In short, it was a powerful set of rituals. I think of my friends who are otherwise unreligious, but get married in a church with a priest or pastor in attendance. I think of those I know who always make Easter and Christmas mass. It seems to me that long after commitment to creed and theology has crumbled; indeed, long after even belief in God has fled, liturgy and ritual remains for many. This is a bit of a problem for Mormons.

On the whole, Mormonism is not a liturgically rich religion. To be sure we have our ordinations, baptisms, confirmations, and sacraments, but in our weekly worship we have nothing to match the literary and performative beauty of the Book of Common Prayer. Even more striking, our richest liturgy is contained in the temple, which far from being the last thread holding the otherwise irreligious to the Church represents the esoteric core of the heartily committed. Doubters, of course, can get a temple recommend and attend to the temple. The point, however, is that temple worship is not costless. One cannot slip easily into the back pew in the endowment room once or twice a year without also spending some time in the pews of the chapel.

The liturgical thinness of the Church seems to me that this is a weakness. Certainly, from my point of view, having Christmas-time Mormons or Easter-service saints would be a good thing, in that these folks are now probably simply wholly inactive. We offer not liturgy or pageantry, however, to hold those whose commitment to theology — or even theism — has worn thin. What is more, I find that in my own spiritual life I end up creating ad hoc substitutes for ritual. For example, I generally try to read my scriptures while listening to Anglican music. I even enjoy a certain formality in my prayers. Rote repetition is frequently cited as a suplicatory sin, but I think that there is power to repeating scripted prayers despite their risks.

52 comments for “Ritual is the Last Thing to Go

  1. Richardson
    December 13, 2005 at 3:18 pm

    I’ve never noticed a particular increase in attendance in our ward on Christmas or Easter and was never quite sure why. Our attendance increases seem to come around other events, such as baby blessings and mission farewells (in their current form). These events also have some sense of ritual to them, a rite of passage so to speak, though maybe not as liturgical as you have in mind.

  2. John Mansfield
    December 13, 2005 at 4:00 pm

    This post has some similarity with another Brother Oman provided in May lamenting the Church’s lack of a millennium of tradition in debating the gospel. Again, it seems like an undervaluing of the Restoration. The ordinances of the gospel are not ceremonies nor rituals. This is deliberate, not an oversight. Administration of the sacrament, for example, is kept undistracting and unadorned. Embellishments, when they creep in, are pruned away by priesthood leaders. The lack of cultural attachments to hold nondisciples leaves the ordinances plainly what they are, covenants between Christ and his followers.

  3. Julie M. Smith
    December 13, 2005 at 4:20 pm

    You want rituals? I’ll give you rituals. Let’s start with the stimultaneous ripping open of dozens of little bags of fruit snacks, timed to correspond perfectly with the words, “We’d like to thank the priesthood [sic] for their reverence in administering the sacrament.”

  4. December 13, 2005 at 4:24 pm

    It may be interesting additionally to note that my stake will only be holding Sacrament meeting on the 25th. No Sun. School. No Priesthood.

  5. shane
    December 13, 2005 at 4:25 pm


    I could not disagree more. The fact that we don’t need to hide behind those types of stilted and pompous rituals is a strength, not a weakness. Didn’t the Lord already denounce those practices: “they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.”

  6. December 13, 2005 at 4:27 pm

    In my times of struggle with the Church, my deep appreciation of the temple liturgy and covenants has been a strong thread keeping me bound to the Church. This has forced me to consider, rather than act hastily. Perhaps, in those instances, for that period of time, the ritual was the last thing holding me in, until other aspects of my faith could catch up or recover. This seems a strength, rather than a weakness. And I have a great fondness for (and “holy envy” of) formal liturgies of other churches, but without the underlying faith, aren’t these “having the form of godliness, but denying the power thereof”?

    It seems to me the role you see for liturgy in holding those whose commitment to the doctrine is lacking is performed by the community of the Saints; hence, the term “cultural Mormon”.

    – Grasshopper (listening to Anglican Christmas services)

  7. Lamonte
    December 13, 2005 at 4:30 pm

    Nate – thanks for addressing this issue. I was born into the church and frankly, I haven’t attended the services of many other churches. I’ve been to a few Catholic weddings and one Catholic funeral and I was impressed at each by the beauty of the music and the ceremony. While involved in the design of a small Episcopal church renovation I attended Sunday services. The physical and aesthetic qualities of these services were pleasant but I was underwhelmed by the personal or human qualities. It may seem trite to say that I didn’t feel the spirit at these meetings but that is what was missing. On the other hand it is also missing from many of the Sacrament meetings I’ve attended in our church as well.

    I’ve often wondered what it is that inspires me to attend church each week with our spartan meeting houses usually void of any pleasing finishes or adornment. The speakers are often inspiring but it isn’t something I can count on each week and so I question what it is that keeps me committed.

    Of course there is the personal witness I have of the truth – my testimony – and the inherent goodness that practicing the precepts of my religion has brought to my family. But what makes me want to return each week to that experience? Why do I seek fellowship at my ward?

    I think the answer may lie, at least for me, in an experience from last night. We invited many friends from our ward to join us in a multi-family Christmas home evening. Each year we hold this annual event and we make Christmas packages for the missionaries serving from our ward. We sing songs and share stories – Christmas stories – and of course we eat lots of decadent food. Many of us in our ward in Northern Virginia are from the west and so these folks are the only family we have within many miles. Our get-together each year usually includes the same people but occasionally a new family will join us, if only for a few years while they pass through the ward. We have come to think of these folks as our brothers and sisters in the literal sense and we have shared joy and sorrow with them over the time we’ve been together.

