On the Embodiment of Liturgical Authority

This article was published quite some time ago, in 1993. Buried in an important but obscure journal, Studia Liturgica,  it was rarely read. After the recent papal council on clergy sexual abuse, debates about gender, celibacy, and the priesthood are emerging in the media. It seemed the right time to make this essay available again.

A central theme in ritual studies, at least as practiced in the field of religious studies, is embodiment.[1] When embodiment is given a position of theoretical primacy, posture and gesture emerge as crucial considerations in the interpretation of a rite. Posture and gesture, though micro-units in a ritual enactment or ritual tradition, assume considerable importance, because they encode both intended and unintended meanings—meanings “transmitted” as well as meanings “given off.” We use the term “posture” in two ways. On the one hand, it refers to one’s physical posture (as in, “That child has poor posture”). On the other, when we speak of “political posturing,” the phrase refers to one’s ideological commitments and ways of displaying them. A posture is not only one’s manner of physical comportment (how one parks the body, so to speak) but also one’s attitude—one’s manner or style in the world. “Attitude” denotes the spiritual counterpart of posture, though even this term has both psychological and physiological connotations. We speak of “mental attitudes” but also of the attitude, or tilt, of a sail boat. A mental or spiritual attitude is indicated by our tilt or cant—that is, the way we sit, walk, or move. The terms “attitude” and “posture,” then, refer to the same thing except that “attitude” emphasizes the psychological and spiritual dimensions, while “posture” connotes the physiological and ideological dimensions.

In liturgies participants assume postures that both reflect and cultivate attitudes. When deeply embodied, these attitudes become determinative metaphors that permeate the intellectual, social, and spiritual lives of those who practice them. Here, I want to consider two liturgical postures and their corresponding implications for our understanding of ritual authority, the topic of this symposium. I am being both playful and polemical when I dub them “erectitude” and “supinity.”

Liturgical erectitude is a style typified by poise and verticality. When we embody it, we stand up straight; we process with a noble simplicity. We rise above our surroundings with a quiet and confident dignity—the fruit of age, tradition, and reflection.

Liturgical supinity, on the other hand, is characterized by its flexibility and its closeness to the ground. Supine, the spine hugs the earth. Supine, we are integrated with our surroundings. We are attuned to them, but our openness leaves us in danger of violation.

Described in this general and abstract manner neither posture is particular to a specific person, gender, or tradition. Buddhists may assume either or both attitudes. So may Jews or Christians, though a given tradition may cultivate one of the attitudes more deeply than the other. All of us can probably imagine persons who more obviously typify either erectitude or supinity, and we may suppose that one is more characteristic than the other of a specified gender, but in theory no person, gender, or tradition “owns” either posture.

However, my reflections on the two attitudes did not arise in the abstract, so, lest these characterizations seem disembodied in the very moment that I propose to discuss embodiment, I will situate them more concretely. Recently, two queries regarding ritual authority arrived at my desk. The first came in the proposal for this symposium, which bears the title, “Reclaiming Our Rites,” and which originally bore the subtitle “Reasserting Ritual’s Authority in a Pluralistic, Privatized Culture.” This proposal embodies the posture that I am calling liturgical erectitude, so I will spend most of my energies considering it.

The proposal asks specific questions and assigns me the task of addressing them from the point of view of ritual studies. I was given the tentative title (and implicit question): “What ‘ritualizing’ can teach ‘rites’ and ‘liturgies.’” My job description implicitly calls these terms into question by framing them with quotation marks, and yet it elevates “ritualizing” (which I suspect is associated with my own writing) to authoritative status by assuming that it has something to “teach” rites and liturgies (which, I assume, is associated largely with Christian, perhaps even Roman Catholic, liturgy).

The synopsis of the symposium contains these two paragraphs:

The liturgy is no longer seen as an established pattern of invariable words, music and gestures, but as a freely improvised service that varies enormously from parish to parish—or from Mass to Mass within the same parish. While such innovation may showcase the skills of some parish members (e.g., the presiding priest, the musicians), it also risks subverting the larger community’s participation in the ritual action. For a primary purpose of ritual is surely to enable to the participation of everyone by creating a pattern of familiar, repeated actions that can be “done by heart,” without artifice of self-conscious display.

This rather widespread disregard for the integrity and authority of ritual…is a principal reason why the Center for Pastoral Liturgy has chosen to host this symposium on the problem of ritual’s declining authority in both church and society. It is not so much that our churches—or our cultures—lack rituals, but that these rituals lack authority. Unlike those of archaic peoples, our rituals (whether those of the rock concert, the football stadium, or the church) seem quite improvisatory and provisional. We often “make them up” at will, without invoking ancestral precedent or tradition, and we just as often discard them in favor of “new and improved rites.”[2]

The second query, which I will use to illustrate the posture of liturgical supinity, arrived in the form of a phone call from a woman I had not met and whom I will call “Renata.” She is, let us say, from Tucson. Renata wanted some advice about an initiation rite that she was constructing for half a dozen girls between the ages of twelve and fourteen. She had roughly the month of August during which to construct the rite, prepare the girls and their mothers, and perform the ceremony. She had been reading books on women and ritual having to do with menstruation, female body imagery, “croning,” and other such matters of ceremonial importance to contemporary North American women, and she wanted my reactions to the scenario for the ceremony. Clearly an intelligent and articulate woman with considerable initiative, she had made phone calls to adults actively involved in creative forms of initiating adolescents into adulthood. Unfortunately, they were all men. Even though she knew many ritualizing women, she could find no groups of women who were designing rites for groups of girls.

