Ritually Responding to Disaster: Reporting from the Canadian National Worship Conference

In the latter part of July, I had the honour of being the plenary speaker for a (somewhat) ecumenical national conference on liturgy which was thematically focused on liturgy and disaster. In three talks I covered the history and the ‘state of the field’, ecumenical gatherings, and, interfaith (and no faith) gatherings. The topic was well chosen and timely. In Canada and the US, as well as elsewhere around the world, there are frequent occasions of human violence and/or natural disasters for which communities want to gather to remember, to express their sorrow, anger, and solidarity, to help make ‘sense’ of what has happened, and to mark a place as a recurring memorial of what happened there. Both the omnipresent roadside shrines rising from local grassroots concern and permanent memorials such as Ground Zero in NYC are part of a broadly recognized public landscape of violence. They are important links between the ritual activity of the church (and other religious organizations) and the human need to ritualize beyond religious institutions. What makes the conversation particularly interesting in the 21st century are the tremendous shifts that have happened in extra-ecclesial memorializing, the academic field being shaped by recurring disaster ritual, and often, the rather slow response of some churches to be a part of the ritual conversation.

Statues of powerful individuals, triumphant arches, buildings and temples in honour of war victories have been with us as long as human material history has endured. Christianity has been no exception – building triumphal architecture in the public square as well as martyr and saints’ shrines within the walls of the house of the church for centuries. But in the 20th century the widespread knowledge of horrors such as genocides forced even the most insular communities to acknowledge pluralism, and the architectural response has been a shift from triumphalism to a more ambiguous understanding of monument, as well as an increasing recognition of place and engagement with monuments or shrines as essential building blocks of memory and identity.

The field of liturgical studies, particularly in ritual studies, has engaged in a fruitful conversation with social geography that has resulted in an efficacious marriage of newer memorials being interactive: they allow for both personal grieving and public memory. The Vietnam memorial in Washington, DC, and Ground Zero in NYC both exemplify this in that they are monumental but not triumphalistic, and both allow for personal interaction as well as corporate levels of engagement.

The academic field of disaster studies is also a growing interest. Centred in many ways in the Netherlands, with a critical mass of scholars writing and researching on the topic, there is also the advantage of governmental support for the research and the development of memorial sites that have led to a number of publications (see Liturgia Condenda volumes) and growing interest in the interdisciplinary conversations. The Dutch conversation has helped shape important discussion surrounding the larger question of ‘what is the purpose of these rituals’? Whether from a theological perspective on what impact prayer has, why religious leaders are considered ritual experts, and what happens when we corporately remember and unmask the past; or from a therapeutic perspective, asking if rituals are an efficacious way of handling grief and processing of trauma; or from a cultural perspective asking if these public gatherings meet a desire for a positive mass of people to validate the experience or fill in the spiritual first-aid needed in a post-church world, disaster studies combine the insights of a number of disciplines to give us new perspectives and insights.

What have churches learned from the expanding ritual repertoire of disaster response? Some ecclesial communities were not only gifted with a rich ritual and literary set of responses to disaster, but have also expanded on that by noticing what grieving communities are drawn to and find effective. But other ecclesial groups have pursued an anti-ritual stance in hopes of defining themselves by what they do not do – missing the human need to ‘do something’ and to lament when faced with violence and ‘out of time’ deaths and destruction. But it is not just the embodied response to disaster that is over-looked, it is also the importance of the liminal space between the church building itself – and its own traditions – and the public square. How does the church reach out to those who will not or cannot come all the way in, but very much need the repertoire of disaster response that is a gift of organized Christianity?

Scholars of ritual and liturgy and disaster point to a number of possible sources for the widespread return of roadside shrines and their accompanying rituals not linked to a specific culture in the 20th century. Events like the death of Elvis Presley and the response at Graceland in 1977, the soccer stadium catastrophe of 1989 in Sheffield (England), and the death of Princess Diana in 1997 often come up. Particularly striking with regard to the latter and the massive displays of public grief in London and elsewhere, the Most Rev. Vincent Nichols, then auxiliary bishop of Westminster, commented that this surely was “the end of the Reformation in England”. What he meant was the huge theological and liturgical shift that began in the 1950s and blossomed after Vatican II was being confirmed before his eyes. Even reformed Christianity was finding enlightenment rationalism insufficient, and the ongoing reaction to words alone – the rise of sacramentally informed, embodied Christian liturgy and ritual – was spilling out into the streets. If so, where is that trajectory leading us – both those churches ‘more advanced’ in responding with theology, body, and emotion to the seemingly endless tragedies around us, and those new at developing a ritual repertoire? What will we learn stepping outside the door of the church to the plaza, what will we bring back with us for our own Sunday morning gatherings? What will the liminal space of private and public, ecclesial and secular, teach us about responding in faith to help all people – those who are far off, and those who are near? Thanks to those who brought this particular conference to fruition, and here’s hope for more opportunities for the multifaceted conversations of how we respond and help our neighbours and communities.

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  1. Life IS pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.
    – The Dread Pirate Roberts

    Keep the sabbath holy.
    – God

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