The Art of Ritual Conference, Brighton, December 2015

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Early in November, I stumbled upon a link to a conference called ‘The Art of Ritual’, which described itself as being for artists, celebrants, religious practitioners and event designers. The conference was to be held in Brighton and promised performance art, discussion and the opportunity to meet others – it was an immediate and definite YES from me!

AOR1I turned up, full of nervous anticipation, on the morning of 4th December. I was presented with a kooky cardboard tag to write my name on and a peg to attach it to my clothes, a programme for the day, a sparkler and a large and colourful beach hut Advent calendar. I immediately liked this event! My first impressions were further improved by a cheery welcome from another celebrant I had recently met on Facebook and a big cup of tea provided by the Barista Apprentice Training Project, who would be expertly catering to our caffeine needs all day.

Once all the seats had filled up, Martin Poole, the event’s director, lit a small bowl of flame at the front of the room and lit his sparkler from it. He then lit the person’s next to him and so the ‘spirit of creativity’ spread spectacularly around the room (and who can resist a sparkler? I mean, really?) The spent sparklers were then stuck into a ball, which ended up looking like a sputnik. It was a lovely moment which brought us all together, much like ‘the peace’ in a church service.

AOR2Chair of the day, author, journalist and broadcaster Cole Moreton, explained to us what would be happening throughout the day and gave us a bit of background to what we were about to hear. He told us that 26 million people in this country say that they believe in God but don’t regularly worship at temples, churches or synagogues. That leaves a lot of people believing but not belonging and paves the way to exploring new ways of ritual (this has certainly been my own experience, with lots of people telling me they are ‘spiritual but not religious’).

We moved on to the speakers:

Well, I took pages of notes on these fabulous talks but I’ll try to whittle it down here or you’ll be reading this for days.

Ritual Trends in Society Today – Linda Woodhead, professor in the sociology of religion at Lancaster University, and creator of the Westminster Faith Debates.

Linda started by echoing Cole’s comments. She said that sociologists had originally thought that secularisation of society was happening, but now they realise that isn’t exactly it and are trying to find better paradigms to explain what actually IS happening with this category of people who profess to having no religion but not being atheist.

She went on to talk about what ritual actually is, and outlined several key features of all ritual:

  • Ritual is a cocoon. It involves a boundaried space (church, a cast circle etc) and time (it has a clear beginning and end). In a cocoon, something transformative happens and so it is with ritual – those taking part move from one state to another.
  • Ritual involves the body and ‘things’. Though there have been many goes at ‘virtual’ rituals, it seems that being physically present is crucial. ‘Things’ can be used as props or created or destroyed during ritual. But they’re almost always there.
  • Ritual focuses. It is a focusing lens which makes things special, singles out, stabilises and dignifies.
  • Ritual connects. It makes participants part of a bigger picture – social, natural, historical and spiritual. It can make the private public or the public private.
  • Ritual is world-making. Cups of tea and full English breakfasts are all rituals of ‘Britishness’, for example. Ritual stabilises and fortifies a taken-for-granted world view/metanarrative and its associated values.

Ritual is changing from obligation to voice and choice; Linda quoted Grace Davey as talking about “consumption” of ritual. She pointed out that we have gone from ritual regulation (the prescribed services in churches etc) to de-regulation (this started at events such as Hillsborough and Diana’s death – no one waited for traditional ritual-makers but created their own). Now there is a sort of ‘re-ritualisation’ – an explosion of creativity and experiment by artists, celebrants, priests, theatre and the like.

Religious, spiritual or otherwise, we share common sacreds – death, love, kinship, birth, our planet and ordinary life – and we are now remaking ritual for a liberal, pluralistic, non-deferential society.

Creating Community through Artistic Events – John Varah, Artistic Director of Same Sky Community Arts charity, Brighton

Same Sky came about 25 years ago when 2 girls were murdered in a local park. Nobody went near the park after that and the council wanted to hold some sort of event or ritual to change the situation. John said that people have always done things to make sense of who they are, why they are and where they are, and he now creates civic rituals to help with this process.