In talking with me she was obviously not escaping her dilemma, so I put her in touch with the only local woman I knew who had any experience with initiating girls. For the duration of our first conversation I mostly asked questions, for example, What was the sequence of actions? Her plan, still in very provisional form, was to have several discussion meetings in town. After that she, the girls, and their mothers would go on a brief retreat to the mountains, where they would “die” by entering a darkened sweat lodge and then “rise” into womanhood by coming out into the light. This was to be the central ritual act. All the other gestures would be tributaries to this paradigmatic ritual act.

I asked more questions: What was her goal?

To initiate the girls into adulthood.

Who would effect this transition?

She would, assisted by the girls’ mothers.

What had been the role of the mothers so far—were they actively involved in the planning?

No, not really.

Was she a mother of one of the girls?


Was this initiation authorized by the church in which the discussions would occur?


These two queries were the sources of the two polarized voices I heard as I began to reflect on the question of ritual authority. When I was feeling playful and a bit perverse, I sometimes reduced each inquiry to a single question. The question for this symposium became: How can a massive, centuries-old, multi-national religious institution maintain its ritual authority among highly pluralistic, materialistic, individualistic, mobile parishioners living in a racist, militaristic, deeply psychologized society? And I rendered Renata’s inquiry this way: How can a young adult woman with few degrees, no children, no formal religious sanction, and no “grandmothers” successfully initiate half a dozen girls in the four weeks that compose the month of August?

Despite my hyperbolic reframing of the essential questions, I take both queries with equal seriousness. I probably do what the symposium organizers suspected I would do, since, in describing my task, they posed this question, “To what degree—and in what ways—does the field of ritual studies (with its habit of ‘phenomenological levelling,’ its penchant for taking the Tennessee snakehandler’s ritual as seriously as the bishop’s solemn ministrations) challenge the (Christian) liturgist’s affection for norms, paradigms and ‘privileged moments’ of history?”

The question of religious authority is a classical Western one, and it has traditionally been framed in ways that are not only culture-specific but androcentric. I am not referring only to the obvious historic exclusion of women from positions of liturgical authority, but to the inscription of masculine postures and attitudes in liturgical practice and theology. For instance, I cannot imagine Renata’s being the least interested in a liturgy whose symbols and gestures (as described by the symposium organizers) are “hearty” and “robust.” Not only would she question whether the liturgy is, in fact, hearty and robust, she would probably hear in both adjectives an old-boys’-club rhetoric that fails to grasp the tenor of her aspirations. Heartiness and robustness are among the virtues of liturgical erectitude. In the current North American cultural situation, they are expressions of an androcentric liturgy. Even more directly to the point, I cannot imagine Renata’s agreeing with the claim that when a “liturgical order” is enacted, those who engage in it indicate—to themselves and to others—that they accept whatever is encoded in the canons of the liturgy they are performing. In short, they acceded to the liturgical rite’s authority, an authority that yet remains independent of those participate in it.[3]

For what gives liturgical rites their authoritativeness is not, ultimately, the participants’ approval or fidelity. What makes the liturgy socially and morally binding is not the participants’ private, prayerful sentiments (however worthy these may be), but the visible, explicit, public act of acceptance itself.[4]

These two statements seem to me a fundamental premise and undergirding value of this conference. It is the tip of an iceberg, a flag signaling a view that is gaining momentum in the wake of post-Vatican II disenchantment and the waning authority of traditional Euroamerican masculinity. It is a very Catholic view (though, of course, there are other Catholic views), and it is set squarely against the individualistic “habits of the heart” (that Robert Bellah was probably invited to this conference to criticize). I am intrigued by the fact that the claim is buttressed not by arguments from scripture or Catholic theologians but by anthropological theory, especially that of Roy Rappaport. My objection is not to the use of anthropological theory as such but to the uncritical appropriation and reactionary use of it. Rappaport’s work seems to me fundamentally descriptive and analytical in intent; whereas, this use of it is undeniably normative. The logic seems to be: “Ritual is like this, therefore liturgy must be like that.” Rappaport says ritual insulates “public orders from private vagaries,” thus, the proposal for this symposium concludes that the liturgy is inherently superior to personal prayer, popular devotions, and made-up rites.[5]

