The three major events of life – birth, marriage, and death – are marked by three traditional Christian rites of passage: viz. the christening (or service of thanksgiving), the wedding and the funeral. Within the context of a nominal society, these three occasions are often the only time some may darken the door of a church. In addition, for the committed, there is another major rite of passage: viz. confirmation or believers’ baptism. Although this fourth rite of passage may take place at any time of life, often it is the Christian equivalent of a rite of puberty, marking the end of childhood and the entering into some of the responsibilities of adulthood. For all these four rites of passage much guidance and help are afforded in a wide variety of service books.
However, life today is far more complex than the traditional rites of the Church would suggest. Most of us have to pass through many more than four major life transitions. Life is a continuous process of transition; for change is part of the warp and woof of life. Change – transition – is ‘the norm’, rather than the exception.
Yet even if transition is a permanent way of life, it is true to say that there are specific experiences or stages of transition through which we go. Such experiences or stages serve as boundaries to situations of ‘relative’ stability. I believe that many of these less-recognised transitions would benefit from a rite of passage, in which at the very least prayer and Scripture were combined to make the passing over into a new phase of life. Increasingly it is being recognised that “merely talking does not seem to have the same transformative effect as combining conversation and words with symbol and gesture in ritual” (Roy Oswald).
In my book Living Out the Call: 4. Serving God’s People I explored a wide variety of such transitions: transitions of child and youth, involving starting school, moving up to a new school, and leaving school; transitions of adulthood, such as special birthdays, leaving home, moving home, engagement, pregnancy, wedding anniversaries, and the parting of the ways for a divorced couple; works transitions including redundancy and career change; transitions in older years such as retirement, and the ‘second’ retirement; final transitions and ritual with the dying. I also explored rites of passage which I termed ‘untimely terminations’: viz. a miscarriage, a still birth and an abortion, Then there are rites of passage relating to ‘transitions of faith’, such as reaffirmation of faith after tragedy and disaster and a healing rite for survivors of rape and sexual abuse. This list of transitions is far from exhaustive. The onset of non-life threatening disability, for instance, comes to mind: is there a place, I wonder, for a rite of passage helping people to deal with the onset of blindness, the loss of a limb, or the paralysing effect of a stroke? The fact is that life is a journey, marked by many stages. One of the joys and challenges for ministers is to be creative liturgists, and so be agents of God’s grace at times of change and transition.
However, in contrast to the traditional rites of passage, these new rites of passage have to be individually tailored. There is no one set of words appropriate to each and every occasion. Furthermore, it would not be right for every transition to be marked by a public rite of passage. Unlike a baptism or a wedding which are conducted in public before a congregation, some of these other transitions could only be recognized within the context of a private pastoral visit. The privacy of a home or of the pastor’s office does not rule out the helpfulness of an appropriate form of words (a ‘liturgy’) which enables the people concerned to give thanks for the past, and – where appropriate – to ask God’s forgiveness for where they have failed him and others; to seek God’s strength for the present and his blessing for the future. Such a rite of passage need not always be formalized within a set ‘liturgy’: it might simply take the form of an extempore prayer – but there are occasions when a set form of words may reinforce confession or blessing.
One further point is worth making. Many the rites of passage may seem to involve only one or two individuals, and yet indirectly it is the whole family which is involved. In a divorce, for instance, the two major players are the husband and wife; and yet, where there are children and parents, they too are affected. The birth of the first child not only creates parents, it also creates grandparents: whereas for the new parents the birth may cause joy, for the new grandparents that birth may be yet another marker in the long road towards old age and may even be resented as such. Change in one member of the family inevitably involves the wider circle. It has been said that “so central is the role of family process in rites of passage that it is probably correct to say it is really the family that is making the transition to a new stage of life at such a time rather than any ‘identified member’ focused upon during the occasion”. (E.H. Friedman) In other words, effective pastoral care must always have the wider horizon in view.