    I don’t know if the experience of other churches fosters the closeness we have come to feel in our situation but I have to say that the association of my closest friends in the church coupled with the occasional, or frequent, spiritual experience in the weekly meetings is what keeps me there. I don’t think any ceremonial or aesthetic experience could ever replace that.

  8. MDS
    December 13, 2005 at 4:39 pm

    A personal anecdote in support of Nate’s post:

    Last night I wrapped up my Christmas singing with the last full concert of the Utah Master Chorale (www.utahmasterchorale.org). It was an interesting experience in that it was technically nondenominational, although my interactions with the rest of the chorale indicate a strong LDS slant, and the block of performances have been held at the Bountiful Community Church, which is affilliated with the United Church of Christ. I suspect that most of our audience was LDS, based on our location.

    The concerts did have a very Anglican feel to them, both in terms of the music and the readings from the scriptures. My mother, who grew up attending Episcopal services with her father, told me that the concerts were reminiscent of some of the Christmas services of her youth for that reason.

    This experience was a special one for me in that I really felt like this was some small part of my own little Christmas gift to the Savior, my way of singing his praises in a very meaningful way. I loved the cranking pipe organ (the closing number, O Come All Ye Faithful, with all organ stops let out, and soaring soprano descants above the congregation, really was powerful) the beautiful music we sang, etc. It made me wish there was a closer equivalent to this in my ward.

    For the record, my ward choir is actually pretty decent, and will be doing some nice numbers on Christmas day, and we even have a reasonably large pipe organ. (We just don’t let out all the stops that often).

  9. john scherer
    December 13, 2005 at 4:55 pm

    I just laughed out loud at work thanks to Julie(#2). Chewy food keeps little mouths busy.

  10. December 13, 2005 at 5:20 pm

    Nate, I think you raise something very important. In France everyone says they are Catholic but only a small minority are believers. Among our less active the majority do not consider themselves Mormon, even though the Church does.

    I think it is better to have people think of themselves as Mormon, even if they are not, than people not self identifying as Mormon. If one doesn’t believe, yet self-identifies, it gives the indavidual and the family a greater opportunity to come back at some point.

  11. TMD
    December 13, 2005 at 5:27 pm

    Well, Nate, you’ve got good taste. Though I grew up a good little Roman Catholic altarboy, it was at an episcopal college (www.sewanee.edu) that I gained a good appreciation of ritual. And though by then I was reading the BoM at night, I remember very fondly the 5-nights a week sung compline, led by students, done by candle-light, in the great choir of the chapel at 10 PM. In those contexts, the repetitive process, the quiet, the plainsong settings, the utilization of scriptures if nothing else put me in a mood to pray. At its best, that is the strenth of those rituals; and the repitition you mention can sometimes be the gateway to the deeper and more thoughtful prayer we aspire to.

  12. kris
    December 13, 2005 at 5:30 pm

    Nate, I think it is an interesting inversion of your title that in our church as members withdraw from their faith — or have it withdrawn from them, that our richest liturgical experience is often the first to go — ie. we stop going on our own volition, because of worthiness, or concern re: worthiness or our recommends are taken from us. To me, it is a noteworthy contrast.

  13. Seth Rogers
    December 13, 2005 at 6:05 pm

    The problem is that nobody gets paid to throw a big production each Christmas. Administration and Preaching are paid for in other faiths. This frees up the laity to voluteer to throw a bang-up fundraiser picnic, or whatever.

    In one of my wards, every Christmas for several years, the ward threw a “Journey to Bethlehem” Christmas activity. It was great. The cultural hall was dimmed, the ward scouters brought in big canvas tents and set them up, each family laid out blankets on the floor wherever they wanted and dressed up in the bathrobes and other de riguer faux ancient Israeli garb, and socialized and ate various dishes (some were authentic ethnic offerings too). While people were socializing, suddenly the lights would dim even more, a spotlight would come on and a group of priests bearing one of our high priests on a litter would make its way through the crowd as the announcer would read from the New Testament about King Herod. Later Joseph and Mary would walk through the crowd to similar narrative. Various other stage productions, including regular christmas carols sung by the audience would intersperse the evening. Kids could roam and sit with their friends …

    It was a lot of fun, and very relaxed and flexible, yet quite spiritual at the same time. A Very successful activity, by all accounts. The ward did it each year for several years.

    But, the tendency was to try and do it bigger and better each year. Eventually, people started to have their feelings hurt, the RS Presidency almost went nuts every Christmas trying to get everything together. Some of those women were in the stake center kitchen at 6 am and didn’t leave until 8 pm after the activity dispersed.


    The activity was eventually dropped as a yearly tradition and it was back to the traditional Ward Christmas Party potluck format. Volunteer spirit only carries most people so far. After that, I think a bit of cash helps.

    One of my other stakes has been running a yearly December production of the Messiah complete with amateur orchestra and interdenominational prayers. It was a fantastic experience to sing in it, and the people in that small town enjoyed turning out for it (we performed to a packed stake center (chapel and cultural hall) both years my wife and I participated. The dear sister who conducted and organized it was fabulous. But you could see the toll it was taking on her organizing typical ward choir fare and drilling them up to the point where they could sing something so complex, and organizing the soloists and orchestra.

