Traditionally the preserve of religion and state, ritual is being reclaimed across society in newly creative ways. As a means to connect with others and with what is important, how can ritual enrich our lives – and shape our future?

Thousands of people holding lanterns stretch in procession along the beach. The lights are clocks made from paper, stretched by hand across bulging, twisting frames. Streamers trail from them, flickering against the dark sky. Drums beat from somewhere near the shore as Catherine wheels spin and spurt out fire in rhythmic jerks. Young and old, people turn to each other grinning, eyes wide, sensing magic in the night air.

For 22 years the Burning the Clocks ritual procession in Brighton has unfolded across the city on 21 December, the shortest day of the year. More than 2,000 people take part, a further 20,000 watch, and it is open to all. The festivities culminate with a lantern bonfire on the beach to mark the passing of the year.

From intimate, private ceremonies to vast global spectacles, rituals have been a common thread of all known human societies. While we might think modern, western culture has shunned this form of meaning-making – particularly given the surge in people with no religion in the UK (48.5 per cent in 2014 compared to 25 per cent in 2011) – experts suggest that ritual is ever-present in ways we may not even realise. From the increasingly personalised ceremonies through which we choose to mark marriage and death, to grand-scale Olympic opening and closing spectacles, rituals help express who we are, what we want to be and what we love and fear about the world.

The London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony.

The London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony. Photo © Nick Webb

John Varah is artistic director of charity arts group Same Sky, which devised Brighton’s Burning the Clocks event. He knows how powerful ritual can be as a conduit for all sorts of emotion, and founded Same Sky as a way of helping people create new civic rituals as forms of expression.

“People have always done things to make sense of what they were, where they were and what was going on,” says Varah. “I think we need these things, to make sense of our existence and to meet our need to belong. Everyone in the world has creative energy and this creativity can be unleashed as a mass phenomenon through civic ritual.”

Choosing new habitats

Linda Woodhead, professor in the sociology of religion at Lancaster University and creator of the Westminster Faith Debates, says there is a significant move toward re-ritualisation at the moment. “There is an explosion of creativity and experiment,” she says. “Ritual is moving towards the heart of spirituality and the making of meaning, both religious and secular.”

Ritual is designed to be a ‘focusing lens’, placing our attention on a person, symbol, time of year or day, and connecting those taking part in the ritual with a bigger story. And while historically rituals were regulated and controlled by the church or state, this is no longer the case, says Woodhead. “We’re moving from obligation to ‘voice and choice’. We live in a democratic society where we expect to participate and for our voices to count. And consumer capitalism means we’re used to having choices.”

New rituals are emerging as people search for belonging, spirituality, meaning and community

Another driver behind the resurgence of ritual is people’s desire for participatory, embodied experience in the face of a world weighted towards logic and information, suggests Woodhead. “There’s a perception that we live in our heads now and ignore our bodies, but we’re seeing people try to correct that tendency. New patterns are emerging – new habits, new rituals – as people search for belonging, spirituality, meaning and community.”

Today, arguably the most interesting forms of ritual tend to happen outside of churches or other institutional constructs. Recent history holds many examples of the deregulation of ritual. “When Princess Diana died, the churches didn’t really play a role at all for a long time, and people did their own things,” notes Woodhead. “They lay flowers, teddy bears and then threw flowers on the hearse. That was a new thing at the time. It wasn’t rehearsed, no one planned it and yet there were crowds of people doing the same thing.”

She shares another example: “In Poland when Pope John Paul II died, the huge outpouring of grief took the form of people lighting candles and placing them on the streets. There were seas of flame everywhere. It was an amazing, spontaneous ritualistic expression.”

Tellingly, when the Catholic church then sought to repeat the idea in an organised, formal ceremony, people did not join in. “Nowadays, the social elite might try and consecrate a ritual but if people aren’t buying it, it won’t work,” says Woodhead.

Clare Amsel produces opening and closing ceremonies for Olympic and Commonwealth Games, including at London 2012. She says that modern societies are “obsessed” with such secular rituals and suggests why: “Maybe they offer an illusion of permanence and continuity in a world characterised mainly by mobility, change and uncertainty.”

