The Labyrinth, Postmodernity and Ritual

To begin to make sense of the Labyrinth its context is important. How does walking a labyrinth in the year 2000 relate to the multitude of ways of acting in our culture?

Culture Shift

'Postmodernism' tends to be associated with a philosophical revolution linked with the likes of Derrida, Lyotard, Baudrillard, Foucault and Rorty, but most people don't read their texts or enter into the debate at this level. But they do experience the social changes and cultural shifts taking place in their everyday world - in other words they live in postmodern times. These times have changed radically from previous generations. 'Reality isn't what it used to be'. There is widespread agreement on this much at least, though exactly what the contours of the new world look like is harder to say. We know we've come from 'modernity', but we're not quite sure where we've arrived! 'Modernist sentiments may have been undermined, deconstructed, surpassed, or bypassed, but there is little certitude as to the coherence or meaning of the systems of thought that may have replaced them. Such uncertainty makes it particularly difficult to evaluate, interpret and explain the shift that everyone agrees has occurred'. Hence the attachment of the 'post' to 'modern', rather than a completely new term. Some writers see us as living between times - 'we live between the ages when the previous culture of modernity still holds sway and power but the emerging culture is present with vigour'. Others see that modernity is dead and buried and still others that the postmodern times are nothing more than 'the latest move on modernity's chessboard'. However postmodern times are in some ways a reaction to modernity, so it helps to have some grasp on modernity.

The Crisis of Modernity

Modernity is the term used to describe the worldview of the Enlightenment era. Its foundations were laid in the Renaissance whose thinkers had elevated humanity to the centre of reality. Whilst modernity is characterised by rationality, objectivity, human autonomy, mastery of the world, universal knowledge and absolutes, the heart of the matter is that 'the spirit of modernity is the spirit of progress'. This is most succinctly expounded by Goudzwaard in his work 'Capitalism and Progress'. In this he identifies the religious nature of modernity's faith in Progress as its grounding conviction: 'The theme of progress has penetrated Western society so profoundly because it was able to present itself as a faith in progress, as a religion of progress. This is also why the present day crisis of the idea of progress has the depth of a crisis of faith'. With the tools of science to give knowledge, technology to give power and mastery of the environment and with the goal of economic growth, human beings sought to build the promised land, a new world, the new Jerusalem. What was envisioned was 'a veritable utopia of prosperity and progress in which the whole human race would be united... Human progress is not only possible but inevitable if we allow autonomous human reason the freedom to investigate our world scientifically. By this free and open investigation we have confidently believed, humanity will be able to acquire the technological power necessary to control nature and bring about the ultimate goal: increased economic consumption and affluence, with resulting peace, fulfilment and security.'

This story no longer rings true. It sounds like a fairy tale, too good to be true. Walsh and Middleton use the metaphor of a building for the project of modernity with three floors of science, technology and economic growth, under girded by a foundation of human autonomy. The building is rotten from the foundation up and now this is finally becoming manifest to its dwellers. Put another way, 'The old certainties of the Enlightenment are no longer secure, and there is a widespread feeling that science and technology have ultimately failed to deliver the goods'. Two world wars, the realisation that much of the vision was built on African slavery, colonialism and imperialism, the environmental crisis, AIDS, escalating poverty, and the Vietnam war, are just some of the factors that have contributed to its demise. This isn't to deny the many positive benefits of modernity, but to recognise the widespread loss of faith in its grounding convictions.

Postmodern Times

Postmodern times then come in the wake of this crisis of faith. It is impossible to make sense of them without realising that this is so. What then are the contours of postmodern times pertinent to a discussion of religion to help us make sense of the Labyrinth? It seems every author has their own take on what these contours are, and each one differs in some way. I am particularly focusing on ones that seem to relate to religion and contemporary culture.


The standard theory used to make sense of religion since the 1950s has been secularisation, that the Western world is in an advanced state of living without gods. Modern society runs on non-religious principles. It is inhospitable to faith, religion and the sacred. Church attendance and social influence declines and religion becomes increasingly marginal to society at large. On the surface, this seems to be a tenable theory. Certainly in the UK, Christian churches, particularly the main denominations, are only too painfully aware of their waning influence and the decline in church attendance over the last twenty years, especially amongst the young. However, in recent years, much to the surprise of some commentators, there has been an explosion of interest in spirituality.