    I hope she can keep it up. But who knows?

  14. David J
    December 13, 2005 at 6:05 pm

    Good post, Nate. We’re very boring indeed. The Charismatic churches blow us out of the water, let alone the more “adorned” but more toned-down churches.

    Ours could use a little spice, but who’s going to do it? Nobody. Like that guy said in #1, people would just be too afraid to implement anything “new” for fearing themselves “removed from the records,” which many people hold as their key to salvation, sadly.

  15. Kate
    December 13, 2005 at 6:06 pm

    I like that there is little liturgy in the church. We are not forbidden to create our own traditions, but the services are not embellished beyond what absolutely needs to be there. I love traditions and ritual, but I’d rather not have them tied up with the church and therefore the gospel unless they are necessary. The church doesn’t have to be the source of everything that is good. I can see how the liturgy and rituals that are comforting to some could be empty for others, and then would be stumbling blocks instead of aids to faith.

  16. norm
    December 13, 2005 at 6:23 pm

    TMD’s post made me think about tunnel-singing.

    i think church administration is quick to stamp out independent practices before they calcify (like prayer circles, say, or regular ward hikes to say a group prayer outside–in one ward i lived in)…but tunnel-singing has been going on a long time at BYU. (not sure how long)

    and it feels rather liturgical, or at least resembles ritual. when i went a few times, it was orchestrated by a single leader, who alone could speak, and followed strictly a format, opening, announcing hymns, leading them, “now is the time [for announcing mission calls, which also was done in a relatively defined format], then back to the announcement-sing, announcement-sing cadence, with prayers on either end…

    now, i don’t know that anyone has codified the rules of tunnel-singing, but it definitely felt liturgical, and inspired the sort of community awe + enthusiasm that church meetings rarely do.

  17. lyle
    December 13, 2005 at 6:26 pm

    So, let’s avoid being slothful and create our own rituals. My vote: keeping a christmas tree up year round.

  18. Mark B.
    December 13, 2005 at 6:37 pm

    J. Mansfield’s comments that the “ordinances of the gospel are not ceremonies or rituals” suggests the common refrain in the Church that ceremony or ritual is in itself a bad thing.

    I don’t agree.

    The temple ordinances themselves are all the evidence we need that ceremony and ritual can be central to our worship, and remind us (repetitively, I could add) that it was vain repetitions that the Lord commanded us to avoid.

    Our tight grip on the King James Version of the Bible may well be one way we have of filling the need for ritual. We don’t have the Book of Common Prayer, we don’t have the Psalms read in unison, we don’t have the Hail Mary or the Our Father or the Rosary spoken together, but we do have the old cadences and the familiar phrases of the Authorized Version. If “Behold, I bring you glad tidings of great joy” does not conjure up for you a whole host of Christmas memories and joys, then I don’t know what would.

    Music in the Church also serves a ritual purpose. The joining of voice with other voices, the familiar tunes and words, the struggling to our feet (get older or have children–you’ll understand what I mean) for the intermediate hymn (called, to my delight, the “Congressional Hymn” in one ward, by a bishopric that couldn’t distinguish Congregational from Congressional, sort of like the countless numbers of people who let no spirit of discretion overcome them, in evil hours or otherwise), even the presence at the front of the congregation of the chorister–all are part of the familiar rhythms of ritual.

    The fact that these things are rituals does not make them bad. Nor does it prevent them from helping us, perhaps more than the ritual-free sermons (and non-sermons) we hear from the pulpit, to feel the spirit, and to feel oneness with the community of saints who are the church.

  19. queuno
    December 13, 2005 at 7:21 pm

    Re 18 –

    I too, think that the lack of ritual is a good thing. I’m a procedural minimalist, so to speak. I don’t like meetings at work with a lot of elaborate hand-wringing. I don’t like Church meetings with a lot of pomp and circumstance. [Although, I will confess, “Pomp and Circumstance” is WONDERFUL at graduations.]

    I like my Church meetings structured to the clock, with the professional speakers relegated to gospel doctrine class. I think the Spirit is strongest when there isn’t anything to get in its way, and ritual is sometimes a crutch on which to rely when there isn’t the Sprit. I like how we are an international Church where perfunctory ritual is an obstacle to true “translation” of religion.

    [I tend to also include ethno-Mormon “traditions” as “rituals” in this context. You know, “Gold and Green” dinners, the roadshows that take 6 months of practice, slavish devotion to scouting at the expense of other Aaronic priesthood development, etc.]

    That said — I don’t think that the Church has *that* tight a grip on the KJV. Maybe in the US. But in the International Church, I see KJV weakening.

  20. Ana
    December 13, 2005 at 8:03 pm

    Lyle: Sounds like a fire hazard.

    Anecdote: When my husband’s Catholic grandmother died, we sort of Mormonized her funeral service even though it was in a Catholic church (her only son married a Mormon girl, so all her posterity are Mormon). We sang together for the congregation. Members of the family spoke about Grandma. Mormon-style prayers were offered. Yes, there were still Catholic elements of the service. But members of Grandma’s congregation noticed the difference. They told us it was the most beautiful and personal funeral service they had ever attended. (And they attend a lot, down there in Sun City.)

