As this series looking for common ground upon which Christians in the West might begin to approach a better, healthier, and mutually-respectful relationship with the Indigenous peoples upon whose traditional lands we live approaches its end, we’ve shifted from looking at values to some of the those those values are learned, lived, and shared. The other day, we looked at storytelling; today, I’d like to explore the idea of ceremony.
Much of the Indigenous reflection on ceremony, and its related idea of protocol, that I’ve encountered has highlighted the connection between ceremony — doing — and knowledge. This is part-and-parcel with the focus on orthopraxy in Indigenous epistemology (i.e, ‘how we know what we know’) we saw earlier in the series. A consequence of this is that it means that, as Hyeran Kim-Cragg puts it, “embodied knowledge performed as ceremonial ritual requires the agency of participation.”* This is to say that we know something by participating in it. If we follow this line of thought, it means that we can’t say we ‘know’ about proper ways of interacting with the world unless we do them. As Carol Ann Hilton put it, “Protocol is the responsibility of remembering, acknowledging, and witnessing. It is a means for recognition of connection, relationship, and making things right.” And, Lucy Hemphill notes that in her Kwakwaka’wakw traditions, the potlatch is “where we honour, maintain, and strengthen our reciprocal relationships to one another, to the land and sea, and to the ones who have come before us” (quoted in M’Lot and Ferguson).
Ceremony and protocol thus help with remembering scared responsibilities by ritualizing the desired knowledge and behaviour. For example, the common protocol of leaving a gift of tobacco (or a geographically-appropriate substitute; for details on use of tobacco in protocol, see Treuer) when taking something from the environment — berries, a tree, a deer — teaches respect and reciprocity; but knowing it comes from doing it. One cannot be said to know about respect and reciprocity if one does not actually follow the protocol. This connects to why the closest concept to ‘sin’ in many Indigenous cultures is ‘forgetting the teachings’: If you know the teachings, you do them.
But even here, the goal of ceremony is not simply to perform the ceremony, but to live into the harmonious relationships the ceremony promotes or seeks to restore. The point of offering tobacco is not to offer tobacco but to show respect to the plants and animals upon whom one’s life depends. In a similar way, the West Coast potlatch traditions sought to redress economic imbalances within and between communities through elaborate protocols of gift-giving. According to Nancy J. Turner and Pamela Spalding:
…the potlatch … oversaw and directed people’s land use and occupancy, and their proprietorship over lands and resources. It reinforced historical rights and responsibilities, in ceremonial re-enactment of land and resource renewal, and ensured that surplus resources were redistributed.
Both the ceremonial tobacco and potlatch traditions demonstrate the importance of reciprocity and exchange in Indigenous cultures. As James Tully notes, “The cyclical exchange of gifts is the exemplar and reminder of the ways life sustains life symbiotically: that is, by gift-reciprocity networks and cycles.” One might even argue that pre-contact, gift-reciprocity was not just culturally important, but the entire basis of the international economy of the Northwest Coast region.
In a different way, we can see gift-reciprocity at the heart of the first kill ceremony among the Ojibwe. This ceremony, marking the transition from being a dependent to being a provider, involves a ritualized refusal to eat until the needs of those who cannot provide for themselves are met. (Again, see Treuer for a wonderful description and discussion of this ceremony.)
Thus, protocol and ceremony are ways of promoting harmonious relationships of all kinds, including within the community. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (2017) writes on this social dimension of ceremony:
Knowing protocols is a way of showing we belong. But the more time I’ve spent language learning, on the land, and hanging out with elders, the less I think of rigid protocols and the more I think of relationships. In ceremony, I think the most important thing is that the group of people who have come together feel safe, respected, and openhearted as a necessary prerequisite to spiritual connection. That to me is the point of ceremony. (138)
Richard Wagamese (2019) described this process in simpler terms: “A ceremony is energy moving toward the goal of harmony.”