Drane observes that people are responding in two ways to the current cultural shift. The first is to immerse themselves in a hedonistic lifestyle and ignore questions of ultimate meaning. But 'many others are trying to deal with the threatened disintegration of our culture by engaging in a self conscious search for spiritual answers that will hold out the possibility of providing a secure basis on which to build new lives in the third millenium'. But this is not doing anything to affect the decline in numbers attending churches. Institutions are suspect and 'the great majority of these spiritual explorers do not make any connection between their personal quest and the existence of the church'. Tom Beaudoin narrates his own story in 'Virtual Faith' and I suspect it is typical of many when he writes 'I was awash in popular culture and alienated from official religion. Despite all this I still considered myself unmistakably spiritual. By this I meant that I thought about religion, I thought there was more to life than materialism, and I pieced together a set of beliefs from whatever religious traditions I was exposed to at the time.'

Why is it that so few people who are searching for spiritual meaning either look for it or find it in the institutional church? Several writers have concluded that the church has so wedded itself to the culture of modernity that it's the only frame of reference in which it knows how to operate. Cray suggests that 'People young and old are looking for spiritual answers but the last place they expect to find them is in the Christian church. The institutional church is assumed to be part of the old (modern!) order that has failed'. Going to church feels like visiting another era. This is seen in the cerebral nature of expressions of faith, emphasis on doctrines, propositional truth, the pervasive rationalism, and the old fashioned patriarchy of the British Empire that still seems so evident. Whilst elsewhere in the culture there is a fascination with mystery, the numinous, angels, heaven and the after-life, 'at best the church seems to speak uncomfortably about them'.

Postmodern times are tactile, symbolic, and image based while in the church, the Word seems to have been imprisoned in words rather than becoming flesh. Those best touched by the intuitive, artistic and creative find little that speaks to them in church. Postmodern times elevate experience and community. Church isn't the kind of place for expressing emotions like grief and failure. Grimes identifies ritual as a feature of postmodern times. But the ritual on offer in churches somehow feels empty and boring. It's what Scheff calls 'overdistancing', i.e. has an absence of any emotion. Postmodern times celebrate the body and being human. The dualism in much of the theology of the church has left a view of bodies and matter as bad and this in turn has been destructive of ritual. Because of this, when people do look to Christian rituals they 'find ritual action which often contradicts their own basic feelings'.

This is all compounded by a general failure to take postmodern times and in particular people's spiritual search seriously. This new explosion of spirituality is easily dismissed as individualistic, and reflective of consumerist attitudes and lifestyles. It doesn't at first seem to detract from the secularisation thesis either because these private beliefs don't impact the way society runs. But as I argue below consumption is the way society runs now, or at least a very significant factor. So then this is precisely where we should look to find openings for religious activity. They are just invisible to many institutional leaders and to academic accounts of the modern world.

There is a story told by Australian Aboriginals of a mighty river that once flowed across the land. Generations were sustained by its flow but gradually it ceased to flow. Some waited for its return but others went to see what had happened. It turned out that the river still flowed but had changed course upstream creating a billabong on the curve where the Aboriginals still sat. The river still flowed, but elsewhere. Religious life in postmodern times has not dried up as predicted by the theorists, but it is being relocated. Patterns of religious behaviour are being restructured. The river is flowing elsewhere.

Consumption and CITs

One of the most significant features of postmodern times is that we live in a culture based on consumption. In modernity identity and social integration were found in production and the work place. Now 'consumption has become production', and 'individual choice' has replaced progress as the core value and belief of our society'. Baudrillard says that 'consumption is a system of meaning like a language.. commodities and objects, like words.. constitute a global, arbitrary and coherent system of signs, a cultural system.. a code with which our entire society communicates and speaks to itself'.

This consumer culture is facilitated by the growth of communication and information technologies (CITs) and new media whose impact cannot be underestimated. Within this consumer culture social interaction and organisation take on a new cultural pattern. People find and construct meaning routes through everyday life to help them negotiate the terrain. These are no longer simply defined by tradition, family or geography. The range of choices confronting people is immense. In part they negotiate meaning in society via networks and relationships and the construction of identity (or identities). Both are related. Identity is increasingly seen as something constructed via taste and selective consumption, and is used to make distinctions from others. The networks of relationships are often those from whom approval is sought through similar lifestyle and tastes. There is a sense in which this can lead to a 'symbolic membership' of a group or network.

The flows of information round these networks are increasing aided by the CITs and the whole process seems to be very fluid and changing. Usually they have some location in place but not necessarily and certainly not exclusively. Culture is increasingly fragmented and there are a range of worldviews, meanings, lifestyles and subcultures at play. Culture is in this sense a 'site for contested meanings' within which people find manifold ways of 'making do', of living 'the practice everyday life'. The implications for religious practice are enormous. Lyon suggests that within a consumer culture, religion is best viewed as a dynamic cultural resource rather than an organisational form or fixed entity. This is a neat move and it certainly seems to be the way a lot of individuals and groups treat it, though I suspect it would be one resisted by the guardians of declining religious institutions.

