Sacred Play: Forms of ritual

Modes of Ritual – Ronald L Grimes

The modes of ritual from Ronald L Grimes’s book Beginnings in Ritual Studies (1982) describes ritual in the form of a table. This format covers the full spectrum of everything considered to be ritual, without defining it by a series of bullet points, but still teasing out the subtle overlapping shades of the different modes. This diagram I have found very useful in many ways. One example is that it shows how different the modes of ritual are in the tone rather than the content or beliefs they express.

Practically this comes up when one attends a ritual expecting one mode, such as a quiet meditative liturgical mode of ritual, and what you actually get is lively celebratory mode of ritual. This disjuncture between expectation and experience can be upsetting. The cause is down to the highly diverse assumed definitions people have for the words ‘ritual’, ‘ceremony’, ‘rite’, ‘celebration’ etc. Often these are used interchangeably without care to discuss what is actually meant. This is a more general problem as the terms are used very loosely and are not used in a universally consistent way, even within academic disciplines.

This is particularly the case with ‘new’ movements without a set core of established rituals with many diverse authors of rituals. However, in my experience one can almost do exactly the same ritual script in all the modes, so this maybe a wider problem in more established religions. The easiest solution I would suggest is for practitioners of ritual to describe what the ritual actually contains rather than assuming that a single word such as ‘ceremony’ will fully communicate what is intended.