    When her husband passed a couple of years later, it was much more sudden and the grandchildren were not so involved in planning the service. It was a much more standard Catholic funeral. We found it wholly unsatisfying. The liturgy was hollow to us. Maybe it was partially because it simply wasn’t our own. But even to the non-Mormon friends, the personal offerings of memory and music and supplication at the earlier funeral were much more meaningful.

  21. greenfrog
    December 13, 2005 at 8:03 pm

    Lovely post, Nate.

    Your thoughts resonate with me.

    I’ve found that my desire for ritual has not been satisfied with (exhausted by?) the elements I find in our LDS tradition, so I’ve become rather more ecumenical in my personal religious practices in recent years, adding more formalized yoga and Buddhist rituals. I would like to find a way of adding the strength of ritual practice to my community religious practices, as well.

    But as I have been a Teachers’ Qurorum advisor for some time, I have come to enjoy the half-hour ritual of preparing the bread and water prior to Sacrament meetings. I’ve wondered if I might bridge the gap between personal and community ritual by baking the bread, as well, but I haven’t managed to commit the time to that effort (yet).

  22. Sara Steed
    December 13, 2005 at 8:07 pm

    I grew up Methodist, and, like Anglicanism and Catholicism, there was a lot of getting up…sitting down…repeating the Lord’s Prayer here…declaring the Apostle’s Creed there…. It’s nice to be able and sit during a sacrament meeting and listen to my fellow Saints as we try to uplift and encourage one another.

    I remember one summer I went to France with a choir and being inside of all the chapels and cathedrals. I would run my finertips over the massive stone pillars hoping to feel even just the slightest bit of their innocent faith. The beauty of those monuments and the love I had for those who had built them and sincerely worshipped there almost brought me to my knees. And yet, there is nothing more powerful than little child testifying of Jesus in their sweet child-talk. There is nothing more beautiful than hearing an amateur soloist imperfectly yet ardently praising her God. There is nothing more humbling than to feel the Holy Spirit cleanse you, making you far more glorious than all the treasures of the earth.

    Sure, it’s easy for me to look back and wish that the LDS church had Christmas Eve services lit up with hundres of candles while we all sing “Silent Night.” But, would I–would anyone–want to give up what I have now for the aesthetics of one Christmas service?

  23. El Jefe
    December 13, 2005 at 8:32 pm

    The churches that are rich in liturgy are the ones which are losing all the members. The King’s College Choir can move me to tears, but the church they belong to has become the perfect example of “having a form of Godliness, but denying the power thereof.”

    From Yes, Minister:

    Sir Humphrey: The Queen is inseparable from the Church of England.”
    Jim Hacker: “And what about God?”
    Sir Humphrey: I think he is what is called an optional extra.”

  24. Doug
    December 13, 2005 at 8:42 pm

    Nate, I understand your appreciation for ritual. I appreciate it too as I also do adorned buildings. Believing strongly as I do that the Servants of the Lord are doing the right thing and that our lack of ritual liturgy is not truly a weakness, I ask myself why. Some answers are given in previous comments here. However, I would add that all of this ritual of other faiths is part of the beauty of the world and I think that the Lord does not have a problem with us observing and enjoying it. However, the profound symbolism I have found as of late in modern (some would say drab–I disagree) Latter-day Saint chapels has come to me through focusing on the ordinances and there underlying doctrines.

    I also think that the Lord forsaw a global church and knew that one day his children would be partaking of His emblems in rented halls, living rooms and newly constructed buildings. If the saving ordinances are the most important thing, I don’t think that the Church can afford to trade more humble–but Spirit filled–buildings and services for fewer but fancier chappels and services. The latter may catch my attention but would require less work. The Mosaic law was easier–not harder to live because of its constant symbols and reminders. Now we are asked to keep the chief emblem–a broken heart and a contrite spirit–inside of ourselves. Not on a mitre, crozier or golden robe. Not burning in inscense but burning in our hearts.

    There is something profoundly simple (somewhat puritan) but distinctly Mormon in our worship services. The three brethren at the front, the windows on both sides. A few modest flowers brought each week (or fake in some wards!). I can imagine the Prophet Joseph Smith–roaring like a lion–as Elder Pratt said, teaching in outdoor meetings or in meeting houses constructed of wooden planks. All of Rudyard Kiplings “pomp” departs when I think of that. And all of the gaudy but corrupt outer vessels become potsherds when compared to the beauty of the restored gospel. If there is one critique I would make (of myself–not the Church or the bretheren) it is that I would let the beauty and energy of the Restoration show more in my talks, testimonies and keen listening in Sunday meetings and classes. At times I have felt this feeling in our Sunday School class, and when I do the Restoration becomes new and vibrant, something that people flocked to hear the early brethern preach…and still flock to hear in greater numbers today.

  25. Wilfried
    December 13, 2005 at 10:08 pm

    I agree with all those who have expressed reservations as to ritual and liturgy as it is practiced in most churches and who have expressed their appreciation for the simplicity and directness of Mormon worship. Coming from a Catholic background, and having experienced as a child the enchantment of ritual for many years, I can only say it was beautifully deceptive. True, the experience takes you out of the ordinary, immerses you in mysterious traditions, with colors and sounds and odors prickling the senses, but these are all artificial, external stimuli to create religiosity, and thus a subterfuge. I do not deny such rituals can help people come to the divine, but they were not instituted by God to come to him.