Tourists and Pilgrims

St Paul's Cathedral has in the region of 5000 visitors a day. These largely fall into two categories: tourists and pilgrims. Some tourists arrive in coach loads and have a guided tour of the cathedral, others are on their own or in small groups, going round at their own pace. The week of the Labyrinth in March coincided (intentionally) with the beginning of the season of Lent. In amongst the tourists there were clearly a good number of pilgrims, especially on Ash Wednesday, when many had come for the service to be marked with ash on their forehead.

Zygmunt Bauman is wonderfully evocative and perceptive in his descriptions of people's 'life strategies' in postmodern times. His analysis of the times (as concluded above) is that consumption has taken centre stage and become 'the integrative bond of society'. One of the themes he returns to time and again is the construction of identity. He contrasts modern and postmodern approaches to identity concluding 'the hub of postmodern life strategy is not identity building but the avoidance of being fixed'. He sees the pilgrim as an appropriate allegory for identity-building under the conditions of modernity. The pilgrim knows where he or she is going and weaves each event or site of pilgrimage into a coherent 'sense-making story' and is living with a purpose of fulfilment. The tourist (along with the stroller, vagabond, and player) is the most appropriate metaphor to describe postmodern life strategy as avoiding being fixed. 'The tourist is the epitome of such avoidance. Indeed tourists worth their salt are the masters of the supreme art of melting the solids and unfixing the fixed. First of all they perform the feat of not belonging to the place they might be visiting; theirs is the miracle of being in and out of place at the same time.' The tourist is a systematic seeker of new and different experiences, but needs to keep moving, travelling light. Relationships with locals are likely to be skin deep and mustn't tie the tourist down. They must be able to get up and move on and shake off the experience whenever they wish.

Some of the considerations of 'situation' then for the Labyrinth are that it is in postmodern times in a time of increased hunger for spirituality but decline in institutional religion. Situated in a time when consumption has moved to centre stage, it is visited both by pilgrims who will be looking to make some meaningful connection with the ritual and their life story and tourists who will have the experience and attempt to move on. Both may be treating it (and religion) as a cultural resource to weave into the meaning routes they construct through the potsmodern maze. This is 'strategic', the next aspect of practice.

Alternative Worship, Popular Culture and Tricksters

Alternative worship is an inculturation of the Christian faith in postmodern times. Ritual, popular culture, 'wholespeak', and the resources of the Christian tradition are used to negotiate change and imagine new worlds. A comparison can be made with the roles of prophets, artists and tricksters.


Contextualisation, incarnational mission and inculturation have all become buzz words in mission studies. Inculturation is 'the totality of a religion integrating with the totality of a culture'. There has been an increased recognition that the history of mission has been something of a mixed blessing. Often the sharing of the gospel overseas was wrapped up with the sharing of Western culture. Whilst there are inspiring stories of missionaries who took the task of contextualisation seriously and introduced many people to the risen Christ communicated in the language and symbols of their culture, there are equally stories of the gospel being shared hand in hand with an imperialism whose legacy still lives on today. Hopefully churches and mission agencies today have learned the lessons from the past. The Anglican Communion has certainly considered these issues both in relation to mission and to worship and liturgy. The 1988 Lambeth Bishops' conference passed two resolutions as follows:

1. Christ and Culture: This conference a) recognises that culture is the context in which people find their identity; b) affirms that ..the gospel challenges some aspects of the culture while endorsing others; c) urges the church everywhere to work at expressing the unchanging gospel of Christ in words, actions, names, customs, liturgies which communicate relevantly in each society.

2. Liturgical Freedom: This conference resolves that each Province should be free... to seek that expression of worship which is appropriate to the Christian people in their cultural context.

Beginning from these two resolutions the York Statement was then prepared for the whole Anglican Communion on liturgical inculturation. The following are some quotes from the statement:

'Liturgy to serve the church should be truly inculturated'

'Just as language forms change from one place or time to another, so the whole cultural appropriateness of styles and expressions of worship should be ready to vary similarly'

'Inculturation must therefore affect the whole ethos of corporate worship, not only the texts but also for example, the use of buildings, furnishings, art, music, and ceremonial'

'True inculturation...implies a willingness in worship to listen to culture.. it has to make contact with the deep feelings of people. It can only be achieved through an openness to innovation and experimentation, an encouragement of local creativity, and a readiness to reflect critically at every stage of the process, a process which in principle is never ending.'