She points to the way the emotional power of the Glasgow Commonwealth Games opening and closing ceremonies was harnessed to raise almost £7 million to help children through Unicef. “These are unique examples of how the entire planet can be compressed into one place,” says Amsel. “It may have changed the focus that a mega ceremony could be a massive party without a purpose, to one that can change the world.”

According to Professor Graham Ward, who is regius professor of divinity at Christ Church College, the University of Oxford, a shift toward the ‘remythologisation of reality’ is evident in mainstream culture to an extent not seen for generations.

“There’s a reason why Game of Thrones, Harry Potter and Twilight are so popular,” he says. “They are appealing to things that are deeper and more intuitive within people, sometimes to primal fears. We are moving towards a recognition of the immersive nature of our embodiment. All around, there are signs that we are trying to orchestrate deeper immersion into our environments.”

The potential of truth

So could ritual be nurtured more consciously, to help speed the environmental and social changes our society so badly needs?

Counterintuitively perhaps, today’s digital world may be helping spur new and ‘useful’ rituals. For a start, it spreads word of powerful movements with lightning speed, and is also helping gather information for a new ‘ritual archive’, drawn from people at the grassroots rather than the likes of state and church.

Ward’s colleague at the university, professor Harvey Whitehouse, heads up the £3.2 million Ritual, Community and Conflict project, part of the remit of which is to establish a huge new database of the role of ritual in world history. As the ‘conflict’ part of its title hints, the project’s team has also been studying the ‘dark side’ of ritual.

“Ritual is a way of convincing people to commit what would otherwise be unthinkable acts of violence,” says Whitehouse. “Ritual produces social glue, bonding groups together. It’s easy to forget that when people go to war or commit acts of terrorism these are often extremely pro-social actions, motivated by love of the group as well as hatred towards perceived enemies.

A woman walks through the Land’s End Labyrinth, San Francisco. Photo © Ashley Batz

“That same love can be used peacefully as well as violently. For example rituals have contributed to the social glue necessary for the creation of breathtaking monuments; think pyramids and cathedrals, or immense acts of charity such as the Live Aid concerts. If we want to improve the world, we need social glue. Many of the most serious threats currently facing our planet are essentially collective action problems that could be solved overnight with sufficient social glue: the elimination of extreme poverty, overuse or misuse of non-renewable energy, the destruction of wildlife, as well as costly civil wars and state failure.

“Whitehouse’s research took him to Libya during the 2011 insurgency, and he remembers travelling along the road from Misrata to Tripoli, against a backdrop of rubble, burnt out cars and palm trees shot to ribbons. “I gazed at mile after mile of curb stones painted by hand in the traditional Libyan flag colours by thousands upon thousands of eager hands,” he recalls.

Many of the most serious threats currently facing our planet are essentially collective action problems that could be solved overnight with sufficient social glue

“This love of Libya was never harnessed to rebuild the country when the revolution ended – as happens so often in the wake of civil wars and other conflicts, the social glue available to create public goods and rebuild effective systems of governance is needlessly squandered. So rituals, and the social glue they produce, are both the cause of and the solution to many of our woes as a species – a force for healing, reconciliation, and rebuilding as well as for conflict and wanton destruction.”

Rituals can shift our understanding about the world in which we live and help us to act upon that understanding, suggests Charles Eisenstein, author of The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible. “Just as the rituals of the old world create and sustain it, so also can we use rituals to create and sustain the new world-generating stories,” he writes. “They are among our most powerful tools of reality creation. Rituals bridge the distinction between symbol and reality.”

But putting conscious effort into using ritual is probably the wrong approach. Eisenstein calls rituals “actions infused with sacredness”, and suggests spontaneity and authenticity are most important. “Perhaps one day, a fully healed humanity will no longer distinguish something called a ritual, because all actions will be sacred. Until then, just as prayers can remind us of the sacredness of all speech and holy sites can remind us of the sacredness of all the earth, rituals serve to remind us of the sacred, world-creating power of all we do.”

Illustration by Sébastien Thibault

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