    In Mormonism, and certainly in a boring, lengthy meeting with disturbing children, one is obliged to reflect and seek the Spirit from within. One is invited to see truth and God in the simple things. As Sara Steed said so beautifully, “there is nothing more powerful than little child testifying of Jesus in their sweet child-talk. There is nothing more beautiful than hearing an amateur soloist imperfectly yet ardently praising her God. There is nothing more humbling than to feel the Holy Spirit cleanse you, making you far more glorious than all the treasures of the earth.”

  26. Kingsley
    December 13, 2005 at 10:43 pm

    “The fact that we don’t need to hide behind those types of stilted and pompous rituals is a strength, not a weakness.”

    Wow. Apologies all around to Catholics, Anglicans, Orthodox … Sometimes the LDS imagination can be as barren as its chapels.

  27. Kaimi Wenger
    December 13, 2005 at 10:57 pm

    Funny story: A few years ago, for Easter, our ward did — Nothing! Well, we met on Sunday, of course. The topic of the talks was visiting teaching. A bunch of twice-a-years showed up and were completely baffled.

    We sang “As sisters in Zion” for the closing hymn.

    How’s that for a ritual, Nate?

  28. El Jefe
    December 13, 2005 at 11:01 pm

    Well,Kaimi, nobody can accuse your ward of being sexist.

    Most brethren don’t even know the hymn exists.

    And by the way, Kingsley, have you heard of Bauhaus?

    Simplicity can be beautiful; sometimes more beautiful than rococo.

  29. Jonathan Green
    December 13, 2005 at 11:10 pm

    Maybe our lack of liturgy is a tacit invitation to get out and visit other people’s church services. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard a thundrous, cathedral-shaking congretational rendition of “Silent Night”.

    And Kingsley, don’t forget the Lutherans. Our hymn book would be much poorer without its borrowings from others’ liturgical traditions.

  30. Bill
    December 13, 2005 at 11:12 pm

    Do we have any Bauhaus chapels?

  31. shane
    December 14, 2005 at 2:34 am

    “The fact that we don’t need to hide behind those types of stilted and pompous rituals is a strength, not a weakness.

    Wow. Apologies all around to Catholics, Anglicans, Orthodox … Sometimes the LDS imagination can be as barren as its chapels.”

    No need to apologize. What does my “imagination” have to do with anything? I attend church to partake of the sacrament, feel the spirit, and learn the gospel. No imagination required. I just don’t need the pomp and circumstance. Those ceremonies do not comport in any way with my understanding of the Lord’s public ministry or the church that he established.

    I agree with Wilfried that “the experience takes you out of the ordinary, immerses you in mysterious traditions, with colors and sounds and odors prickling the senses, but these are all artificial, external stimuli to create religiosity, and thus a subterfuge.” Reminds me of the rameumptom; probably a beautiful structure and I am sure that the memorized prayers that were offered from its heights were quite impressive, but all to no avail.

  32. December 14, 2005 at 3:34 am

    The experience takes you out of the ordinary, immerses you in mysterious traditions, with colors and sounds and odors prickling the senses, but these are all artificial, external stimuli to create religiosity, and thus a subterfuge.

    Ah, well, in that case, we have the perfect LDS analogue: Church-produced movies and videos, carefully designed to stimulate “religious feelings”.

    It seems to me that to the extent that these things can actually bring us closer to God (and I believe both “sectarian” ritual and LDS films have the potential to do so), they are good. To the extent that they are merely stimulating our senses to simulate religious feeling and faith, they are counterfeit. (And they can certainly have elements of both at the same time.)

  33. Seth Rogers
    December 14, 2005 at 10:08 am


    Multiple LDS prophets have spoken on the need for ritual in religious service, usually in the context of the temple.

    When you dismiss the need for “stilted pompous rituals,” you realize that your broad brush also hits our temple ceremonies don’t you?

  34. jimbob
    December 14, 2005 at 11:47 am

    “Administration of the sacrament, for example, is kept undistracting and unadorned. Embellishments, when they creep in, are pruned away by priesthood leaders.”

    Maybe that makes sense when comparing it to other churches, but I have yet to attend a ward where traditions without doctrinal bases didn’t affect how the sacrament was administered and taken. E.g., white shirts, right hand, serving the bishop first, etc… Those are all embellishments to me. If the assertion is that we are minimalist, then, it’s only a relative term, not that we don’t have “embellishments.”

  35. Wilfried
    December 14, 2005 at 11:50 am

    In connection with previous comments, I think we need to define what we mean by rituals & liturgy. Equaling rituals with “Church-produced movies and videos” or with the temple ceremony bases itself on divergent definitions. I respect that view if ritual is defined with its most elementary connotation as a form of religious experience. I (and others in this thread) gave comments from an understanding of ritual as an elaborate ceremony, colorful, enchanting, with candles, incense and myriads of little actions, and where even the words carry no more meaning than the enchantment of its musical sound. Our church-movies are nowhere near that approach. And our both “pedagogical” and spiritual temple ceremony is, when viewed from a number of criteria, totally different from a Catholic or Orthodox mass.