I am sympathetic with the insistence that Christian liturgy ought to assume a critical, prophetic posture toward middle-class American popular culture. Certain aspects of American culture certainly deserve sustained spiritual critique, and liturgical enactments have on historic occasion provided an effective platform from which to launch such an attack: “…The Liturgy of the Christian assembly stubbornly resists the manipulations of both politics and civil religion.”[6] No doubt, it sometimes does. However, no doubt, it sometimes does not. My claim that it sometimes does not is central to a deep disagreement with the aim of this symposium: “reclaiming our rites” understood as a reassertion of liturgical authority. Who are numbered among the “our?” Christians, clearly. Catholics, clearly. But how can women, who have been systematically denied liturgical authority, be counted among those privileged with inclusion in the first person plural? Women can hardly be imagined as wanting to reclaim what they have not had. So I confess that, whatever the intentions of the title of this symposium, I cannot help hearing in such words a nostalgia for pre-Vatican II days when the liturgy was the liturgy and lay people knew their place. Neither can I help hearing it as a parallel to complaints by men that their authority in families and jobs has been eroded by women, particularly feminists. Perhaps it is the “re-“ in “reclaiming” and “reassertion” that conjures such connotations. In any case, I first coined the term “liturgical erectitude” after I read the symposium proposal, because in the current cultural and ecclesiastical climate liturgical authority is largely and obviously masculine.

Many who assume the posture of liturgical erectitude are busy appropriating a host of allied theological and anthropological notions, for instance, tradition. Liturgical erectitude maintains a proper relation to tradition:

Understood correctly, tradition is a word denoting those aspects of a group’s social compact which have managed to survive the traumas of history because they work in maintaining the social group as a whole. It is by this compact that the group coheres and is thus able to survive. Because of this, the social compact—however it is stated or left unstated—is the result of the entire group and its deliberative processes. Responsibility lies with the group itself and cannot be appealed to anyone’s private “revelation,” nor ought it to be taken from the group and handed over to anyone less than the total body politic.

Thus differing from mere custom and convention, tradition frees from the tyranny of the present: it also protects against aggression by the compulsively articulate, as well as against opportunism by unchecked authority.[7]

I hear such claims as aspirations rather than descriptions, so I would have to shift into the subjunctive in order to affirm them: “Oh, if liturgical tradition were consistent in delivering us from the tyranny of the present! Oh, if it were only true that liturgical tradition represented the total body politic? Don’t we all wish we could be sure that structures which have enabled us to survive would continue to do so!”

If we couple unquestioning trust of liturgical tradition with this symposium’s statements about ritual authority, Renata’s kind of ritualizing is reduced to caricature and made a symbol of the “tyranny of the present.” As a middle-class woman she becomes an example of embourgeoisement.[8] She is taken to be an instance of “private ritual vagaries.”[9] If one adds to this multi-layered critique a definition of ritual that takes it to be “…the performance of more or less invariant sequences of formal acts and utterances not encoded by the performers,” Renata’s ritualizing is not only caricatured and devalued but defined out of existence, a situation all too familiar to women and one that I find both morally and theoretically intolerable.[10]

Though it may hope to claim anthropological support, a liturgical theology which holds that a rite’s authority transcends its ambient culture and the social relationships on which it is based is not likely to receive much support from anthropologists themselves. Such a theology probably derives from buttressing theological images and ideas, such as that of a god who transcends the land. This god, of course, is metaphorically male. This “god of the gaps” (to appropriate Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s well-worn term) will be increasingly relegated to the edges of the cosmos, not so much because he is male but because he is fundamentally removed and essentially unrelated. My prediction is that in North America a ritual authority that is not grounded in the social relationships on which it depends will suffer the same fate as the god of the gaps, and not at the hands of feminists alone. Renata, along with many other women and a growing number of men, would insist that the authority (if they would even use such a term) of ritual is dependent on—in fact, ought to grow organically out of—those who participate in it. This view is not without its difficulties, but it a cogent option.

Another feature of liturgical erectitude is what we might call “liturgiocentrism,” by which I mean theological ideologies that treat “the” liturgy as both the single center of the ritual tradition in which it is embedded and as the norm for judging its ambient culture. Several assumptions and axioms are regularly associated with liturgiocentric theologies and obviously present in the proposal for this symposium: (1) that “public orders,” such as the liturgy, are by their very nature superior to personal or private ones; (2) that Christian liturgy is somehow above its ambient culture (called in the proposal for this symposium, “the social contract”); (3) that Christian liturgy is “invariable”;[11] (4) that ritual invariance (if there were such a thing) guarantees the authority of the liturgy.

