Rites of passage and pastoral care

It was Arnold van Gennep, a French anthropologist, who in 1909 coined the phrase ‘rite of passage’. He noticed, as he worked among different peoples of Africa and Oceania, that birth, puberty, marriage, and death, are specially commemorated in every culture. The actual ceremonies may differ, but their meaning is universal—celebration of the transition from one phase of life to another. He showed that all rites of passage include three phases: separation from the old status, transition, and incorporation into the new status. The old status is the old way of life; the new status is the new way of life; and transition is the moment when one crosses the threshold between the old order and the new. Van Gennep introduced the concept of ‘liminality’ (from the Latin word līmen, meaning ‘a threshold’) to describe the rite of passage as participants go from one stage of life into another.

I find this concept of stages within a rite of passage helpful with regards to Christian ministry. Within the context of Christian worship and pastoral care the church, as the community of love, is able through an appropriate rite of passage to surround and support people experiencing a crisis of transition.

Every transition is a ‘crisis’ of one kind or another. At first sight the term crisis may seem strange to use of some of the more joyful transitions of life, and yet every new beginning involves some kind of ‘death’ or loss. This sense of loss must not be minimised. For some the transition involved may prove to be profoundly disturbing, and may even seem to involve the loss of God. Yet there is always a positive side to the transition. Every transition also involves a new opportunity, a new challenge.

Christian rites of passage give us an opportunity to acknowledge both the negative and positive sides of the transition involved. In the words of Wayne Price, a Southern Baptist pastor:

Nearly every transition involves grief over what is being left behind; ritual in a community context says we are allowed to grieve and we have caring people to grieve with us. Nearly every transition involves exhilaration and excitement; who can bubble over alone! Nearly every transition involves fear of the unknown. Who better than the church to stand with us at such times?

To this we may add that the role of the church is not only to enable those in transition to get through the crisis they are facing, but also to provide the necessary help to enable those in transition to emerge the stronger and the more mature in the faith. Hopefully as a result of the church’s ‘turning-point ministries’ people will in turn be able to help others. Moments of change are inevitably moments of loss: at such a time many have need to be reassured of their own worth. These needs are met within worship, whether public or private. Worship is therefore a dimension of Christian pastoral care, and pastoral care is a dimension of Christian worship.

The longer I have been a minister, the more I have come to realise the importance of worship as a form of pastoral care, for in worship we come to seek God’s grace for our lives and for other members of the family of God. In the words of Mark Santer, a former Anglican Bishop of Birmingham:

The ministry of the liturgist is one of helping people to bring their real lives, their real world, our world, to God – with its pains and sorrows and its failures as well as its joys and thanksgivings. It is to help them to bring their world to God and find it transformed by his grace into a foretaste of heaven; to help them to receive the divine life in such a way that they can go back into their daily lives renewed, so that, having gone out into the world, they can bring it back again.

One of the joys and challenges for the minister is to fulfil the role of being a creative liturgist, and so be an agent of God’s grace at times of change and transition.

However, there is a further strand to a Christian rite of passage. Not only is it an expression of pastoral care, it can also prove to be an expression of the church’s evangelism. For no church can limit its pastoral care to its own members. Inevitably there will be those who have not committed themselves to Christ and his church, who will also come within the scope of our pastoral care. Where we are dealing with unbelievers our evangelism will not be highly pressured. Rather, the Good News of God’s unchanging love naturally comes to the surface as pastoral care in the context of worship is offered at the various turning-points of life. How precisely evangelism is linked to the rite of passage may vary. It could, for instance, be that a rite of passage would be followed by an invitation to join an Alpha group looking at Christian basics. In one way or another, rites of passage can prove a bridgehead for the Gospel. Interestingly, two surveys undertaken in the Anglican deaneries of Wandsworth and Merton revealed that over fifty percent of new Christians came to faith through ministry given at a major turning point: for example, the birth of a child, bereavement or divorce. Events like evangelistic specials were insignificant by comparison: in other words, loving attention given to people at major ‘crises’ in their lives often prove more evangelistically effective than formal evangelism.

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