Most famously, Same Sky started the tradition of the ‘Burning of the Clocks’ in Brighton 22 years ago. It began as an idea in a conversation about burning clocks (“it means nothing; or everything”), and has evolved into an enormous community event with thousands taking part each year.

burning of the clocksIt is the taking part together as a community which John feels is key. He said that North Europe has always been team oriented because our ancestors had to work together to survive the extreme cold in this part of the world many generations ago. (There was an interesting discussion in the Q&A afterwards about mass events involving everyone taking part don’t have a witness, and is witness an important part of ritual? Is it a ritual or a performance? Who, after all, are we performing to or for? It was suggested that maybe the unseen, i.e. God or spirit, could fulfil this role, but this remains something that my brain is chewing over!)

Same Sky work from the idea that not everyone is an artist but we all have creative energy which enables us to keep sane. They wanted to unleash this energy as a mass phenomenon in a civic ritual for people of all faiths and none. At the Burning of the Clocks events, those taking part make lanterns, which they imbue with their wishes, hopes, fears, dreams and memories, and they take these made objects and join together with others who have done the same and become community.

John described the differences he sees between ritual and theatre thus:

  • Ritual involves being on a journey of some sort
  • There is often ritual surrounding being involved in an event on a regular basis (e.g. Y4 always take part in the children’s parade)
  • People – the community – make an event a ritual by taking it on and investing time, energy, meaning and maybe money in it, with the organisers holding the sacred space and letting what wants to emerge, emerge.
  • Ritual is about transition, change or transformation – it is a journey to be taken part in rather than consumed.


Creating Meaning through Community Art – Martin Poole, founder of Beyond and creator of the Beach Hut Advent Calendar

It was time for Martin, the day’s director, to take the microphone. He told us that he believes we are creative because we were created, yet church as it’s traditionally done doesn’t reflect the creative artistic vibe in the Brighton area.

Martin set up Beyond in order to create events in the area with a spiritual core. His mission is to use art in a sacramental way so that people can experience something of God; to facilitate art that creates opportunities for epiphany.

He went on to tell us about some examples of this happening in the Brighton area, including a labyrinth created by lots of people out of wool trails, leading to a woollen ‘burning bush’ at the end and a Perspex cross placed in a busy shopping area at Lent with pieces of coloured paper inviting people to write down something they could live without and something they couldn’t, and post it into the box.

Martin told a story of a man who set up one of the Advent Beach Huts – the door was open just a crack and behind it, an extremely bright light shone out to a rumbling, ominous soundtrack. People were intrigued and drawn to it, and lots asked ‘what’s going to happen?’ which, of course, is the very spirit of Advent.

Another story he told was of a comic shop who were involved in a ‘stations of the cross’ style Easter path in shop windows. Martin had been nervous, he admitted, as the shop owner had first turned down the opportunity and then had come back to him and said they would take part but no one would see or approve the display until it was revealed. In the end, they had displayed a large cross in the window consisting of copies of the last comic in the ‘Final Crisis’ series, in which Superman was defeated. The comic was entitled ‘God Killer’.

People around us, declared Martin, can teach us far more about God than we think we already know.


The Connection between Art and Ritual – Claire Raftery, Artistic Director of Periplum

Claire explained that Periplum are producers of largescale art and performance pieces, which they take all over the world. She said that their work is site-specific, which is the most ancient form of performance. Usually taking place in town squares or on common land, they suspend the normal rules of public space to create artistic space.

Claire told us of a piece the company had once done which portrayed the ritual of a public execution. They made the audience complicit in the action and use music and action to immerse them completely in the drama. When they were asked whether the man should be hung, the audience were baying for his execution. The company received several letters afterwards from people who had been there and were horrified by their actions in hindsight: the power of the ritual and the group mood had led them to conclusions that they would never have come to on their own.