The fact that Christian liturgy has a history at all means that it is variable, changing, fluid. Even if it is a stream that flows more slowly than all others, it nevertheless changes, and its changes are often consonant with other cultural and historical changes. Though a liturgy may criticize and judge social structures, it also reflects them. In short, the liturgy is a cultural process, itself in need of constant reformation and revision. The liturgy, like persons, can err. It can and does embody oppressive structures. If in aspiration it has overcome racism and nationalism, it has not in fact. And it has not overcome sexism even in aspiration, except on rare occasion. The liturgy is not, at least in moral terms, superior to some of the private, invented rites celebrated in homes, convents, forests, and urban work places. Some of these kinds of ritualizing judge the liturgy. Renata’s attempt to initiate six girls into the mysteries of menstruation and womanhood, flawed though it may be, judges the baptismal rites of a church in which there are no huts, no nests to which women may have repose in order to bleed, write theology, weave, or draft resolutions. Nothing guarantees that “Liturgy is what underwrites [that is, is the standard for] the social contract.”[12] Sometimes the social contract functions as a standard for evaluating liturgy. One ought only to decide which underwrites which after observing actual instances of liturgy/culture interaction. One ought not assume, for theological or other reasons, the priority of public liturgy since it has at times in its history proved itself culture- and gender-bound. It has proved itself faithless for the same reason that any rite does: because it does not transcend the people who engage in its performance.

If my language seems too strong and too theological, then let us at least admit that the process of ritual revision, in which many, if not all, religious groups engage, implies the necessity of ritual criticism and the possibility of ritual infelicity. And let us recognize that, even though liturgy sometimes earns the right to be the “model for” a culture, it is also a “model of”[13] culture, and thus it participates in the foibles, injustices, and contradictions of culture.

In 1990 Helen Ebaugh delivered a presidential address called, “The Revitalization Movement in the Catholic Church: The Institutional Dilemma of Power.”[14] Her address is about the dilemma of hierarchical authority precipitated by Vatican II. Though the article says little about ritual, some of its conclusions are germane to our consideration of ritual authority. Ebaugh’s argument is that personalized religious individualism was one of the results of Vatican II, this “revitalization movement.”[15] Far from setting Catholic liturgy with its collective sensibility against or above American cultural individualism, she sees the church and its liturgy as one of the sources of that individualism. The relationship is not antithetical but circular; there is no pure or simple division between liturgy and culture, religion and society. In Ebaugh’s view “selective Catholicism” (picking and choosing which aspects of Catholicism one will participate in) is another result of Vatican II. I mention Ebaugh’s argument because we are so used to hearing accounts that blame these qualities on American culture rather than the church.[16] I do not intend simply to reverse the causal sequence by blaming the church rather than the culture but rather to argue against any dualistic understanding of liturgy and culture.

Vatican II left largely untouched the gender arrangements that underwrite Roman liturgy. Insofar as the church has begun to challenge such arrangements, it has, by and large, followed the lead of culturally informed critics. Joan Laird, for instance, has mounted a powerful critique of the gender arrangements presupposed by most traditional ritual systems, among which we must count Roman Catholic liturgy as well as much that remains of Protestant and Jewish liturgy. She argues that these arrangements “leave men free to design rituals of authority that define themselves as superior, as special, and as separate,” and “because men can be separate, they can be ‘sacred.’”[17] Thus, she concludes that, “since rites of passage are important facilitators in the definition of self in relation to society, there is clearly a need for women to reclaim, redesign, or create anew rituals that will facilitate life transitions and allow more meaningful and clear incorporation of both familial and public roles.”[18]

I believe Laird’s conclusion is essentially correct. I see no way to refute the core of feminist critique of ritual authority and no reason to obstruct women’s attempt to claim (or re-claim, if they ever had control of) their rites. In fact, liturgy, liturgical theology, and ritual theory, ought to be put in the service of this critique rather than having to be the repeated objects of it. There is a tacit but fundamental conflict between the project to “reclaim our rites,” the stated aim of this symposium, and the feminist attempt to reclaim ritual, so let us not pretend this is not a power struggle.

So far I have not engaged in critique of the assumptions about authority implicit in the ritualizing represented by Renata. If she were in attendance at this symposium, I would do so, but its presuppositions exclude her. If I were addressing, say, a New Age convention in Boulder, Colorado, at which she might be present, I would challenge at the least following problematic assumptions: (1) that personal insight and private passion, such as one finds in contemporary Anglo-American ritual groups, are by their very nature more authentic than public liturgical orders; (2) that women’s concerns, merely because they are rooted in women’s bodies, (or men’s concerns merely because they are rooted in men’s bodies) are universal and timeless—the same now as in ages past and in other cultures; and (3) that ritual creativity or authenticity displaces the need for ritual authority in the more public or conventional sense; (4) that all ancient or Native American symbols are available for mining by the White middle class for use in its ritualizing. I will not argue each of these points here. My aim is simply to illustrate that I am not uncritical of contemporary ritualizing and its assumptions about authority.

In Christian history the usual sources of authorization for anything, liturgy included, have been the Bible, tradition, and the hierarchy (pastoral as well as papal and gender-based ones as well as ecclesiastical ones). But I have not yet tackled directly the evasive theoretical question: What is ritual authority? There are multiple candidates for an answer to it. Ritual authority might be, for example, whatever

  • is endorsed (by the gods, elders, officiants, or other kinds of participants);
  • is traditional (usually done, done for generations);
  • is performed according to the rules (contained in sacred and/or liturgical texts);
  • functions (that is, fits the social context) or works (to achieve explicit goals);
  • is just (according to moral criteria).

