All of us engage in rituals. From the very beginning moments of life we begin to inhabit rhythms, patterns that both govern our behaviour, and help us to make meaning of our experiences. Many of us engage in rituals such as praying before meals, kneeling to confess, reading stories before bedtime, gathering for weekly worship, lighting candles for loved ones etc. Age is no determinant of one's ability to engage in ritual. And people of all ages can engage in rituals that connect them to the Divine.
Churches, congregations, communities of faith of all kinds engage in rituals, whether they would name them as such, or not. As mentioned above these rituals give our lives a particular rhythm, they help us to make meaning of our experiences, and I would also add that they give us a sense of belonging. Nothing makes one feel more excluded than being unable to participate in a community's shared rituals.
One particular ritual that's often debated in the church in terms of intergenerational worship is the ritual of the Lord's Supper (Communion, Eucharist). Should the table be open or closed? Should we welcome only those who are baptized members or all people to God's table. And when people ask me where I fall on this issue, they're often surprised to hear that I'm somewhat indifferent to whether the Lord's table is open, closed, or something in between when it comes to intergenerational worship. This is not because I don't care deeply about Communion, or about inclusion or anything like that. It's simply because, from my experience, a congregation's stated belief about the nature of the table often has little to do with welcoming children, youth, or those who are not baptized. I've been witness to services in which any and all people are welcome to the table, yet in practice, many are actually excluded. Perhaps the manner of serving makes it impossible for those differently abled to partake or perhaps instructions include everyone, yet children are never told how to partake or what it means. I've also participated in services in which the table is only open to baptized members, and yet those who are outside of the membership circle still feel loved and welcomed as they are invited to participate in other ways. Perhaps those who are not baptized are clearly offered another form of blessing that still includes them in the ritual or perhaps a child, rather than having the communion plate passed over their head is invited to serve the person next to them.
I believe when considering all of our rituals what we must do is ensure that they are accessible to all those whom we claim to welcome. They may not be accessible in exactly the same way, but we must keep in mind all ages and abilities in our planning.
Here are just two short stories that might help to demonstrate how I have experienced ritual in the church.
A number of years ago I attended a worship service that concluded with an invitation to go to the front of the church and perform a task that signified one's commitment to a particular project. Basically it involved waiting in a long line until reaching the front of the sanctuary and then writing one's name. Simple, yes? But as I was filing through I noticed an elderly woman seated at the very back of the sanctuary. I knelt next to her chair and we began to talk. She told me she really wanted to go to the front, but she couldn't because she didn't have her wheelchair. She not only wanted to sign on because she really was committed, but she also didn't want to appear to others as though she was disapproving. So she asked me to sign for her, she made sure I knew how to spell her name so it would be clear. She desperately wanted to participate fully as a member of the body, but she had been forgotten.
A parent/child dedication service I attended stands in stark contrast. In this service the parents and child were invited to come forward along with siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles etc. who were present that day. Then all the children of the congregation were also invited forward to sit surrounding the family. It was clear that the task of raising this new life did not belong only to the parents, but to the entire church family. In the service the parents were invited to share about their experience of their new child and to share their deepest hopes for her. Then the congregation was invited to commit themselves to the task of walking alongside the family in their journey. And finally all of the children were invited to make their commitment to be a model for their new friend and to show the child what it meant to follow Jesus. As the pastor took the baby in her arms to offer a prayer of blessing all of the children were invited to lay hands on the baby (or on each other if they were far away). Following the prayer the pastor carried the baby throughout the sanctuary as the congregation softly sang a blessing. Each person present in the church, whether a member, regular attender or visitor, whether 2 or 82, was a part of the service.
Rituals may at times highlight the differences between us, dividing us from one another. However, with a bit of thought and consideration, they can also serve to draw the multigenerational body together, creating a sense of communal rhythm and belonging in the presence of God.