NORTH AMERICAN ACADEMY OF LITURGY
5-8 JANUARY 1995
Anthropological issues have driven the agenda for the initiation seminar for several years. The 1995 meeting advanced the questions in two directions: a consideration of the means of interpreting ritual as applied to baptism, and an analysis of gender influences in the shaping of contemporary religious initiation rites.
Ron Anderson presented "Performance, Practice and Meaning in Christian Baptism." Anderson proposes that we usually interpret baptism in terms of process and structure, having been influenced by the seminal works of van Gennep and Turner. However, he suggests that the event may also be interpreted through two other criteria: performance or practice. Following Stanley Tambiah, Anderson presents three senses of ritual action as performance: its speech, which forms and defines the action; its use of multiple media, including patterns, codes, and stylized usages of language, gesture, and motion; and its indexical values, which legitimate social positions. The structure of performance goes beyond text into gesture, event, and societal relationships. Ritual performance communicates meaning, reflects the present, and offers the possibility of transforming meaning. A second possible criterion for interpreting ritual is practice. Citing the work of Catherine Bell, Anderson says ritual practice has four features: it is situational, dependent on a context; it is strategic, applied to a certain goal; it is embedded in a misrecognition, ritually doing something different from what it intends to do; and it reproduces a vision of the order of power in the world. Anderson believes that ritual practice reveals a form correlative to either past, present, or future orientation, under the guises of manifestation, presentation, and emergence. Such reflections can help us move beyond lex orandi, lex credendi to lex agendi or lex vivendi.
Robert Kennedy prepared a formal response to Anderson's paper for the group. He observed that the paper's conclusion effectively introduces the principle of anamnesis, an act of remembering which draws its meaning from within, letting a far greater meaning emerge. An example of how practice leads to meaning can be found in works analyzing the contemporary models of confirmation, where ritual and catechetical experience are shaping the meaning of the event more than the texts. Kennedy offered a further question, suggesting that this study really concerns mystagogy, the community's reflection on the effects of the celebration.
The discussion which followed considered how one evaluates ritual, and cautioned the liturgical student about placing too much emphasis on text alone, but to explore the ritual event in its performative levels.
Catherine Vincie offered her paper, "Rethinking Initiation Rituals: Do Women and Men Do It the Same Way?" Her work comes as a result of a question posed at last year's seminar, "Do our initiation patterns reflect a male bias?" The paper presents the cultural anthropological literature on the influences of gender on initiation rites. Information remains scant. Cross-cultural research, so necessary for a full vision of the topic, is limited. However, as more women enter the field and feminism transforms the discipline, interest in female ritual patterns is producing more literature. The traditional language of rites of passage--separation, liminality, and reincorporation--seems to reflect patterns of male initiation, but has been applied uncritically to women's rites. In some cases, the patterns do apply to women's rites, but often with modifications. Women do not spatially separate as men do. They add clothing rather than go naked. They are often initiated individually rather than in a group, resulting in intergenerational bonding rather than peer bonding. In some cases, ritual drama may apply to women's ritual more than ritual passage does. In addition the questions of women's agency in creating and interpreting such cultural creations as initiation rituals is just beginning to be explored. Once the field of cultural anthropology has more fully explored women's rituals, further connections to Christian initiation will still need to be made.
In the discussion which followed, participants wondered if the images used in initiation needed further explanation; the very symbols of initiation may conceal gender biases as well. Is initiation a crossing from one context to another, or is it a new birth, a re-establishment of roles within the community? With children, for example, considering Christian initiation as rites of passage makes less sense than it does for adults. The challenge to the Christian community is the development of rites which honor equal status of the genders, even if this means offering different ways to initiate.
In hopes of drawing some closure, the seminar agreed to conduct a critical analysis of the initiation rites of our traditions at our next meeting. Conscious that the texts alone may be misleading, the group plans to examine contemporary ritual texts together with our experience of the ritual practice. A panel of presenters from the seminar will lead the discussion, drawing on the work of the seminar over the last several years on the influence of anthropology in our initiation rites. David Batchelder will lead the discussion on the role of the community in the rites. Kennedy will guide us through an analysis of the role of conversion. Paul Turner will critique the traditions according to gender bias. And Anderson will investigate the images of initiation.
This report appeared in the Proceedings (1995) of the North American Academy of Liturgy
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