I was reading a couple of articles for tomorrow’s Church, Sacraments and Ministry class. The topic for this week is a cursory overview of worship in Scotland. It covers such diverse areas as buildings and their layout, use (or lack) of liturgy, hymnody and so on. One of the articles was speaking about communion and how post-Reformation practice was to seat everyone at tables. Pews are a relatively recent arrival and it caused a bit of a stir when some churches started serving people in the pews rather than have people sit at a table. Part of the rationale for not having a communion table (ie one at the front to lay the elements on as we do now) was that it was too reminiscent of an altar. One ‘compromise’ was to ‘extend’ the table by laying white cloths on the pew shelves so that it still symbolised being part of the same table.
This rang a bell with me and I can’t remember if it was something done in my own church or I was hearing about in a placement church. Regardless, the church stopped doing it because it was a bit of a hassle and was a lot of work washing all the cloths afterwards. I wondered if those who advocated stopping it were even aware of the liturgical significance. And I wonder how many other little rituals that we perform have lost any sense of liturgical history, either through irrelevance or ignorance?
I think we forget the power of symbolism or reject its significance because we don’t always get it. I’m not suggesting that we should always be burdened with meaningless ritual but I think that it’s important to remember the history behind what we do in church and, if we insist on doing away with rituals, make sure that what lies behind them is not thrown out as well, but incorporated into our worship in new and more meaningful ways.