The Ambiguities of Rituals: Rethinking the Problem of Rituals

  • Joe Webster (Invited speaker)

    Activity: Participating in or organising an event typesParticipation in workshop, seminar, course


    Whose sins do the Brethren confess? The problem of sin as the problem of expiation Among Brethren fisher families in Gamrie, northeast Scotland, professional clergy and written liturgy are held to be blasphemous denials of the true workings of the Holy Spirit. God, I was told, chooses to speak through all born-again (male) persons, unrestricted by the vain repetitions of lettered clerics and their prayer books. In this context, confession of one’s own sin is a private and pointedly interior affair. In Gamrie, not only did every man seek to be his own skipper, but also his own priest. Yet, much of Brethren worship is given over to ritualised acts of confession. So whose sins do the Brethren confess, and to what end? This article argues that among the Brethren of Gamrie, such acts involve confessing not one’s own sin, but the sins of a ‘sick’ and ‘fallen’ world. More than this, by attending to the sociological (as opposed to theological) processes of confessing the sins of another, we see a collapse in the distinction between confiteor and credo that has so dogged anthropological studies of Christianity. In Brethren prayer and bible study, as well as in everyday gossip, the “I confess” of the confiteor and the “I believe” of credo co-constitute one another in and through evidences of the ‘lostness’ of ‘this present age’. But how, if at all, does this solve ‘the problem of sin’? This article suggests that, with the ritual gaze of confession turned radically outward, Brethren announcements of global wickedness enact (in a deliberate tautology) both a totalising call for repentance from sin, and a millenarian creed of the imminent apocalypse. Here, the problem of ritual can be understood as the problem of (partially failed) expiation.
    Event typeWorkshop
    LocationOslo, NorwayShow on map