Acting in Church is Good for You

I took some dangerous courses in my Arts degree but easily the most dangerous was… Performance Studies.

It sounds like a bludge, doesn’t it? And it kind of was. It was the B.A. of Arts subjects: fascinating, self-referential and utterly useless. Except that it taught me one very important thing that pushed me along the path to the Catholic Church. It taught me that ritual is not a substitute for reality but an expression of it.

Everything has its rituals, some stricter than others of course but every human action is, in some sense, ritualistic. Life itself, as we were fond of saying, was performative. This doesn’t mean we are pretending but rather, we are truly act-ing. (Our language understands the ambiguity in that; after all, are you performing an action or acting in a performance?)

Pieter Codde, Actors’ Changing Room, 1635 (Staatliche Museen, Berlin)

Once you start seeing that performance is everywhere, it is impossible to un-see it. Even at church.

I remember one particular sermon that was about how we must beware of “experiences”. It would be so easy, our minister argued, to lure people in with flashy lights or flickering candles, to deliberate evoke “feelings” through rituals or such nonsense. But we were above that. Whether it was the happy-clappies or the bells-and-smells folk, we showed ourselves to be truly Gospel-centred by not caring what we did in our public worship.

But my proudly Protestant church had a ritual, whether we knew it or not. A ritual that was deliberately designed to say, “We are not ritualists.” The unspoken assumption was that any ritual was prone to degrade and was only effective in spite of itself.

No wonder we consciously avoided it. Except being human, we couldn’t.

We had our own ritual. We’d all saunter into church, chatting excitedly to each other and ignoring any sense of sacred space that would have come naturally to an Anglican barely a generation ago. We stood to sing but didn’t kneel to pray. A few brave souls would raise their hands in the singing, but mostly we tapped our feet and gripped our bulletins, singing theologically dense indie hymns.

At the centre was a single pulpit. It shouted louder and clearer than anything else that the sermon was the point of service. Everything before was a preparation to hear the Word preached. Everything after was a reflection on it. (All of which elevated the role of the preacher to a remarkable degree but that’s another story.)

It was a beautiful, old Anglican church that most Catholics would kill to worship in. But we inhabited it with an affected disregard.

This disregard was a ritual in itself. Our service mirrored our conviction that the Gospel was primarily a set of cognitive propositions, set out inerrantly and sufficiently in one inspired text. It exalted the preached Word and told your feelings to sit down, shut up and just think.  

Now, I’m thrilled to be in a Church that knows that humans need to act and embraces that fact. And if you think I’m acting, that’s just fine by me. I am acting. I am doing something. And that something, that performance, is habit-forming.

So every time I kneel before my King or beat my breast in the Confession, I am performing. So then when I do sin, I will feel it deeply in my heart and when I do come face to face with Jesus, kneeling will be the most natural thing in the world.

And yes, sometimes that requires acting.  

I know I need all the help I can get. 

Mass of St Gilles, c. 1500 (National Gallery, London)


12 responses to “Acting in Church is Good for You

  1. Great post, Laura. Yes, you make excellent points – even saying we have no ritual and sticking to it, is ritual; having the Sermon as you focal point is as much ritual as having the Eucharist; the one difference is that christ made the latter the focal point, man made the former 🙂

    • Thanks Jess, exactly!

      Truth be told, I’m still uncomfortable with calling with the Eucharist the focal point of the liturgy, as opposed to the Sermon. Even though I think I do believe it is. (Note that: I *think* I believe. It’s a good summary of a lot of where I’m at with things!) Certainly experientially, I know that receiving Jesus is the culmination of the mass. It’s SO AMAZING! 😀

      • Yes, that’s a great way of putting it.It is our wonderful encounter with Christ which lies at the centre of our worship – and if we feel that, everything else falls into place. 🙂

  2. In the Catholic Church, we sometimes mistakenly think that what’s most important is the homily, how inspiring or funny or boring it is and how funny, boring, inspiring Father is. We forget that’s what’s important is the Sacrifice at the altar, the Holy Eucharist and all the ritual and acting that goes with it.

    • Amen! I love the shorter sermons in the Catholic Church for just that reason and honestly breathe a sigh of relief – and anticipation when we the priest says, “pray brothers and sisters, that this sacrifice etc”

  3. Laura this topic shows an observant mind. Yes, it’s true, performance can be PART of the service- in my stark church, it sometimes seems an accessory to it. However, I wonder if you’re not giving humans too much credit and allocating too much blame- I don’t think people are always as conscious as you are of the template and style of worship to which they unwittingly conform in their particular churches, perhaps those Anglican friends of yours weren’t showing conscious disdain for the beauty of that church which they prayed in.

    Love this, I love the transcendental, soothing enchantment of Catholic hymns (this is lovely:, as well as how gratifying the habit of making the sign of the cross and of kneeling can be, when I go to Coptic church.

    Thanks for this

    • Oh, I didn’t mean that my amazing Anglican friends were being consciously disdainful. I’m sorry if that came across. (Though reading over what I’ve written, it does sounds like that!)

      I think I meant more that we were encouraged to disregard ritual and space and beauty and liturgy it as unimportant. No, worse, as somehow hindering real spirituality.

      And you’re right that most of the time, most of us are unconscious of this. That’s good. We’re supposed to be. When we go to church, the ritual is meant to be like the furniture. It sets the scene, holds us up but like a conversation with a friend, there’s a problem if you keep checking how comfy your seat is. 🙂

      But thank you for the insightful comments. I particularly like your description of making the sign of the cross and kneeling as “gratifying”. There really is how it feels, isn’t it? Like drinking water after a drought. You’re body feels free, free to worship. At least that’s been my experience!

      Thanks again 🙂

  4. Laura you make some exceedingly good points that I’m going to have to write on something similar ;D

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