'We long to see... well equipped imaginative liturgists'

'Our lack of inculturation has fostered both the alienation of some Christians and an over ready willingness of others to live in two different cultures, one of their religion and the other of their everyday life. Other Christians again have left our churches because of this cultural insensitivity. Similarly non-Christians have found the foreignness of the church a great barrier to faith'

I quote from it at length because it is so insightful. The encouragement for innovation and creativity, the need for connection with peoples feelings, the scope of change required, and the awareness of the way the church has alienated people by its lack of inculturation is astonishing to read in such an official document. These insights were written to help the Anglican churches round the world develop their own authentic expressions of faith. But if the analysis outlined above is correct and the forms of institutional church life in the UK are wedded to modernity, the same insights need to be applied on our own doorstep to inculturate the faith in postmodern times. Sadly there is very little evidence that the Anglican Church is aware of this or doing anything about it. Riddell recognises the problem when he writes 'Inculturation, people movements, development, syncretism, contextualisation; these have all become familiar subjects of theological investigation in relation to foreign mission. Unfortunately few of the resulting insights have made much impact on home base. The one massive gap in the church's expertise is how to do mission in the post-Christian West'.

Alternative Worship

The Labyrinth was developed by alternative worship groups in London. Alternative worship is a strategic Christian response to postmodern times, an attempt to inculturate the gospel - 'Alternative worship arises from the need for the church to engage with a culture shift from the patterns of life which took shape in modernity to a faith which brings the authentic message of Christ to bear on life in postmodernity'. The description of inculturation outlined above in the York Statement could almost be read as a rationale for it. The Drapers list the following as characteristics of alternative worship (nearly all of which are features of the labyrinth):

  • A renewed exploration of creativity
  • A concept of faith as journey
  • Less rigid or hierarchical leadership structures
  • A holistic understanding of worship - our lives as worship
  • Affirmation of personal identity
  • An emphasis on relationships and community
  • A care for the environment and an exploration of our place within it
  • Risks taken, unusual things tried
  • Congregational involvement - interaction encouraged
  • An embrace of uncertainty
  • A focus on contemplation and meditation
  • A search for the transcendent and a sense of mystery and wonder
  • An emphasis on small locally based groups not big events
  • Cultural relevance not technology for its own sake
  • Use of symbolism that connects with people at different levels
  • A combination of ancient and contemporary
  • A commitment to change instead of self preservation
  • Use of elements that both sides of the brain respond to - i.e. experientially and intellectually

A glance through these characteristics immediately helps gain a good feel for the strategies employed and in particular how they contrast with some of the strategies employed by other Christian groups, tribes or denominations. Alternative worship is both a strategy for those involved to help them develop an expression of faith that is 'authentic' for them and it is also a strategy for mission and evangelism.

Along with many other aspects of the church's life, evangelism is an area that feels stuck in another era. Many Christian denominations and organisations recognise that the old ways of doing evangelism no longer seem to work. For example Youth For Christ, who I work for, in their strategy for 2000 have identified as a priority what they have termed 'reinventing evangelism'. A whole approach based on apologetics, persuading people of the truth of Christianity's claims is no longer answering the questions people are asking. In a culture swamped with advertising people have had enough sales pitches. Those who claim to know all the answers are viewed with suspicion. Alternative worship doesn't go in for the hard sell. It's more undergirded by a belief that if those developing worship find themselves at home in it then it will relate to their peers. Its starting points are recognising that many people are spiritually searching and looking for experiences to meet their hunger, but that they don't want to be dictated to by those who have already 'arrived'.

Success in evangelism has often been measured in terms of numbers responding and then joining a congregation/church. On this measure of success, alternative worship has been relatively unsuccessful. Groups have tended to remain small. Numbers becoming committed members of core groups are in their ones and twos. However it is also typical of groups to have a stream of individuals and groups visiting their services sporadically. Many groups have done some soul searching on this issue. Why is it that what feels like them a great hope for the future of the church remains so small? In part it may well be because groups have stuck with a congregational model of church which doesn't connect with people's meaning routes through a consumer culture and they are measuring success in terms of that model. Most groups meet monthly or fortnightly. Whilst the style of worship relates to the emerging culture, the structure doesn't seem to in the same way. The challenge for alternative worship groups' inculturation lies here. What are the meaning routes, networks and flows of relationships in postmodern times? How might the Gospel relate to them?