Distinguishing kinds or levels of authority at least would enable us to notice that the symposium organizers emphasize #1 and #2 (what is endorsed and traditional), whereas Renata is more interested in #4 (what functions or works), and feminist critiques of mainline liturgy often question its moral authority (#5). Such emphases are, of course, not mutually exclusive, so there is no necessary or logical conflict between the three positions (that of established liturgiology, that of feminist liturgical theology, and that of private ritualizing outside the ecclesiastical context). The very complexity of ritual precludes any simple answer to the question, What is ritual authority? But we will do much talking past each other if we do not distinguish at least among these sorts of authority. Furthermore, there are different kinds of ritual, and these probably entail different sorts of ritual authority.

The notion of ritual authority conceals at least two, circularly related questions. The first is this: What authorizes ritual? by which is meant, Where does it come from, how does it arise, who warrants it? The stated intention of this symposium seems to emphasize this aspect of current liturgical difficulties in North America. The organizers appear interested in fostering a liturgy that has public, not merely private, validity and that arises out of time-tested, ecclesiastically grounded tradition. The second question is this: What does ritual authorize? by which is meant, What does it do, achieve, or enable? Renata is primarily interested in this question. She wants to construct a rite that will, in fact, enable girls to become women. A serious problem, as I see it, is the divorce between these questions that ought to be dialectically related. If we make the mistake of focusing entirely on the first one (what ritual authorizes), treating ritual solely as a pragmatic tool, we are tempted to ransack the world’s ritual traditions for symbolic goods, much as we once plundered the globe for spices and gold. If we over-emphasize the second one (what authorizes ritual), treating liturgy solely as a paradigm or norm (with authority over participants and culture), we attribute to it a false, heteronomous transcendence removed from criticism but also from relevance and cultural roots. So in my view those who practice liturgical supinity (a posture emphasizing attunement to cultural currents and ecological realities) as a way of fostering ritual creativity need to attend to ritual traditions, especially their own. Those who defend liturgical erectitude (a posture emphasizing public accountability and traditional integrity) as a way of consolidating ritual authority need to attend to ritual generation, especially that of women and other groups marginalized by mainline liturgical activity.

I am calling, then, for a reframing of the question of ritual authority. Since the notion of authority is so contaminated with androcentrism, I prefer to change the terms of reference altogether. We might, for instance, speak of “felicitous” and “infelicitous” rather than authorized (or authoritative) and unauthorized (or “unauthoritative”) ritual.[19] This strategy does not get rid of the authority question, but it does put it in a larger context. We need to know how and in what respects liturgies lapse into infelicity. Are, for example, non-feminist liturgies and baptisms guilty of “glossing,” that is, of using ritual procedures to cover up social problems? Do they commit ritual “violations,” actions that are effective but demeaning?

If my budding glossary of ritual infelicities seems cumbersome, there are others in the making. William Seth Adams, for instance, criticizes Episcopalian baptism on two accounts: its ritual incongruence and its ritual incoherence. Both of his judgments are made on the basis of observations and descriptions of that rite’s handling of ritual space and action.[20]

The temptation in trying to develop a vocabulary of ritual infelicity is that it could degenerate into mere academic name-calling. If so, it would, of course, be useless. But if it forced us to be more precise in identifying the level on which criticism of a liturgical rite is being levied, it might actually help the antagonists engage one another more fully and fairly. What worries me is the lack of sustained and direct public debate between male theologians who want to reassert liturgical authority and feminist ones who are marginalized by symposia such as this one because they might challenge or undermine it. What little debate there is, is far too circumlocutious and private.

Whether my terms are the best ones or not, the implication I want to press is this: liturgy’s felicitousness does not arise from ecclesiastical, biblical, conciliar, or traditional warrant alone but also on the basis of a rite’s ability to meet fundamental human need. Liturgy is as essentially cultural as it is religious. Consequently, it ought to be subjected not just to theological criticism but to ritual, ethical, and others sorts of criticism that proceed on anthropological, ecological, and psychological grounds.

If we were to be successful in reframing the question of ritual authority, our view of initiation, for example, might be different. The symposium organizers wrote in their letter to me, “…Rites without norms—or rites that are homogenized into a kind of ‘generic’ condition through over-identification with cross-cultural models (as may have happened when Christians rushed to identify ‘baptism’ with ‘an initiation rite‘)—have a hard time maintaining any authoritativeness.” Here the general question of ritual authority is focused specifically on baptism.

In my view the attempt to reimagine baptism as an initiation rite has been a largely felicitous step in baptismal history, and the church ought to go further with this experiment, not retrench on it. From the point of view of liturgical erectitude, however, the step is an infelicitous one, making baptism too generic, too cultural. A cross-cultural perspective, however, has helped provide a critical edge for assessing liturgy.