The Ritual of Opening and Closing Ceremonies – Clare Amsel, producer of opening and closing ceremonies for the Olympic and Commonwealth Games.

2012_Summer_Olympics_opening_ceremony,_Industrial_Britain_(cropped)A veteran of the huge, eye-popping Olympic and Commonwealth Games ceremonies, Clare had a lot of very interesting tales to tell (so much so that I stopped taking notes, so these are rather brief!)

“If theatre is life and life is theatre, somewhere between lies performance”, Clare said. It is about how we are, who we are and what we want to be. These pieces help to establish an eternal present, which is the nature of ritual. The symbols used are not religious anymore but reflect our national values, draw people in and make them feel part of an exceptional moment.



Our numb bums and rumbling tums were relieved it was lunchtime, even if our stimulated brains were yelling out for more. Lunch was provided by ‘The Real Junk Food Project’, who turn food which is being thrown away by supermarkets into nutritious, healthy (and extremely delicious) meals. There was time for chat but not enough, because the whole room was filled with people I could have happily listened to for hours and hours. Jeremy Brooks also was demonstrating the Church of England’s ‘Gravetalk’ discussion cards, which are used for church-run meetings along the lines of Death Café. Lots of interesting discussions happened around that particular table! Then it was back to the unforgiving wooden chairs for another round of fab speakers…



Finding Spirituality in Art – Ian Adams, poet, writer and artist, author of Running over Rocks

Ian started by quoting Kandinsky as saying, “an artist is a priest of beauty.” He wonders whether spirituality and art may be two expressions of the same thing, with both rendering us open to both the wonder and tragedy of life. Life is so wonderful and so shit at the same time and we can find traces of the extraordinary in the very ordinary.

Perhaps every piece of art is an icon or a shrine; perhaps every piece of art is a howl.

Playing us a piece of music that moves him by Sigur Ross, Ian told us “I sense this music shifts my internal landscape, which changes my actions.” In this way, art can and will change the world, which is why tyrannical powers are so threatened by it. An Italian MP said that it was important to spend as much on culture as on national security.

But this art, this change has to start with us. It must feel like my story and our story:

“Change in Syria

Or the next Syria

Starts here,

With me. With you.”

We must explore our experience and offer up what emerges. This experience will leave us both limping and blessed. It requires our all but the more we give to art, the more we realise that art will win as love will.

AOR5A personal reflection on art, religion and death – Amy Mason, writer and performer

Amy started her talk by giving us a few minutes’ preview of her one-woman play, ‘Mass’, which she would perform that night.

She explained that she had felt left adrift after being brought up in a Catholic environment. She talked of the self-help ‘nonsense’ and placebos that she sees as replacing religion in a much more secular society. People may be atheist, but they’re not rational. Ideas such as the Law of Attraction have taken off since the decline of church.

Yet people crave prayer, quiet and transcendence, because “it feels nice, doesn’t it? And it’s better for you than drugs.”

Amy’s play later explored all of these themes by fusing personal experience of religion, transcendence and life, in a very human and non-religious way but through the framework of a Catholic Mass. It was both extremely moving and very funny.

Cultural Shifts in Funeral Practice from Hackney to Accra – John Harris, T. Cribb Funeral Directors

John spoke of his experiences working for a family funeral directors firm which has been long established in Hackney and has recently set up facilities in Ghana.

He talked about how funeral direction has changed from the 1800s up till now, especially looking at cultural shifts that have happened. He talked of the varying cultural needs of the diverse people in the Hackney area and how the firm had met them. Also, he noted that there has been a lot of cross-pollination of ritual, with people seeing other cultures’ traditions and borrowing them for their own loved ones’ funerals.

Ritual in a Non-Religious Context – Isabel Russo, Head of Ceremonies, British Humanist Association

Isabel started by saying that the right rituals lead to healthier people and a healthier society. She described her own upbringing as a non-believing child in a Christian country, saying she often felt unclean and inauthentic if she had to take part in a religious service.