The Labyrinth offers a good example of a different (or complementary) approach. Its closest parallel is an art installation that directly appeals to the way tourists and pilgrims negotiate their way through life. Viewed and treated as a cultural resource, they can ignore it or choose to explore and experience it, weaving it into their own lives as they see fit. It's not in a Sunday service slot. It's on the track of tourists. There is no expectation or pressure on them to sign up or come back. It's offered as a gift. In a consumer culture, the availability of the CD to purchase in the cathedral shop means that they can relive the experience at home. The availability of connection via the Internet can enable further contact and conversation for those keen to pursue it. It may be that one or two tourists are so transformed by it that they will seek out a group to join. In this respect, the structure is more akin to an art collective than a congregation offering its art/worship as a cultural resource. In an art collective, the vast majority of people encountering the art are visitors. There is an inner core of members who give to, support and shape the vision of the collective. But these are a minority. Some combination of developing a core group of artists/worshippers who develop services, spaces for spiritual encounter, and products that are able to be used as a cultural resource by tourists in postmodern times alongside some way of developing the networks of relationships within which those same tourists relate is a challenge facing alternative worship groups.

Alternative worship is not the only strategic Christian response available. The rise in fundamentalism in the world is seen by some as a strategic response because it offers certainties for those unable to live with the anxiety which comes from the tendency to keep options open at all times, to avoid fixation of identity. The 'growth from below' of Pentecostalism around the world, especially in Latin America is another. In the recent survey of church attendance in England, evangelicalism is one area where small growth can be seen. This is an area of the church that has been quick to develop strong tribal identities and to develop products in the marketplace, one response to a consumer culture. In charismatic evangelical churches, the experiential nature of worship and perhaps a contextualisation of worship as rock concert or performance, has been another strategic response. The Alpha course developed and franchised by Holy Trinity Brompton is another. Orthodoxy, perhaps particularly because of its iconic tradition has also experienced growth, although again the overall numbers in the UK are relatively small. If, as has been argued above, religion is being treated as a cultural resource, there are also many individuals and groups whose strategies remain invisible as they are outside the observable institutions, whether they gather in pubs, homes, visit a variety of churches without becoming members of any, or meet in cyberspace or develop loose intentional communities to do a combination of all the above and more.

Ritual and Change

One characteristic that I would add to the above list of characteristics of alternative worship is the strategic use of ritual itself. Most alternative worship services or events incorporate some sort of ritual or symbolic act. In Grace's booklet on getting started in worship, they describe ritual as facilitating encounter with the divine. 'Again and again we find that God meets us in ritual so we nearly always try and incorporate some sort of ritual that everybody is involved in... it opens up a window in the soul and the community through which the breeze of the Spirit can blow. It seems to draw a service together and seal what has taken place. It helps move worship from the head to the heart'.

Ritual and the Effect of Tradition

It is commonly assumed that ritual is used to maintain a rigid and dogmatic tradition. Anti-ritualists arise precisely because of this view. Douglas explores the way in which the anti-ritualists then invent their own new rituals, even if they don't recognise them as such. She suggests that in the history of revolt and anti-ritualism then giving way to a new recognition of the need to ritualise, 'something is lost from the original cosmic ordering of symbols. We arise from the purging of old rituals simpler and poorer. the new sect goes back as far as the primitive church, as far as the first Pentecost, or as far as the flood, but the historical continuity is traced by a thin line. Only a narrow range of historical experience is recognised as antecedent to the present state.. There is a squeamish selection of ancestors: just as revolutionaries may evict kings and queens from the pages of history, anti-ritualists have rejected the list of saints and popes and tried to start again without any load of history'.

This is a useful insight and we can see this process at work in new religious movements in history with their take on the truth which turns out to be very selective in the way Douglas describes. However this isn't the only way to understand ritual and tradition. In post modern times when so little seems fixed, and everything is in flux, tradition and continuity offer a sense of weight of history, an anchor point. The Christian tradition has 2000 years of history building on its previous 4000 years or so of history before that shared with the Jews. It's a tradition with a huge global network, diversity, examples and stories of ways in which the church has passed on the dangerous memory of Jesus, a catalogue of mistakes made and recovered from, and a wealth of spiritual resources. But far from it being unchanging and fixed with a static set of 'cosmic symbols', it has been and is a living tradition. There are symbols (e.g. bread and wine) that have been passed down for thousands of years, but there are equally a whole range of new symbols and reinterpreted old symbols like the labyrinth. The kind of use of tradition to claim that things must remain the same is in that sense not faithful to tradition at all, it is rather a dead traditionalism. The tradition has to be struggled with and reformed to be carried forward.

To keep reforming religious tradition in a prophetic spirit is to be faithful. One of the interesting things about the reformation of the Christian tradition, is that while there are clearly limits to remaining faithful and legitimately staying within the tradition, it is from within the tradition itself that the tools and resources come to liberate from the way tradition has been used to oppress. So the injustices and inadequacies of a religious tradition are subverted paradoxically by the resources from within the tradition itself. Alternative worship groups are traditional in precisely this sense. Unlike the anti-ritualists Douglas describes who ignore the weight of history, this is precisely where they look to find the resources to reinvigorate the tradition, to make it live within postmodern times. Beaudoin suggests that Xers 'must continually return to the resources of their inherited or freely chosen traditions, bringing them into the light of their own experiences of living in culture. They must take on their traditions, interpreting them anew for their unique culture'.