  36. shane
    December 14, 2005 at 12:46 pm


  37. greenfrog
    December 14, 2005 at 1:05 pm

    Some further thoughts that have occurred to me as I’ve mulled this over the past couple of days — especially last night as I took a bunch of extremely unruly deacons to a local store to buy some Christmas gifts for some needy families in the ward…

    Much (most) of LDS worship is intellectual in this sense — it is aimed at creating and reinforcing verbal abstractions. Unlike most Protestant churches I’ve attended, we don’t consider the “coming together” each Sunday to be a part of the worship itself — we treat it as a necessary pre-condition to worship. So our services begin with word-filled hymns (to get a sense of contrast here, compare that singing to an imagined wordless opening “hymn” that was hummed or that consisted of chanting a single word mantra repeatedly). Then one person prays — a reverent verbal expression. That is followed by the only thing we can reasonably call ritual three Sundays out of each month — the sacrament — a physical action to which the words are complementary, rather than dominant. Once the sacrament is completed, we revert to completely verbal mode, listening to one another talk. The fast of fast and testimony meetings is the other regularized (once-a-month) ritual we engage in outside of temples.

    By my comments here, I don’t mean to diminish the value of verbal expression and thought. It’s very important.

    But neither our religion, nor the capacities of all LDS, suggest that verbal expression is the highest form of worship. My re-read of the BoM the past few months reminds me that there are many assertions in scriptural texts about experiences that cannot be verbally represented — and that those experiences are often deemed to be more elevating, more valuable than the experiences that can be verbally represented.

    One of the other modes of human expression (as I re-learned again last night while trying to keep the deacons from turning a retail store into a shambles) is distinctly physical, and equally distinctly non-verbal.

    What we term “ritual” is worship through physical patterns. The principal mode of worship in sacrament meeting is the breaking of bread and the communal eating of bread and drinking of water — all physical actions. Individual fasting is a shadow complement to the same physical action of eating and drinking.

    Some of us — not all of us, mind you, but some of us — find physical expression to be a better path to spiritual experience and spiritual worship than verbal expression. I daresay that among the people whom Nate identified as Christmas-and-Easter worshippers you will find a disproportionate percentage of folks for whom verbal expression is not the most natural or most useful (for them) form of worship. IMO, our Puritanical heritage and our authority-instilled distrust of all things Popish have led us to privilege verbal expression and verbal worship above all other forms.

    As rigidly verbal as we insist on being, can we even begin to imagine what a sacrament meeting that emphasized not verbal expression, but rather physical expression or visual expression might be like? As I think about it, those are the three principal modes of expression and communication that I’m familiar with, though there may be others who have thought more about this than I.

    The deacons I worked with last night are not well suited to verbally-oriented worship. They are overbrimming with energy that demands physical expression (and a fair amount of shopping-cart-sledding-down-the-aisles-of-the-store). Ritual provides a worship channel for that energy and that form of expression and experience.

    As I mentioned above, in my personal worship, I have adopted a variety of rituals that allow me to engage physically with existence, with God, and with others in community. Within the four walls of the LDS chapel of my congregation, I conform to verbal forms.

    But ritual, as I think of it, is hardly an artistic flourish added as an after-thought to an otherwise empty and corrupted shell by well meaning but uninspired clerics.

    Physical ritual, done right, is engagement with God.

  38. Wilfried
    December 14, 2005 at 1:59 pm

    Interesting thoughts, greenfrog, well argumented, and I can understand your point. It seems to me, however, that our religion, as we understand and accept is as revealed, is essentially verbal and meant to be so. “In the beginning was the Word…”. God spoke and said… We understand revelation is verbal communication, even if the verbal is sometimes intrinsic and limited to “thoughts” or “inspiration” (the small Voice). Is there anything in the life of Christ or the prophets that indicates physical expression as an alternate, acceptable form of worship? Perhaps, but I do not recall examples immediately. The scriptures mention singing and dancing, yes, as expression of feelings and culture, but as worship to communicate with the divine? However, this does never mean we do not respect people who seek that communication in different ways (cf. the Church’s standpoint on the use of peyote among Indians as religious use of an entheogenic substance).

  39. Bill
    December 14, 2005 at 2:49 pm

    Wilfried, the most famous scripture on music in the D&C reminds us that the song of the righteous is a prayer unto the Lord, and the Psalms are full of phrases like “let them praise his name in the dance: let them sing praises unto him with the timbrel and harp.” How is this not worship? I don’t really see much justification in the scriptures for an austere, Calvinist-style worship.

    “and where even the words carry no more meaning than the enchantment of its musical sound”

    Not really sure what you mean here. Perhaps you’re talking about the Latin mass of your youth? Even then, the words certainly had meaning for anyone willing to make the effort to understand them. Now that most churches use the vernacular, in most of the many non-LDS services I have attended, I haven’t observed the congregation as uncomprehending drones, but as engaged participants who were definitely getting some “meaning” out of the words.

    And in many of the best musical settings, there is a very deep and sometimes subtle, sometimes obvious, attention to the text. The best music can gloss a text just as a sermon can. It’s certainly more than pretty sounds.

  40. CS Eric
    December 14, 2005 at 3:07 pm

    I like the idea of having personal or family traditions or rituals. It can be as simple as our family’s Christmas tradition of opening one present on Christmas Eve, or my wife’s family’s tradition of reading from a book describing Christmas in the house their grandmother grew up in.

    The problem arises when people become so attached to their own personal traditions that they think that is the ONLY way to do things. In Sunday School a few weeks ago, we spent nearly the entire time talking about what the Approved (Correlated) Way to Have Family Home Evening was. Do even the Activity Nights have to open and close with a prayer? What if one or both of the parents work on Monday nights? People were shocked at what others believed were, not only acceptable ways to have FHE, but the Only True Way to have it.