The Humanist Association aims to help people mark their life events with significance and profundity, but without God. Humanist funerals, for example, are marked by the absence of God and place the person who has died right at the centre of the ceremony. They are commended not to God but to the hearts and minds of those who loved them. The celebrant reflects on the life and humanity of the deceased rather than talking of judgement or afterlife. These ceremonies are created with the family and there is a shared responsibility for creating and partaking in the funeral experience.

Modern Ritual and the Loss of Lament – Jeremy Brooks, author of Heaven’s Morning Breaks

Jeremy started his talk by reading Roger McGough’s poem, ‘I Am Not Sleeping’:

I don’t want any of that

“We’re gathered here today

to celebrate his life, not mourn his passing.”

Oh yes you are. Get one thing straight,

you’re not here to celebrate

but mourn until it hurts.

I want wailing and gnashing of teeth.

I want sobs, and I want them

uncontrollable. I want women

flinging themselves on the coffin

and I want them inconsolable.

Don’t dwell on my past but on your future.

For what you see is what you’ll be

and sooner than you think.

So get weeping. Fill yourselves with dread.

For I am not sleeping. I am dead.          

Funnily enough, he remarked he’d never been asked for it at a funeral…

People don’t like to talk about death and weeping and often tell him that they don’t want a certain hymn or reading because it makes them sad. It seems that sorrow and lament is to be avoided at all costs.

AOR3These days, a lot of the ritual of death has been taken away from the bereaved such as having their loved one die at home instead of in a hospital, tending to the body etc, and this has now been given to other people to do instead. Large muscles are needed for lament and grief work, he said, such as your heart, your shoulders, your arms for embracing – not so much the grey matter. But now the physical side of death is largely dealt with by other people, our muscles aren’t required anymore.

Jeremy suggested that the loss of lament may be partly to do with church liturgy, which leaves very little space for expression of grief. He said that the first words of the funeral service essentially say ‘it’s OK, he hasn’t died, so why are you grieving?’ and that the whole event is reliant on hope and new beginnings.

Whilst it’s obviously a good thing to celebrate a person’s life, we also have to make space for lament and grief. Jeremy quoted the passage, “out of the depths I cry to thee, O Lord,” and said he considered this a better space to start from, as it acknowledges the pain that people are going through. Of course, it shouldn’t be wrong to laugh at a funeral either, but we should move from the ‘always look on the bright side of life’ philosophy to allow people to express that they feel dreadful. It is not our place to placate but to sit alongside people in their grief.

Death and the Digital Domain – James Norris, founder of Dead Social and the Digital Legacy Association

The last speaker of the day, James Norris, spoke about what inspired him to set up Dead Social, a website offering “end of life planning tools for the connected and creative”.

After watching Bob Monkhouse’s posthumous advert for Prostate Cancer, as well as realising how connected we are on social media these days (over 300 million photos are uploaded to Facebook every day, he told us), James decided to set up a site for people to manage their digital legacies after their death.

You can connect your social media accounts to Dead Social and appoint digital executors (because those embarrassing drunken photos are even worse when you’re not around to laugh them off…), and even record and save a goodbye message to be sent out after your death. There are how-to guides about how to use iTunes to decide on your funeral music, creative mourning ideas (James told us about a Fantasy Football tournament he and others played in memory of a shared friend) and schemes such as ‘Adopt a Grave’, where people can tend to a grave that has been left.

There is also a Digital Legacy Conference held every year.  Death in the digital domain is a growing area and it was great to hear some of the things that were happening.




After James had finished, Cole Moreton reflected briefly on the day and we processed down to the beach together for the opening of that day’s Advent Beach Hut before going on to watch Amy Mason’s ‘Mass’. It was an amazing day, full of fascinating people, creative ideas and newborn thoughts which have thrived since. I thoroughly enjoyed it – huge thanks to Martin and everyone else involved.