Ronald Grimes, who has pioneered Ritual Criticism, identifies three liabilities with new and invented rites: a) spiritual consumerism - the consumer consumes rite after rite without ever being satisfied b) cultural imperialism - the appropriation of sacred resources of other cultures and c) experimentalism - always going for something new and lacking the courage to ever commit or make choices. The location of alternative worship within a tradition minimises these liabilities. In this situation it is clear that not 'anything goes'. But rather than there being rigid and fixed categories of what is right however, the notion of 'faithful improvisation' is a helpful way of making sense of how the reframing of tradition will be judged to be authoritative or not. Within tradition, the use of ritual can be 'a particularly effective means of mediating tradition and change, that is as a medium for appropriating some changes while maintaining a sense of cultural continuity'. One of the reasons for this is because ritual, even if relatively new and invented has the semblance of having been passed down from previous generations. So the appropriation of ritual by alternative worship groups is highly strategic in this sense. An example of this is in the celebration of the Eucharist. Grace has developed several Eucharistic prayers that in the ritual are used in much the same way as one of the officially sanctioned prayers. The theological take of one is on the theme of hospitality, stressing Christ's open invitation to outsiders to share his table. If this was in a sermon, it could be thought of as someone's opinion, but in the heart of the Eucharist it seems to carry much more power and weight. It is in fact a highly subversive text, raising questions about the church's practice of excluding certain groups of people from sharing the bread and wine. But as a ritual form, it is a very effective medium for change, whilst maintaining a sense of continuity. 'Whether it is being performed for the first time or the thousandth, the circumstance of being put in the ritual form gives something the effect of tradition'.

The strategies of the Labyrinth with regard to ritual and change weave together the threads discussed above. It is clearly a construct, an invented ritual. But it relates to a tool, a resource, an ancient spiritual practice within the Christian tradition, located in cathedrals, which has then been uniquely improvised with (hopefully in a faithful way). Because of its appeal to the ancient tradition of labyrinth walking (explicitly stated on the users' guide), it has the semblance of being passed down from previous generations. In reality we have very little sense of whether its use in practice, the theological takes of the meditations, and the symbolism involved is anything like that employed by Christians in the medieval cathedrals! We certainly know that the use of technology wasn't. Whilst Artress goes to great lengths to explain how the Chartres labyrinth design is an 'archetype', a divine imprint somehow etched into the fabric of creation itself which gives it its energy, this seems equally in its own way to be a construct of its time, then reinvented and given its own meaning by contemporary users.

Alternative worship lives on the margins, the threshold, of institutional religion. In this respect I suggest that its role is akin to the trickster and prophet, continually crossing boundaries and moving boundaries, disturbing notions of truth and property, and doing nothing less than opening the way to new possible worlds. It's more anti-structure than structure. Community is developed en route between its members rather than as an organised structure. Taking the labyrinth as an example, all sorts of boundaries are crossed and property shifted. Contemporary cultural artefacts - televisions, computers, Discmans, are where they shouldn't be. What sounds at first like secular or 'new age' music is played behind meditations. All the rituals and symbolic acts are done without a priest in one of the most important cathedrals of the Church of England. In Holy Space there is bread and wine that the participant can help themselves to, while just innocently sitting there. It's not Eucharistic, or at least it hasn't been consecrated, but its symbolism is not lost on participants. All the words, images and rituals are invented by people who are not licensed, not 'experts'. Nothing has had approval from the liturgical committees. The artists have crept back into the church. Bodies, symbols, experience, the senses are involved in worship and prayer. Everyday language and items, rather than sacred are used. Where is the boundary now between sacred and profane?

In this kind of shifting of boundaries the Labyrinth constructs a new world. But in doing so those developing it claim to be being faithful to the tradition they are located in (albeit on the margins). Whilst many in positions of power in the institution view alternative worship as dangerous and a threat, the tradition needs to create spaces for the trickster to maintain its vitality. There needs to be a dialectic between structure and anti-structure.

