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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Inescapable Ritual

Ceremony seeps into our lives, despite our best efforts.

The Coffin Carrying Queen Elizabeth II Is Transferred From Buckingham Palace To The Palace Of Westminster
King Charles III walks behind the coffin during the procession for the Lying-in State of Queen Elizabeth II on September 14, 2022 in London, England. (Kate Green/Getty Images)

Watching the coronation of King Charles III, the influential American foreign policy consultant Ian Bremmer tweeted a picture of the monarch in his royal regalia, saying it was “hard to take this seriously.” What I find remarkable is not that a political scientist like Bremmer appears to be unaware a limited monarchy, like that of the United Kingdom, is a highly stable form of government, but that this perception of the ceremony as somehow preposterous is so widespread.

To reject a ritual because it is odd is self-refuting nonsense. Rituals frame important events in human life, signifying their specialness; they are designed to stand out. They operate on a separate plane of reality, employing symbolism preserved for the sacred. The otherworldly setting opens the door into the liminal space where a prince can be transformed into a king, or a maid into a married woman.  

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Rituals can’t be judged by the fleeting aesthetic standards of contemporary fashion. The editor of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffrey, commented on the Royal gowns: “Going to distract myself from American carnage by noting that the trappings of British royalty are immensely stupid and tacky looking? Like a run-down casino.”

What Jeffrey fails to grasp is that the coronation ceremony was designed by people who are not so self-important to believe that our age is the pinnacle of human existence. They didn’t set out to create a time capsule from 2023, that in the future decades will be featured in nostalgia sections of fashion magazines, but rather to open one from centuries past. Catherine Middleton, decked out in the colors of the Union Jack and a diamond tiara resembling laurel leaves, was not doing fast fashion. She resembled a rococo painting or, at the very least, a fairytale princess. She created a spectacle for the ages, not an affirmation of contemporary sensibilities.

The House of Windsor is well adept at making a ceremony of everyday experiences. They insist on observing rules for entering the room, talking at the dinner table, and holding a tea cup. All of it is to underline the specialness of the dynasty. The Australian musician Nick Cave, who is probably still some kind of a republican, recalled his meeting with the late Queen Elizabeth II thus:

I once met the late Queen at an event at Buckingham Palace for “Aspirational Australians living in the UK” (or something like that). It was a mostly awkward affair, but the Queen herself, dressed in a salmon coloured twin-set, seemed almost extraterrestrial and was the most charismatic woman I have ever met. Maybe it was the lighting, but she actually glowed.

The meeting made a lasting impression on the Death Rocker:

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As I told my mother—who was the same age as the Queen and, like the Queen, died in her nineties—about that day, her old eyes filled with tears. When I watched the Queen’s funeral on the television last year I found, to my bafflement, that I was weeping myself as the coffin was stripped of the crown, orb and sceptre and lowered through the floor of St. George’s Chapel.

This extra gravity does not mean that specialness is reserved for monarchs. All of us are capable of creating sacred spaces in everyday life. My rabbi, whose wife is British, likes to bring up the example of the royal family to explain how ritual elevates the mundane. When we observe religious rites, we remind ourselves of the presence of God in the cosmos and our lives become filled with meaning. Those following religious guidelines for ordinary occasions live life purposefully. It is one thing to just eat dinner, and another to say a prayer before breaking bread.

This is true not only of religious life but of civic life as well. Because I want to see the return of republican virtue, I feel the need to champion meaningful traditions in our public and private lives. Ritual reminds us about our moral obligations and reenforces our connection with history. To our damage, we got rid of the pledge of allegiance at schools. New customs like “spirit days,” when students are encouraged to wear pajamas or silly hats, emerged. If the pledge of allegiance teaches dignity and respect, “spirit days” normalize slobbery. Not only children, but adults, too, now wear pajamas as outwear.

Our sweats-wearing compatriots talk of ritual as a superstition and derive satisfaction in finding the coronation ridiculous. But it is not that we no longer have any rituals. Rather we have developed new ones over recent decades that are a sorry substitute for the godly ones. A few years ago, I wrote about the political paganism that formed around the figure of the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and how these rites, in RBG’s case, displaced ancient Jewish mourning traditions.

Political rituals of wokeness are edging out other traditions. Occasions marked by a rite of passage reinforce what a society considers important. A wedding is probably the single most significant event in the lives of people around the world, especially in women’s lives. The wedding is practically on life support in the United States. David’s Bridal, the big-box superstore that sells one out of four bridal gowns in the country, recently filed for bankruptcy—the second time in five years. The owners blamed the pandemic shut down decline in matrimony, noting that the couples who do tie the knot increasingly prefer to elope.

Just as the rites of heteronormative coupling appear to be on the way out, a new set of elaborate traditions have been introduced, this time in the world of corporate-government meetings. Like commoners curtsying before the king, participants “identify” themselves by exotic “pronouns” and parade complex pedigrees of ethnic identities. When I recently flew on Air Canada, we were shown a flight safety video that was preceded by a “land acknowledgment.” It signaled the ascendancy of a woke political arrangement, initiating people like me, who were lucky to avoid the post-pandemic workspace, into its citizenship.

The ceremonies developed around the woke pieties in professional settings consist mostly of incantation. Like workplaces themselves, they lack emotional depth and leave people unsatisfied. They don’t offer anything for the senses, no gold-encrusted robes shimmering in the darkness of medieval cathedral, no ancient chants for processionals. But they are replacing traditional private and civic virtues, and turning us into a nation less moral and less spiritual, and also less imaginative.