For example, Marjorie Procter-Smith in her critique of Christian baptism lays out several criteria for judging rites: the centrality of women’s bodies, naming the sources of oppression, baptism’s connectedness with the everyday, dependence on relationships among women, and ritual empowerment.[21] These are dependent in part on cross-cultural research mediated through feminist theological scholarship. Procter-Smith is, at least indirectly, indebted to the notion of initiation or some equivalent, culturally-grounded idea. Her sources are not only theological or narrowly Christian but broadly cultural, even cross-cultural. Initiation understood as a bodily, social, and political phenomenon is a product of cross-cultural research. Some of the grounds for liturgical critique, such as those launched by feminist and Marxist critics of so-called “gender ritual,” have their roots outside Christian theology.[22] They have been more attuned to ritual infelicities, especially the abuse of ritual authority, than most liturgical theologies have. Both feminist ritualizing (like that of Renata) and feminist liturgical rites (like those proposed by Procter-Smith) are more consistently open to, and dependent upon, cross-cultural research, because they do not construe the authority of ritual as derivative from either its distinctiveness or its exclusivity.

Whatever may be lost by considering baptism an initiation rite, the gain has been considerable. If Christian baptism seems to lose its uniqueness, and therefore authority, by being assimilated to a cross-cultural model, it gains connectedness, not only with women but with other cultures and classes and with human ordinariness. I am not suggesting that some generic initiation rite is necessarily less sexist or more humane than Christian baptism. And I am not arguing for the moral or ritual superiority of other kinds of initiation, but for the value of continuing to imagine baptism pluralistically, as just one (not “the”) version of human initiatory activity. Christian baptism, I believe, is more, not less felicitous, if it remains permeable to cross-culturally informed initiation rites—if those who conduct and theologize about baptism do so in the light of non-Christian as well as Christian data.

I do not mean to imply that liturgical theologians need “authoritative” “correction” from anthropologists and historians of religion who work on rites of passage, but rather that mutual critique and collaborative reimagining of ritual processes should be our aim. We in the humanities and social sciences need critique as surely as liturgical theologians need ours. For example, a recurrent assumption of rites of passage theorists is that rites of passage have their proper home in pre-industrial cultures. Victor Turner represents a widespread anthropological view when he says, “Rites de Passage are found in all societies but tend to reach their maximal expression in small-scale, relatively stable and cyclical societies, where change is bound up with biological and meteorological rhythms and recurrences rather than with technological innovations.”[23] Is this claim true? No anthropologist that I know has presented data that demonstrates that it is the case. Perhaps the problem is rather a failure of the theoretical imagination—this time among secular academics rather than liturgists or liturgiologists. If baptism is, in fact, an initiation rite, is it not evidence that rites of passage continue in industrial cultures? Is not Christian baptism an example of a kind of initiation that continues, recast and reimagined, into industrial and postmodern society? I do not claim that the example of Christian baptism disproves Turner’s assumption, only that it makes it questionable.

I am currently struggling with the history of rites of passage theory, which is indebted largely to van Gennep and Turner. Turner’s theory of ritual is constructed around the cornerstone of liminality, the second phase in the rites of passage model. But rites of passage theorizing from van Gennep (its originator) to Turner (in whom it culminates) is determined mainly by one kind of rite of passage, namely, initiation; initiation has been regarded as the paradigm for the other rites of passage such as those surrounding birth, marriage, and death.[24] In turn, the examples of initiation are, in almost every instance those of male initiation. So ritual theory itself is not immune from the kinds of critique I have levelled at liturgical theology, because the theorizing itself is contaminated by androcentrism and colonialism.

But so what? What difference does such a conclusion make? It makes little if we imagine that theory has no life beyond the halls of academe. However, I know people who design initiations in three phases—separation, transition, incorporation—the classical threefold pattern formulated by van Gennep. I know feminists ritualizers who set out deliberately to foment liminality, a notion borrowed from Turner, who borrowed it from van Gennep, who borrowed it from…. Ritual theory itself is currently inspiring and permeating North American ritual practices, both ecclesiastical and self-generated. Whether or not van Gennep and Turner would have approved of such a use of their ideas, they (like Jung and Eliade), nevertheless, have fed the initiatory fantasies that have been with us since at least the origins of romance in the Middle Ages and the revival of romanticism in the nineteenth century.

I do not want to privilege ritual studies, religious studies, anthropology, or any other discipline, making it some new arbiter in the clash between ecclesiastical liturgiology and private ritualizing. Each of these is in need of critique. However, liturgical theologians need to stop uncritically appropriating and start questioning their anthropological (largely White male) authorities[25] and begin listening to their female ritual critics.[26] The opening of liturgy and liturgical theology to the cross-cultural resources provided by anthropology and religious studies, though not without its problems, is nevertheless essential to the felicitous functioning of a liturgy that must negotiate its position in what we all hope is a decreasingly androcentric and increasingly pluralistic world. It is also essential for debunking liturgical or theological claims to a false transcendence over culture. When culture is construed as the bipolar opposite of a male-engendered and male-controlled liturgy, it necessarily becomes the overcrowded home of women and “others.”

