An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church


Ritual refers to the prescribed form of words of an act of worship and also has been used to indicate the ceremonial of worship. The term “ritualism” was applied to the ceremonial enrichment of public worship by re-introducing pre-Reformation ceremonial practices into Anglicanism. These included practices at the eucharist such as the use of vestments, a processional cross, altar lights, incense, the mixed chalice, and liturgical actions such as genuflection and the elevation of the host for adoration. Those who supported the advance of ritualism were known as “ritualists.”

The early stages of the Oxford Movement emphasized the recovery of catholic beliefs and ideas rather than ceremonial. But the renewed emphasis on catholic theology led to an expanding use of catholic practices and forms in the mid-nineteenth century. The advance of ritualism became intensely controversial in the Episcopal Church. Some opponents of ritualism believed the changes were introducing Roman Catholic practices and beliefs into a Protestant Church. Evangelicals were often strong and vocal opponents of ritualism. For many years, Bishop Manton Eastburn of Massachusetts refused to visit the Church of the Advent, Boston, because of the parish’s ritual practices. This dispute eventually led to a canon passed by the 1856 General Convention requiring a bishop to visit every parish in the bishop’s jurisdiction at least once every three years. The controversy over ritualism led John Henry Hopkins, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, to publish The Law of Ritualism(1866). Hopkins urged that a wide variety of ritual uses were canonically permitted in the Episcopal Church. He predicted that many of the controverted practices would eventually be accepted.

Proposed canons on ritual were considered at the General Conventions of 1868 and 1871, but no canons on ritual were enacted. However, resolutions condemning ceremonies expressing doctrines foreign to the church were adopted at the 1871 General Convention, and the pastoral letter of the House of Bishops condemned the new ritualism. Ritualism was one of the issues that led some radical evangelicals into schism from the Episcopal Church in 1873. George David Cummins, Assistant Bishop of Kentucky, and others organized the Reformed Episcopal Church. The General Convention of 1874 did pass a canon on ritual. Many hoped this would satisfy the evangelicals, and prevent further departures from the Episcopal Church. This canon called for a bishop to investigate any use of ceremonies or practices in the bishop’s jurisdiction symbolizing “false or doubtful doctrine.” The bishop was empowered first to admonish and then bring to trial any member of the clergy who persisted in these practices. However, this canon did virtually nothing to slow the expansion of ritual practices in the Episcopal Church. Only one trial for ritualism took place. In 1877 Oliver Prescott received episcopal admonishment for his ritual practices. The canon on ritual was quietly repealed at the 1904 General Convention.

James DeKoven was a distinguished defender of ritual practices and a strong advocate for ritualism at the 1871 and 1874 General Conventions. At the 1871 General Convention, he argued that ritual practices do not symbolize the doctrine of transubstantiation. He noted that such practices preceded the doctrine of transubstantiation. These practices were shared by Orthodox and Lutheran churches that denied transubstantiation. At the 1874 General Convention, DeKoven urged the church to adopt a comprehensive approach to worship. The canon on ritual was passed despite DeKoven’s plea for comprehensiveness. His defense of ritualism led his opponents to question his theology of the eucharist and block his election as Bishop of Illinois. However, DeKoven’s vision of comprehensiveness in worship ultimately prevailed in the Episcopal Church. His life and ministry are commemorated on Mar. 22 in the Episcopal calendar of the church year. Many of the ritualist practices and actions that were controversial in the nineteenth century are now generally accepted. See DeKoven, James; see Oxford Movement; see Transubstantiation.

Glossary definitions provided courtesy of Church Publishing Incorporated, New York, NY,(All Rights reserved) from “An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church, A User Friendly Reference for Episcopalians,” Don S. Armentrout and Robert Boak Slocum, editors.