Ritual and Performance

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Here I start an exploration of ritual, developing ideas that have come up in my exploration of the sacred in A Ndembu Doctor.

The Catholic Mass

To get straight to the point, your present writer's understanding of ritual is rooted in personal experience of the Catholic mass. Although I stopped believing in my mid twenties, some 40 years ago, I was prior to that a practising Catholic, meaning in my case that I attended mass at least once weekly; for some of the time I attended daily as a daily communicant.

In fact, I would say in retrospect that the mass was the core of my religion rather than belief in God. This was, of course, the pre-Vatican II Latin mass. I describe a little of my teenage experience of parish mass in my comments on Mircea Eliade: The Sacred and the Profane [1957].

However, I would not be mentioning my personal experience if I did not consider the Catholic mass to be the key Western reference as far as ritual is concerned. I take it that the liturgy of the traditional Latin mass has been by far the most highly developed, extreme and best known form of ritual in Western culture. I suggest that it has been the hidden foundation on which all Western understandings of ritual have been built.

If Catholic readers think I have got Catholic practice or teaching on the traditional mass wrong in what follows, please email me to set me straight: at the address on the home page. Of course, the constructions I put on that practice and teaching are up to me.

Protestant Understandings

Now English language academic understandings of religion derive from Protestant understandings, whether particular scholars profess any Protestant allegiance or not. Thus the latest attempts to explain religion as a matter of evolutionary biology or neuroscience make no sense unless religion is understood the Protestant way: psychologically, in terms of individuals relating to God. This is pointed out under Neurotheology and elsewhere.

But this Protestant understanding does not mean that the Catholic mass was not the basic reference for English language notions of ritual, even if perhaps not to any extent discussed specifically. Protestantism has always been very much aware of the Catholicism it rejected, of the mass especially.

Prescribed by Authority

An essential feature of the traditional mass is that it was prescribed down to the last detail in the Catholic Church's liturgical texts, allowing the celebrant no opportunity for personal initiative. I see this feature as confirming the place of the mass as basic to Western understandings of ritual.

In comments on the chapter on ritual in Mary Douglas: Purity and Danger [1966], I understood ritual as

a pre-determined sequence of actions or behaviours, prescribed by some controlling source of authority: tradition, the Church, habit, neurotic personality, animal instinct etc.

This definition points to the way in which in our culture the term is extended beyond the ceremonial, in order to refer to behaviours observed in human individuals and in animals.

Now it is precisely for behaviours that are seen as prescribed by irrational forces within humans, or else by instinct within animals, the way the celebrant's actions in the mass are prescribed by the liturgy, that the analogy is made. If some other, looser understanding of ritual was the core understanding in our culture, these analogies referring to behaviour controlled by some kind of authority would not make sense.


I find it preferable to find some other term for ceremonies or enactments which are not prescribed in detail, in which the principals are freely interpreting a tradition: like jazz musicians as opposed to orchestral musicians. [1] I am thinking above all about the work of the magico-religious (for the want of a better term) practitioners as described in academic accounts of tribal religion. A recent survey of the study of Siberian shamanism summarised on this site avoids the term ritual for shamanic healing sessions, opting instead for performance: see Hutton: Shamanism [2001]. This seems to be the best available choice.

The traditional Catholic Sunday mass did of course incorporate one feature that normally required the celebrant to deliver a personal performance: the sermon. As I recall, very exceptionally, the sermon might be delivered by some visitor, such as a Catholic hell-fire style specialist preacher from some religious order.

We have to see preaching as the main Christian equivalent of the magico-religious performances found in traditional tribal societies, though clearly the very much rarer services conducted by Christian faith healers are far more closely comparable.

Perpetuating Calvary

It is important to appreciate that among other things the traditional Catholic mass was a re-enactment in the strongest sense possible: not merely an evocation in the style of a re-enactment of some famous battle. Each mass was believed to be Christ making His sacrifice on Calvary on behalf of humanity.