Use of Popular Culture and the Everyday

'Matter out of place' is the title of one of the chapters in 'Trickster Makes This World'. In it Hyde discuses the significance of dirt in many of the trickster myths. He draws on the work of Mary Douglas who describes dirt as matter out of place. Any system orders the world in such a way as to designate some things that don't fit into the order as dirt - 'Dirt is the by-product of a systematic ordering and classification of matter, in so far as ordering involves rejecting inappropriate elements'. So for example shoes are not dirty in themselves, but they are on the dining table, and food is not dirty but it is on clothing. Hyde suggests that 'if dirt is a by-product of the creation of order then a fight about dirt is a fight about how we have shaped our world'.This is why trickster is always playing with dirt.

When the Sony Walkman first appeared it disturbed the boundaries between private and public worlds. It was 'out of place' in the symbolic ordering, or classificatory system of things. 'It offended people's ideas about what sort of activities belonged where'. The meaning of the Sony Walkman in this respect was not something essential to the Walkman itself but 'a product of how that object is socially constructed through classification, language and representation'. And further its meaning was in relation to other objects within the classificatory system and how it was different. Now today, the Walkman is much more an accepted part of everyday life, and perhaps the panic has moved on to other new technologies like the Internet or mobile phone. The strategic use of popular culture and the everyday in the Labyrinth is matter out of place, particularly because of its location in St Paul's. The prevalent view of culture in church still seems to be a high/low distinction. It has reified cultural forms located in the past. Putting on a Discman to listen to music that you'd most likely hear in a club in the early hours of the morning is transgressing boundaries. It's not what you expect in a cathedral.

In a consumer culture people use the cultural resources available to them to make meaning. For large numbers of people the resources of popular culture are what they use to construct identity and position themselves in relation to others, to develop some notion of authenticity. One use made of popular music in this way is to mark out space - 'forms of popular music and their stylistic innovations are one of the key ways in which local spaces can be appropriated and made habitable'. So the use of the type of music in the Labyrinth on Discmans is in this way a very strategic marking out of habitable space. At the tenth station, 'Others', the walker is greeted by a laptop computer with a screen of virtual candles. In the meditation they are encouraged to 'light' a candle by clicking on the wick with the mouse and then to pray for someone. The candles are from the Internet site designed for an 'online' spiritual experience of prayer. The choice to use virtual candles rather than real ones is strategic. The surprising thing is that rather than being naff, they do evoke a sense of sacred space, and the ritual seems to work with the technology, at least for a large proportion of participants. They function somewhat like an 'icon of the present', representing the mystery of the faith in the language of the here and now. The use of popular culture, indeed the whole approach to inculturation, is under girded by a theology of the incarnation - 'The incarnation gives us the model of relevance. God shows up on our turf speaking our language so that we might understand'. The CDs of music and meditation were available for sale in the cathedral shop. Participants can thus reproduce the experience of the candles and pray at home on their own computer. In this way the ritual connects back into the everyday.

Narrowspeak vs Wholespeak

Les Murray contrasts the terms 'narrowspeak' and 'wholespeak' to elucidate his thinking on ways of talking about God. He suggests that in recent times (modernity) God talk has been severely reduced to narrowspeak, the voice of reason, rational and didactic ways of talking, the discourse of prose. It's a language that has to make sense, be explained, and that everybody can understand. Wholespeak in contrast is a poetic discourse, mystical speech, a language which is 'truly dreamed'. This is very similar to Walter Brueggemann's appeal to the church to rediscover poetry rather than prose. Both argue that the church needs to rediscover wholespeak or poetry, rather than feeling obliged to adopt the language of modernity. We might call this the 're-enchantment of speech', speech that is in the language of the imagination, that recognises the importance of symbols, images, myth, metaphors, music, the arts. 'Creative imagination, rather than some supposedly objective, rationally specifiable procedure that lies outside the domain of personal knowledge, is the key to knowing reality. The truth is contained in symbols and the symbols are materially embodied. That is, it seems to me, a corollary of the incarnational and sacramental character of Christianity'.

This may be overstating the case. It is highly probable that speech about God in prose resonated in modernity, it was an appropriate contextualisation and in any contextualisation you gain some things and lose others. I suspect this is equally the case with 'wholespeak'. Nonetheless, it does succinctly capture the strategic way of talking about God employed in the Labyrinth. Both the words of the meditations and the whole experience are full of imagination, artistic endeavour, in images, symbols and metaphors that are evocative of the Holy, but always suggesting that our speech is an inadequate vehicle for describing or capturing the Otherness of God. The significance of the arts, the parallel between the Labyrinth and an art installation perhaps lies here. This speech is intuitive to those producing the Labyrinth, but it is also a language that resonates with many of the spiritual seekers in postmodern times. 'Whereas a large section of the contemporary church appears to be increasingly content with the pre-packed truths of a certain type of Christian exposition, the modern secular imagination, when it turns to religion, is more willing to linger with the different dimensions to religious awareness afforded by things like candles, icons, silence, Gregorian chants and hints of mysticism'.