This has been a very cursory discussion of the role of ceremony and protocol within Indigenous cultures. The point should be clear however that ceremonies are ways of transmitting and embodying knowledge, reaffirming and sustaining relationships, and building community — all for the sake of living in harmony with the world and all of its citizens, human and otherwise.
I’d like to spend the rest of this post exploring the idea of Christian ceremony and protocol through the lens of these three goals.
Like any religious tradition, Christianity (in all of its many forms) includes ceremonies and protocols. Four that come to mind as universal even within Christianity’s diversity are: Sunday worship, regular prayer, baptism and Holy Communion, or the Eucharist. On top of these, each form of Christianity has its own rituals, whether formal as in the maximalist sacramentalism of Eastern Orthodoxy, or informal as in much of contemporary Protestantism.
Considering the importance of thoughts and beliefs in Western culture, it should come as no surprise that of the three goals discussed above, education takes up the most space in Christianity. The bulk of community worship is spent in the reading and teaching of Scripture and in the singing of songs that reenforce its language and ideas. I think it’s safe to say that the more recent a ceremony or practice has emerged, the more likely it is to be educational in this intellectual sense. Older forms of Christian worship contain more of the sense of embodying and not just passing on teaching. For example, the Eucharistic service in the Eastern Orthodox Church, through its different processions and ‘entrances’, uses space to invite participants into the story of Jesus. Rituals such as foot-washing in Holy Week in many traditions, or the Forgiveness Sunday rite in the East at the start of Lent (see below) also embody teaching in dramatic ways. So even in as ‘heady’ and ‘bookish’ a spiritual tradition as Christianity, there is a remnant of a sense of embodied knowledge.
In terms of reaffirming and sustaining relationships, what comes most to mind is the idea of the Eucharist itself, understood traditionally not as a simple re-enactment of the Last Supper or as an obedience to Jesus’ instructions, but as a thanksgiving offering for the gifts of the earth and human labour. Thus it reaffirms the nature of our relationship to God, to the earth, and to our work. I think it’s safe to say that if the potlatch was the basis of an economy of gift on the Northwest Coast, any genuinely ‘Christian’ economics would be similarly rooted in the Eucharist. In a similar way, the Eastern Christian practice of the Great Blessing of Waters at Theophany (Epiphany) connects worshipers to the life-giving nature of not just the Holy Water used in worship, but also of their local waterways. And, on a human level, the Forgiveness Sunday rite reaffirms our relationships and responsibilities to one another in community; here, everyone present does a full prostration before every other person individually asking for and offering forgiveness. Crucially, this is done whether the two people know each other or not, for there is a recognition that we are all responsible to one another and our actions have unseen consequences for those not directly impacted. It’s hard to leave that service without a renewed understanding of how interconnected we are.
Finally, to paraphrase a common proverb, the community that prays together stays together. Participating together in communal worship, whether in the weekly cycle of Sunday worship, the monastic practice of the Hours, or the intensity of Holy Week, builds solidarity and connection within the group.
Looking at all this, it’s clear that Christianity is far from without ceremony or protocol, but most of us have work to do in making our rites more meaningful and effective, particularly in embodying knowledge and reaffirming relationships to God, each other, and the world around us. I’m reminded of a discussion I once heard in which it was said that systematic theology is all about proper nouns while practical theology is about adjectives: according to this argument, systematic theology (or what we generally call ‘theology’) talks a lot about The Incarnation or The Resurrection of Jesus (among other things), but far less about what these might mean for people’s lives. Practical theology by contrast, may talk less about the proper nouns, but insists on talking about being incarnational or resurrectional (or cruciform or redemptive, etc.). If we want to make our ceremony more meaningful, I think we would do well to put less emphasis on their whats and hows, and more on what they have to say for day-to-day life: not what Baptism and the Eucharist are or how to do them, but what it means to be baptismal and eucharistic: what is the rest of the story the ceremonies begin in us? At any rate, I am convinced that this is an area that needs a renewed intention and focus within most Christian traditions.
* For details, please see the Bibliography for the series