  41. Wilfried
    December 14, 2005 at 3:19 pm

    You’re certainly right, Bill. Singing hymns is praise to the Lord. I got off on a tangent emphasizing revelation and verbal communication and did not consider that angle. Of course, singing and dancing could not be our ONLY form of worship (as CSEric just emphasized the danger of exclusivity), though some might find those only forms very enjoyable…

    And yes, with where “the words carry no more meaning than the enchantment”, I meant incomprehensible words.

    Again, we respect those who have other forms of worship. AoF 11: “We claim the privilege of worshipping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.”

  42. Kingsley
    December 14, 2005 at 5:38 pm

    El Jefe: Of course it can; what does that have to do with the unimaginative ungenerous condemnation of the complicated beauties of Christendom?

  43. Sara Steed
    December 14, 2005 at 10:21 pm

    I think it is important to note that this issue isn’t black and white–just like CS Eric (#40) pointed out with FHE. For those of other faiths who are sincere and are happy in their faith, of course their services will be meaningful to them. People can be fulfilled with other forms of worship, up to the spiritual knowledge that they have. But the truths that Latter-day Saints *claim* to believe can make a person far more happy than any other faith.

    The 13th AoF states that “if there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.” If you (generic “you”) can listen to Verdi’s Requiem and feel closer to God–if you truly feel the Spirit, then, by all means, listen to it. If hearing, for example, Morten Lauridsen’s Ave Maria bothers you, don’t listen to it. As Latter-day Saints, we should be able to appreciate other’s faiths, songs, traditions, etc. without feeling compromised in any way. My attraction is gospel music; I think it is absolutely wonderful, and I love being hearing it and singing it.

    However, there was a reason for the Restoration; and if Christ really felt that our Chruch and its worship services needed what was already in place in other churches at the time, we would have them. We have the commandments of God, and should be able to judge anything against those. Where things stand in stark opposition to them, we should be able to separate ourselves from such practices, as much as we may love to hear a priest or a pastor fill our minds with theology.

    Also, see 1 Corinthians 13:11–I really like it, but didn’t know where to fit it in.

  44. shane
    December 15, 2005 at 5:10 pm

    “El Jefe: Of course it can; what does that have to do with the unimaginative ungenerous condemnation of the complicated beauties of Christendom?”

    Kingsley, why is having a sense of imagination important here? I just don’t understand what your point is.

    As Sara points out: “there was a reason for the Restoration; and if Christ really felt that our Chruch and its worship services needed what was already in place in other churches at the time, we would have them.” Why do you need more than this? Why second guess the way the Lord has restored his church? If those rituals are necessary (or even helpful) in drawing closer to the Lord, he would have put them in place (we believe in the same all knowing, perfect God, right?).

  45. Kingsley
    December 15, 2005 at 7:30 pm


    Sorry if I gave you the impression I was second-guessing the Lord or elevating the Catholic sacrament above that of the Latter-day Saints–that was certainly not my intention. I was reacting to the idea that the rituals and pageantry of Christendom are “stilted and pompous,” end of story. I think we need a humbler view here as well as, yes, a more imaginative one. To get inside a story requires an act of imagination. I very much want Catholics and Jews to to understand Mormonism (at least in part) as I do. Sneering at what’s sacred to them isn’t a good place to start. Seeing the beauty in what’s sacred to them is.

  46. shane
    December 15, 2005 at 7:58 pm

    That makes sense.

  47. Randolph Finder
    December 20, 2005 at 7:00 am

    I think what affects the LDS sense of ritual is (at least in my area [ Near the DC temple]) the three way split between Temple ceremonies, local ward/branch prayer and visitor center productions.

    The DC Temple is a architecturally spectactular building and yet the reasons given for being so spectactular don’t really have *that* much to do with religion. (Yes, I know it was a gift to the people of the US, but that doesn’t explain Los Angeles). And yet the ceremonies there are almost identical day-in and day-out. Even if the temples were open to visitors, I can’t see the various ceremonies bringing in tourists for repeat performances, the way that a Catholic cathedral might.

    The DC visitor’s center, especially during the Festival of Lights (December and Early January) is the exact opposite, architechturally boring, and yet with events designed to bring in lots of visitors. Some of these productions, in fact are so open as to be more likely to bring in non-members than members.

    The individual sacrament services on the other hand are most definitely not performances. Most weeks more than half of the sacrament service is talks by members who have perhaps done the talk in from of their spouses (and maybe not even that).

    Also, as mentioned above in regard to Easter. The LDS church is probably the church with the fewest “Holy Days” = “Holidays”. Main theme of Easter Services can be Visiting Teaching, the Main theme of Christmas can be the handcart companies. And given that Holidays tend to bring out the most ritual, that is a great deal of the reason the lack of public ritual. In fact for Latter Day Saints in countries without many Christians, Christmas and Easter don’t really *need* to be celebrated. (Besides Christmas is 3 months off from where it should be and as far as I can tell, Easter is de-emphasized as well [The fact he was in the old world walking around after the Cruxifiction is greatly subsumed by what he did in the new world]). I could actually see the LDS church *completely* walking away from December celebrations without too much problem.