So, what am I actually recommending? I hope for continued, strengthened moral and cultural pressure on Christian liturgies in the direction of a more collaborative, less hierarchical, less androcentric sensibility for handling ritual power. I would like to see a sustained reconsideration of certain key notions—among them: authority, power, order, and tradition. The view of tradition, for example, that identifies its authority with rule-like order or maintains that tradition stands above culture should not be regarded as sacrosanct. There are other ways to understand tradition. It is time we admit that the reigning definitions of such notions are themselves both andro- and ethnocentric and thus in need of theological critique. When I hear calls for liturgical order and pleas for enhanced ritual authority, I cannot help thinking of Huntington and Metcalf’s compelling interpretation of Bara funerals. For these Madagascar islanders death is “an overdose of order,” thus funerals are necessary injections of chaos to revitalize and rebalance the socially generated cosmos.[27]

The Christian liturgical imagination can no longer afford the luxury of reasserting ritual authority on the basis of rules assumed to be unchanging and universal. Participants can begin to create the conditions for nurturing the liturgical imagination by refusing to reassert the authority of liturgy (or ritual theory) over those who participate in it, for the simple reason that many of us who exercise such authority are White middle-class, middle-aged Euroamerican males, who present keynote addresses at symposia like this one. If such a divestment of ritual authority means that one can no longer do the liturgy “by heart” and “without artifice” (two aspirations specified in the symposium proposal) so be it. Let us learn to ritualize our self-consciousness and our lack of authority.

In my view the feminist critique and environmental crisis require of us men who hold various kinds of ritual authority that we drop our preoccupation with ritual authorization so that we have the energy to follow the leads of others who know more than we about ritual generation. The former is typical of the posture of liturgical erectitude; the latter, of liturgical supinity. The difference between the two emphases is that the authority question (at least as posed for this gathering) starts at the top (the head) rather than the bottom (the roots). The question we should be asking, then, is not what stands above ritual to authorize it, but what lies below it. The best position from which to answer the question is supine. So if I were forced to answer the question, What constitutes ritual authority, without arguing against the question itself, I would have to say something like this: Ritual has (or ought to have) authority only insofar as it is rooted in, generated by, and answerable to its infrastructures—bodily, cultural, ecological, spiritual.

I might have approached the topic of ritual authority in a variety of ways, for example, theoretically or practically, theologically or social scientifically. I have done so ritologically, thereby assuming a position between these two sets of alternatives. My aim in doing so, however, has not been to pretend that I am neutral or to escape critique. I am not neutral, and I am well aware of the dangers of assuming mediating positions in disputes where dividing lines are deeply inscribed. In the present circumstances my own position is largely that of an advocate of the virtues of liturgical supinity (even though I know I have argued for it with considerable erectitude). I am not recommending it for women, who have known the posture for generations, but for men occupying positions of power and authority. From a supine position, into which many women have been forced both literally and metaphorically (but which I as a man have been able to imagine that I can assume by choice) one has to “overcome from underneath,” to borrow a Taoist phrase. One has to employ cultural and religious refuse, that is, the symbols our culture would prefer to bury or forget, recycling and transforming them into tools useful for the liberation of a captive liturgy.

Before I conclude, I must confess to a trick I have been playing. The image of a “supine liturgy” is not my invention. It belongs Aidan Kavanagh, from whom I have pilfered it.[28] I have inverted it, using it in ways quite contrary to his original intentions. Liturgical supinity is not a posture to which he aspires but rather one he fears and deplores. He uses the phrase to characterize the plight of a liturgy that capitulates to middle-class American culture. To quote him, “Liturgy is not [I think he means, “ought not be”] adapted to culture, but culture to the liturgy.”[29]

When I first encountered the image, it stopped me flat and stole my breath. It provoked an imagined a scenario: Liturgy was lying on its back, its spine following the curvature of the ground. It was, if you will, in missionary position. I imagined (my imagination being more perverse than Kavanagh’s) a very tall, very threatening, not very trustworthy Mr. Culture. He was standing over Supine Liturgy, whose gender I leave to your imagination.

This scenario is one Kavanagh rejects. He would have us reverse the polarities, so I inverted the imagery and ran out another scenario: Now, Liturgy is vertical, male, and standing erect; liturgical authority walks tall. Culture, now obviously female, is supine and vulnerable. To be lying on one’s back is dangerous, not to mention bad liturgical style. It is an invitation to abuse.

