John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, and now at

Thursday, May 21, 2009

More empty ritual

My wife, Kathleen, was once in a class with a fellow Episcopalian, a woman whose firm pronouncement on Anglican worship was “No empty ritual.” My impulse, as the title of this post suggests, is to get as much of it as I can. Incense, yes, of course, and Anglican chant and vestments and processions and organ music you can feel through the soles of your feet.

Human beings are prone to ritual, and it turns up everywhere, including low-church congregations that shrink from the flourishes I like as being suspiciously popish. In the Presbyterian church where I played the organ as a lad, I was expected to provide soft music during the pastoral prayer, a supposedly extemporaneous effort by the minister. The pastoral prayer was so formulaic that I seldom had any difficulty making the music come out even with the “Amen.”

I come to this topic out of my continuing irritation with the classics professor at Dickinson College who advocates doing away with Latin in college diplomas. The Latin in diplomas is of a piece with the rest of academic ceremony.

On my son’s first day at St. John’s College, the gowned faculty entered the auditorium for a convocation, led by the college marshal carrying the mace. The mace used in academic processions is a symbol of authority; it is a lineal descendant of the mace of medieval weaponry. The entering freshmen, also gowned, brought up the rear. Each freshman was called to the stage to formally sign the college register, shake hands with the president of the college, and receive a copy of the Liddell-Hart Greek-English Lexicon.

At the defense of his senior essay earlier this year, John Paul, himself in cap and gown, followed three gowned faculty members into the college’s King William room to sit at a table and respond to questions about his essay for an hour, a pattern set by the defenses of theses in the medieval universities.

Ritual is what gives dignity to these occasions, marking them as set off from ordinary occasions.

And despite our firm American democratic sneering at the trappings of aristocracy, we love the stuff. Why else did multitudes get up well before dawn to watch on television the wedding of the Prince of Wales and Lady Diana Spencer? Why else do hordes of American tourists (I was once one of them) stand on the street in London to watch the sovereign ride by in a carriage to open Parliament?

Here at home, we fire an artillery salute at the inauguration of a president. And I will hear in my head to the end of my days those muffled drums from John F. Kennedy’s funeral procession.

No doubt you are aware of long-surviving ritual patterns from your workplace.

At newspapers it was long the custom in the composing room to “bang out” departing printers on their last day of work. To bang out, one takes a pica pole, the printer’s metal rule, and pounds it vigorously on the nearest metal surface until the printer has left the room. There is no longer a composing room at The Sun, and there are no longer printers, but in the newsroom the custom has survived and has been observed in successive rounds of buyouts. Last summer, as Andy Faith, my mentor, colleague, and friend for more than twenty years, turned to leave the newsroom for the last time, we banged him out.

The purpose of the Latin in the diploma, the mace in the procession, the artillery fire, the incense, and the pica pole striking the cubicle divider may have no meaning in themselves, or may have lost much of their original meaning (Incense was carried through the streets of Rome before senators and other public officials).

But they do carry this meaning: We were not born yesterday. Whatever prodigies and novelties we may accomplish, we live in continuity with those who have gone before us. We use those ceremonies and rituals from the past to mark who we are and where we come from, to set off times and occasions as not being of common stuff.


  1. Well said!

    I, indeed, refused to participate in my high school graduation (the only one I've ever had) because I didn't like their lack of ritual (or rather, their assumption of inappropriate trappings: tuxedos and white dresses, as if graduation were a debutante ball).

  2. I've heard the Episcopal rituals referred to as Bells and Smells, a great name.

  3. As a member of the Western High School graduating class of, well, never mind what year, I wore a long white dress to the commencement ceremony. Why? Because the members of every preceding class, including my mother and aunts, wore similar gowns. For a few hours, I forsook my jeans and my attitude, and participated in a ritual. At the time, I thought it was a royal pain the butt, but looking back, I'm so glad I shared that moment not only with my friends but also with the generations of Western women who had come before.

  4. Susan: If those generations numbered more than two, I'll be very surprised. The tradition of wearing academic gowns is a thousand years old, and it's that tradition I wanted to adhere to.