Record of Meeting, 24 September 2008

We met on 24 September at David Lambourn’s house. Present were John Challenor, Paul Graham, John Howard, David Lambourn, Simon Mapp and Stephen Williams, with apologies from Sara Clethero, David Belcher and Michael Bennett.

As arranged, David Lambourn introduced a discussion about “Rites of Passage”. These are ceremonies or performances that mark important stages in individual growth and development and conventionally have three elements: separation (from a past life), liminality (what happens during the process), and reincorporation (as a changed person). In most cases they are typically accompanied by formulaic language and actions and the wearing of special clothes. According to Wikipedia, they are becoming less common, but we recognised many contexts, and not just religious ones, where they are still significant e.g. education (starting school, graduation ceremonies), the armed services (passing-out parades), youth organisations (moving from cub to scout).

Many rites of passage are however associated with the church, including important life events like birth, coupling and death, as well as those with more a narrowly religious purpose. Arguably it is the Church’s control of these processes that has sustained its growth as an institution (Don Cupitt in The Sea of Faith writes of Joss Brooks, a 19th century predecessor in Salford, who was a rough, eccentric character, chiefly remembered for astonishingly large and chaotic mass baptisms and weddings). The contemporary enthusiasm for faith schools reflects perhaps a similar assumption of a religious endorsement if not ownership of today’s central rite of passage, the acquisition of educational qualifications.

In introducing the topic, David had focussed on the individual’s relationship with the Church. The term “rite of passage” contains a metaphor of a journey, yet the Church has no apparent way of marking intellectual development or spiritual growth; the only rites of passage after confirmation are excommunication or funerals! This is a significant issue for SoF members in churches (and many others surely) for whom religious understanding is always dynamic and changing (the underlying theme of the original Cupitt TV series). The paradox of rites of passage is that they exist to mark and celebrate individual growth and development but culminate in a return to a community to which the individual is subservient. It would be nice to think that the Church could give approval, if not necessarily celebrate, when its adherents develop new insights and understandings, but it’s hard to think of a rite of passage that could give effect to it. Rites of passage are essentially conservative and hierarchical in their function and are suspicious of innovation and imagination.

Rites of passage are also social occasions; they imply an audience, who in turn are presumed to buy into the rationale of the event. One way of squaring that potential conflict is to modernise or customise the event and we talked a bit about funerals and what might have been lost in the rush from traditional formulae. On the other hand to persist with customary forms can put an audience in a real bind if the forms imply dogmas that are questionable or even unbelievable. The example we discussed was confirmation where the congregation can only really participate in the event by affirming credal statements that leave no space for non-literal, let alone SoF-type, interpretations. This led us to reflect on the tyranny of creeds and the irony that what are now regarded as criteria for membership were originally designed to exclude; affirming a creed or articles of faith is essentially to declare “I am not Arian/Catholic/whatever”.

Why then do we bother? In the face of the obvious recourse of simply walking away from the whole business, we recognised that traditional rites of passage still have a resonance, even if a diminishing one. This suggested a topic for our next meeting, whether what we are experiencing is a break with the past or some kind of evolution from it. It is the question often asked about the Enlightenment and is perhaps nicely summed up in Don Cupitt’s phrase “The Meaning of the West”. We agreed to look at this next time, taking as our starting point, but not restricted to, Don’s piece in the latest edition of Sofia.

As previously agreed, that meeting will be on Wednesday 12 November 2008 at 1930 at David Lambourn’s house, 28 Frederick Road, Edgbaston. The provisional date for the meeting after that is Wednesday 14 January 2009.