I do not like either scenario; I mistrust them both. By teasing out the images of erectitude and supinity, I am not suggesting that liturgical issues are really sexual ones. Instead, I am using the sexual images as metaphors for understanding the relations between liturgy and culture. I do mean, however, to imply that gender issues (as distinct from sexual issues) are more fully determinative of both liturgical practice and liturgical theology than most White male theologians readily recognize or openly admit.[30] I am also arguing that the middle class culture before which liturgy is not supposed to be supine includes some of the most articulate, critical, and creative women in the church. Thus, I question both the wisdom and morality of a liturgy-vs.-culture model. I am defending liturgical supinity not because I believe that the church ought to lie prostrate before culture, but because I believe the supine position best symbolizes what men presently prefer to ignore. Men, largely Euroamerican males, have been the inventors of most Christian liturgical traditions, so I believe that we should practice the posture we have assigned women as a way of educating ourselves ritually. We ought not pretend that the Renatas of our time merely invent their rites, while assuming that ours were “somehow given” to us.

American culture can be rapacious. We all know this. I certainly do not want to be seduced, much less raped, by a rapacious American culture. I am wary of it. But I am just as wary of canonized posturing and liturgical displays of the feathers of erectitude. I do not believe that a more prophetic liturgy needs to assume the form of liturgical erectitude or remain impervious to the supine virtues. I believe that Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant, is much in need of liturgical supinity. A more supine liturgy, which I am espousing for White, Euroamerican men, would, of course, be perpetually endangered, a rare species. It would be a liturgy whose authority consists of the act (at once both real and ritualistic) of divesting itself of power. We men who organize and speak at conferences such as this need to meditate upon—or within—the vision of a supine liturgy, one that teases the spines of its practitioners into parallel alignment to, and contact with, the earth.

I conclude, then, by commending the metaphor of supinity to you. If you choose to embody and practice it, it will stretch muscles you did not know you have. And you may be sure that you will be sore the day after.



[1]. This chapter is the revised form of a lecture delivered in 1992 at the University of Notre Dame for a conference entitled “Reclaiming Our Rites.” In 1993 the paper was discussed in Albuquerque, New Mexico, at the annual meeting of the North American Academy of Liturgy. It was first published in Studia Liturgica (23 [1993]: 51-69). I am deeply indebted to Mary Collins, Marjorie Procter-Smith, Lynn Ross-Bryant, S. L. Scott, and Janet Walton for their reflections, critique, and encouragement in writing the original paper.

[2]. The version printed in the actual program differs slightly from this one.

[3]. Mitchell, “Americans,” 181.

[4]. Mitchell, “Americans,” 182.

[5]. For an alternative theological view of liturgy that emphasizes its public nature but attempts to overcome this tendency to accord it privileged status see Jennings, “Liturgy” and “Sacrament.”

[6]. Mitchell, “Americans,” 180.

[7]. Kavanagh, Baptism, 146.

[8]. The term is used by Aidan Kavanagh in Studia Liturgica (20.1 [1990]: 102) and quoted by Nathan Mitchell in “Americans,” 180.

[9]. The term was originally Roy Rappaport’s (Ecology, 197). It is used by Nathan Mitchell in “Americans,” 182.

[10]. Rappaport, Ecology, 175. In my Ritual Criticism (9-14) I have argued against such exclusion by definition.

[11]. Mitchell, “Americans,” 183.

[12]. Mitchell, “Americans,” 184.

[13]. The terms belong to Geertz, (The Interpretation of Culture).

[14]. Ebaugh, “Revitalization.”

[15]. The idea is borrowed from anthropologist Anthony Wallace.

[16]. This rhetorical strategy parallels the strategy of the 1992 Republican convention in the United States, namely, blaming all moral ills on “the culture” while maintaining that “America” (the country) is unblemished. I am indebted to S.L. Scott for pointing out this parallel.

[17]. Laird, “Women and Ritual,” 337.

[18]. Laird, “Women and Ritual,” 338.

      [19]. See my Ritual Criticism (chapter 9) for more on ritual infelicity.

[20]. Adams, “Decoding.”

[21]. Procter-Smith, In Her Own Rite.

[22]. See, for example, Paige and Paige, Reproductive Ritual.

[23]. Turner, Forest, 93.

[24]. Adams (“De-coding,” 332), who advocates a “baptismal paradigm,” ought to take this bias in rites of passage theory into account, since he makes explicit use of the theory.

[25]. Such as Victor Turner, Clifford Geertz, and Roy Rappaport.

[26]. Such as Rosemary Radford Ruether, Marjorie Procter-Smith, Janet Walton, Mary Collins, Katheleen Hughes, and the many unknown Renatas.

[27]. Huntington and Metcalf, Celebrations of Death.

[28]. Kavanagh, Elements, 56.

[29]. Kavanagh, Elements, 55. This statement is softened considerably by one that follows: “…The liturgical assembly is normally always in the business of absorbing cultural elements into itself in a rich diversity of ways and over long periods of time” (57). Clearly, Kavanagh is aware that the liturgy/culture relation is not a one-way street.

[30]. The usual distinction is that sexuality is biologically given, whereas gender is socially constructed.