  48. Kristine Haglund Harris
    December 20, 2005 at 9:06 am

    “However, there was a reason for the Restoration; and if Christ really felt that our Chruch and its worship services needed what was already in place in other churches at the time, we would have them.”

    I’m not sure this is true–the Lord says repeatedly in the Doctrine and Covenants & Book of Mormon that he speaks to people in their own language and after their manner of understanding. Joseph Smith and many early converts came out of strongly anti-Catholic traditions; they might have found it nearly impossible to accept the sort of rituals they had been taught to despise. Our temple ritual looks a lot like Masonic rituals because that was a form of ritual that was familiar and accepted by early members. I think it’s likely that the Lord is able to work through many kinds of rituals, and that there were other elements of the Church that it was more important to get exactly right. Given the myriad changes that all of our liturgical forms have undergone in the short history of our Church, it seems silly to suppose that what we currently have is God’s idea of the perfect religious ritual. That historical understanding ought to make it easier for us to appreciate that which is virtuous, lovely, and of good report in the rituals of other traditions.

  49. December 20, 2005 at 9:54 am

    Kristine (#48), I think you’re absolutely right. If nothing else, the temple ceremony–as if more evidence is needed, given what is abundantly on display in the scriptures!–makes it clear that God is entirely willing to make use of numerous and widely varied ritual forms as necessary in order to mold, discipline, inspire and unify His children. Masonic rituals have a dodgy history, to say the least, but from out of them an inspired Joseph Smith spun gold. I think the same can and should be said of St. Dominic or St. Francis, innovators who introduced much edifying ritual from out of the often base circumstances of the Christian environments they worked within. Even those Christian traditions that were premised upon a rejection of outward ritual–various Puritan, Methodist, pietist and Anabaptist strains, for example–often generated, in their rejection of vestments and liturgy and all the rest, communal rituals that were as unifying as anything one can find in a cathedral. Not to say that all forms of Christianity are equal or equally good, but there isn’t one, I think, that doesn’t show at least some evidence of God’s ritualized instructions being manifest “after the people’s manner of understanding.”

  50. Razorfish
    December 22, 2005 at 4:06 pm

    Symbols In Our Worship

    This discussion and thread on the meaning and power of liturgical devices in our mode of worship has caused some interesting reflection for myself. As has been eloquently discussed from various posts before, we have an interesting juxtasposition in the LDS mode of worship.

    On one hand symbolism and use of liturgy in our LDS public worship services and meetings is remarkably spartan. There are no crosses, no statues, very limited use of pictures or murals, etc. Contrast this with a dramatic and visually impressive array of symbols in a large European cathedral replete with venerated saints, stain glass windows, crosses, prayer candels, and visually stunning architectual halls of worship.

    In the LDS theology, the symbols that are used (Sacrament, baptism, etc) are very simply presented in a very meek and even childlike manner of comprehension. Our meetinghalls are devoid of any unnecessary embellisment that could detract or distract from our spirit of meditation that we bring to our worship service. Simply put, what we extract from the 3 hr block of Sunday meetings, it directly correlated to the spirit and “spirit of meditation” we bring to these meetings. Don’t count on much in terms of a liturgical aide to promote your spirit of worship.

    In contrast to this mode of (public) worship, our more sacred spiritual worship and spiritual odyssey is presented in stark contrast to the symbolically rich mode of worship in the temple. Here the esoteric truths of the cosmos are revealed and our spirtual connection in this grand framework and tapestry is made manifest. Here the symbolism baffles and confuses some, but curiously strengthens and spiritually invigorates others. Not unlike the reaction many listeners had when listening to the coded parables the Master taught nearly two millenia ago on the dusty roads of Palestine.

    And so in our gospel we have this stark constrast and presentation of, on one hand a spartan view of worship devoid of much in the form of liturgical modes of teaching, with on the other hand, a spiritual panacea where only those who have ears to hear and eyes that see who are able to most profit from this pedagological manner of teaching.

    And so we have this apparent contradiction of two modes of worship fused together in one belief system that represents the road of discipleship all of us must travel down throughout life.

    The use (or lack thereof) of the cross as a symbol in our faith is an interesting point of de-emphasis. As LDS people we look past the cross and more to the “open tomb” imagery that reflects the Savior as a living and resurrected being who has overcome all and finished his Father’s work, and hence the cross imagery rings hollow and is “back-ward looking.” And while I agree with this in some respects, I still find the cross as one of the most powerful ways to quickly bring into our rememberance the Atonement, the infinite cost, and sacrifice that was made on our behalf. I don’t know of any imagery that can as quickly or powerfully convey that statement to others (especially non-LDS people) as “the image of the cross.” Perhaps I am alone on an island on this point, but I’ve always respected the symbolism that the cross represents in conveying the reality, sacrifice, and cost of the Atonement.

    Perhaps the symbols we use in our manner of worship are an interesting reflection of our own spiritual identity and reality of who we are, what we believe, and how we find meaning and fit into the mosaic of the world and universe we live in.


  51. Kingsley
    December 22, 2005 at 5:06 pm

    Razorfish, regarding respect for the symbolism of the cross, I am on the same island. Next time the cannibals sleep I’ll sneak across and visit you.

  52. Adam Greenwood
    December 22, 2005 at 5:13 pm

    I’m with you too, Razorfish.

    But . . .
    among other LDS folk, using the cross just doesn’t work. It’s too jarring.

    But that hasn’t stopped me from getting a fish for my car. (grins)

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