Redemptive Hegemony

The strategies and situation of the Labyrinth are closely related to the notion of redemptive hegemony. The relationship of alternative worship to the arrangement of power in the church and the way in which groups manage to carve out space to empower them and maintain resistant and subversive identities whilst still remaining within the system has been discussed above. This is one aspect of redemptive hegemony. The aspect discussed here is how the participant in the Labyrinth is personally empowered.


To walk the Labyrinth is to enter ritual space or a ritual environment. One of the most significant aspects of it is that the whole person, the ritual body, interacts with this environment. There is a circularity to this interaction. It is both generative of it and moulded by it in turn. So the simple act of dropping a stone in water to let go of pressures and concerns at the 'letting go' station say, does not merely communicate the need to let go. It produces a person freed from pressure in and through the act itself. Or the act of walking slowly round the labyrinth with God rather than the usual rushing alone in urban life doesn't merely communicate the need to slow down, it is generative of a slowed down person aware of God's presence in life. Many of the symbolic acts, as well as drawing on the Christian tradition, also draw from the insights of therapy in transforming persons. Schemes deployed in the labyrinth are then able to be used in a variety of circumstances beyond the rite itself. In the 'self' station the walker stops to hear some verses affirming their uniqueness from Psalm 139 as they look in a mirror. The next time they look in a mirror, they may well see themselves in a new way. One walker who had a fear of heights somehow had enough confidence having walked the Labyrinth to then climb up to the whispering gallery in St Paul's directly afterwards - their fear was dispelled in the ritual. One priest on duty in St Paul's who walked the Labyrinth described the lingering impression of the 'noise' station and how he had been reflecting on it since. He had deployed this scheme of the Labyrinth back into the circumstances of his life. Ritual mastery then is 'an internalisation of schemes with which they are capable of reinterpreting reality in such a way as to afford perceptions and experiences of a redemptive hegemonic order'. This can be very empowering for participants. Many described it using the words a 'powerful experience'. Bell clearly accepts that ritual transforms persons and succinctly explains how it does so. Alternative worship groups have also discovered this for themselves. Bell seems to subscribe this transforming effect to the process of ritualisation itself. The alternative worship groups and planners of the Labyrinth, as well as recognising the power of ritualisation, see the transforming effect as more than a constructed experience. Their conviction is that the transformation is also affected by the Spirit of God whose presence is real, even though the Sacred always comes 'cloaked in cultural forms' (in this case ritual/the labyrinth). The powerful transforming effect of walking the labyrinth then does no less than produce new persons, enabled to see the world and act in it in a new way.

Consent and Resistance

The accusation could be made (and has been made) that those constructing ritual are being manipulative. However for this to be so it assumes that the walkers are easily duped. This is far from the case. In Cultural Studies much recent work has focused on how meaning resides as much if not more with users and audiences rather than producers. Meaning is located in the interchange between reader and text and the negotiated readings that result. Similarly ritualisation involves a mix of consent (at least enough consent to walk the labyrinth in the first place) and resistance from participants. There are many ways in which participants resisted aspects of the labyrinth, whether skipping parts, disagreeing with them, or repeating parts several times. Because of the multivalence of symbols they were also able to create various levels of meaning relating to their own situations. Ritualised practices thus 'do not function as an instrument of heavy handed social control. Ritual symbols and meanings are too indeterminate and their schemes too flexible to lend themselves to any simple process of instilling fixed ideas'.

Concluding Remarks

The Labyrinth is an example of ritualisation as strategic practice in postmodern times. The times are characterised by an increased hunger for spirituality and decline in institutional religion. Consumption and communication and information technologies (CITs) shape the way 'tourists' and 'pilgrims' treat religion as a cultural resource to weave into the meaning routes they construct to negotiate their way through life. The Labyrinth offered as a resource in this way is a strategic part of alternative worship groups' approach to inculturating the Gospel. The use of ritual is an effective means for negotiating change both within the church tradition and its power relations and for the transformation of individuals who walk the labyrinth. Just as the trickster crosses boundaries, disturbing notions of truth and property, the Labyrinth's blend of ancient, contemporary and the everyday opens the possibility of new worlds in the heart of the Christian tradition. The Labyrinth in this respect is a prophetic sign of hope for Christian spiritual practice in postmodern times.

This is an edited extract from 'The Labyrinth - Ritualisation as Strategic Practice in Postmodern Times' by J.M. Baker, a dissertation produced as part of the MA (Youth Ministry) course at King's College, University of London

To read the full document in Adobe Acrobat format click here >>

<< previous | top