Again, the priestly celebrant was not like a shaman fashioning a virtuoso personal performance on behalf of a sick person or whatever, he was acting as Christ.

Ritual as Replication

It is in this light that we have to understand the use of liturgy. Only adherence to a precise set of words and actions, by a properly ordained priest with the right intention and the right materials, bread and wine, could ensure a true mass. We are looking at a religious technology of replication, a religious equivalent of mass production: the regrettable pun seems unavoidable.

Just as machine tools enabled relatively unskilled c19th factory workers to mass produce to extremely high standards items such as handguns, when these had earlier been the work of master craftsmen, so the liturgy enabled the Church to replicate, to perpetuate Calvary wherever it established itself, without the presence of Christ Himself as a man.

Performance and Ritual

Applying these last two considerations, religious performance and the mass as replication, we can see Christ's historical sacrifice as a performance which the ritual of the mass seeks to re-enact. Then generalising on that, we can hypothesise provisionally that all religious ritual - as understood here - aims to make possible the routine replication of the performances of outstanding religious performers. This is one of the lines of enquiry that this site intends to pursue.

The Religious Experience of Ordinary Believers

Another line of enquiry here will be into the religious experience of ordinary believers as opposed to that of the spiritual elite, whether the latter be Christian mystics and the like or such as the Siberian shamans referred to above. On the original site, in commenting on William James: The Varieties of Religious Experience [1904], which is summarised there, we pointed out how the American psychological theorist and philosopher dismissed the religious experience of ordinary believers as second-hand. We objected to the effect that it cannot possibly be right to consider the religious experience of the overwhelming majority of believers as being of no importance.

The Two Sides of the Coin

We have more recently suggested that the experiences of James's special souls and their like are meaningless except in so far as there are ordinary believers to take them seriously. For in any society it is only acceptance by others that saves individuals who claim to have visions, to talk to God, to go on spirit journeys or whatever from being regarded as misguided, eccentric, deranged or worse. Most individuals who make such claims are indeed so regarded. Thus we may say that spiritual elites and ordinary believers are two sides of the same coin.

The religious experience of ordinary believers first came up on the original site in comment on Rudolf Otto: The Idea of the Holy [1917]. There, the point was that Otto's description of religious experience in terms of the numinous corresponded to what must have been ordinary people's experience of the staged-managed appearances of great kings, a modern equivalent of which might be the stage appearances of say Elvis Presley.

Now it is clear from the Hutton study summarised on this present site that the performances of Siberian shamans were in their own modest way likewise stage-managed and evoked comparable emotions in the ordinary shamanic believers present. And we must suppose that the performances of the Evangelical preachers in the new American megachurches referred to in the Dawkins pages on this present site are similarly choreographed and have a similar impact on the thousands of ordinary believers present.

In general, it is the contention here that stage-management and believer psychology are central to the understanding of religious performance and ritual and, beyond that, of religion overall.

Neither Performance nor Ritual

Ritual has been a convenient ragbag category used indiscriminately by scholars to refer to any sort of practice regarded as in some sense religious or subreligious. The price paid for this sort of convenience has been a century and more of muddled thinking and controversy.

In recategorising certain types of practice as performance and understanding ritual in a precise way, as perpetuating performance, we aim to clear up some of the confusion. But that may not cover every type of practice commonly referred to as ritual. So another of the lines of enquiry to be pursued here will be to look at those types that are neither performance nor ritual and see how they can be more usefully be categorised.



1 Musicians

The analogy is approximate. On the one hand I am thinking of jazz performance as virtuoso improvisation: as I take Keith Jarrett's Cologne Concert, on my CD player at the moment and one of my favourites, to be. On the other hand, I am ignoring the interpretational element in the performance of classical music: there was no interpretation by the celebrant in the Latin Mass as I knew it.      [Back to the main text]

(c) John C Durham, 2006