A Q&A with Jeltje Gordon-Lennox

Jeltje Gordon-Lennox talks about the publication of her new series of three guides on Crafting Secular Rituals.

Jeltje, you’re a psychotherapist, a pioneer in secular life-event ceremonies and in training non-religious celebrants in the craft of ritualisation. How did you discover ritualisation?

Before becoming a psychotherapist, I worked a number of years for a Swiss humanitarian organisation called the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and also as a religious leader. The ICRC’s mandate is to convince warring parties to respect some basic rules and to protect civilians who are inevitably caught up in armed conflicts. This is a dangerous job and a number of delegates lose their lives. Since many of the delegates have strong humanitarian values but are not religious, I was intrigued about the challenge of doing a funeral — outside traditional religious institutions — that reflects the deceased delegate’s motivation for taking on such risky work and their underlying humanitarian values. 
 Moreover, as a religious leader in Switzerland I was troubled by the fact that at least 90% of the people who came to me for life event ceremonies were asking me not to talk about God or religion. Yet another challenge! In my official role I represented the institution and was expected to perform traditional rites. The ever-growing need for personalised rituals represented not just a moral issue for me but also a human need for rituals that make sense and feel right.

In 2000, with my psychotherapist degree newly in hand, I did my first non-religious ceremony. Shortly afterwards, I left my post and put in to place Ashoka – a nonprofit association – a secular platform from which I could offer secular ceremonies that reflect my clients’ needs and values. As a result I was kicked out of the religious institution. With time, I had to admit that religious rites did not meet my own needs either. Talking about my work as ritual or ritualisation came much later. I still prefer ‘ritualising’ because it shows the progressive aspect of creating fitting ceremonies to mark life events.

 What motivated you to write the series on crafting secular rituals? I designed these practical guides for those who need to mark the significant transitions in their lives or create fitting ceremonies for public events. While traditional rituals have basically two phases: planning and realising, to be effective, emerging rituals require a middle phase: creating. Traditional rituals were created over years, even millennia.

Now, in order to practice ritual that makes sense, those who find themselves outside of traditional institutions must build in this creating phase – often with a very limited amount of time. This series on Crafting Secular Ritual proposes three guides: one that briefly covers ritualmaking for the main life events and for ritualising in public spaces. Each guide has a unique toolbox with simple serviceable tools for the creation of meaningful secular rituals.

In these books you examine the history and function of rituals in different cultures and also offer practical guidance for creating personalised rituals. Why do you think humans have such a strong inclination towards ritualising?

Human beings, like all social animals, ritualise. Ethologist Ellen Dissanayake says that playing, making art and ritualising are essential to being human. Our dual need to mark events in time and to connect with others result in ritualmaking. Our fundamental emotional and communal needs are met by rituals that make sense to us. This used to be taken care of through family and village life or religious institutions. A growing number of people in Western societies find that these contexts no longer meet their need for ritual. In fact, their ritual profile has evolved more quickly than their ritual practice. My book is a step towards helping people harmonise their ritual profile and practice.

What would you say to people who claim that non-religious ceremonies are meaningless?

People who hold that non-religious ceremonies are meaningless are probably quite satisfied with their own religious or institutional ritual practice. I would encourage them to continue practising their traditional rituals, as well as to keep an open mind towards those whose ritual profile compels them to fulfil their need for ritual through non-traditional practices.

Your guides contain checklists for the different stages of planning ceremonies for occasions such as weddings, naming ceremonies and funerals. Why did you think it important to provide checklists for readers?

First of all, let me tell you what a checklist is not. A checklist is not for the faint-hearted. It does not tell you how to create ritual. It is not a teaching tool, nor is it a substitute for common sense and skill. It does not list everything one should do. 
A checklist does guide craftspeople as they identify what is at the heart of the ceremony by obliging them to pause and communicate with each other. It frees them up to concentrate on meaning and create rituals that make sense. Checklists help the celebrant provide a safe context for the expression of strong emotions. For example, a checklist is invaluable in situations where people nurse long-standing feuds; it does not take sides.

Can anyone be a celebrant?

Yes and no. Presiding a secular ceremony is a service role. 'Celebrant' is not (yet) a recognised post; anyone can call themselves a celebrant. This means you should check out the experience and attitude of any non-professional (friend or family member) you choose to preside as well as the training and credentials of any professional celebrant you consider hiring.

As you prepare a tailor-made ceremony, I encourage you to think carefully about who should help you craft and preside it. Crafting represents 80-90% of the work and presiding the ceremony 10-20%. The person who assumes one or both of these roles can be a professional celebrant, or a friend or relative. In either case, s/he must be able to put the focus entirely on you and your goals for the ritualisation, provide timely advice and support you unconditionally on this special occasion.

Certain life events are more likely to require a professional than others, particularly when it comes to presiding. One should not underestimate the value of accompaniment from a professional celebrant in the planning, creating and realising phases. Weddings and funerals fall into this category.

The newly weds and their entourage should have the luxury of participating fully in the ceremony. This is hard to do when one is presiding a wedding, and even more difficult in the case of a funeral. People who have assumed this role during the funeral of a close friend or family member tell me that their grief process was stunted or hindered because they had to put the needs of the other mourners first.

You also include a questionnaire for discovering your own ‘ritual profile.’ How did you go about creating this tool?

For many years I observed the confusion of people who knock on the wrong door for a life event ceremony. I came to see that the root of their confusion is their lack of clarity about where they belong and what rituals suit them best. This is especially the case for those who feel distantly attached to religious institutions but do not practice. This is particularly critical for people with multicultural backgrounds.

Fiancés who share various cultures and religions between them understand intuitively that, while they may each practise their traditional rites separately, their relationship is not founded on either tradition. While including aspects of their traditions of origin – without parody – is possible, having a religious leader preside is not. these couples can count on a secular celebrant to help them create a wedding ceremony that reflects the love and values they share.

In your experience, what makes a successful ritual? The two main keys to successful ritualmaking are authenticity and meaning. One must be able to trust one’s senses to ensure the ritual makes sense. As sociologist Margaret Holloway says: ‘It has to feel right to be right’.

What has been your most memorable ritual or ceremony to date? Not long ago I was asked to do a wedding ceremony for fiancés with four cultural origins. The groom’s mother is British Anglican and his father is Indian Zoroastrian. The bride’s father is Swiss Protestant and her mother is Japanese, a tradition that favours Shinto wedding ceremonies. After months of planning and crafting the couple had a ceremony that reflected where they came from and where they intended to go together.

Their wedding ceremony began as the couple lit a Zoroastrian lamp which had been placed on a small table by the groom’s Indian cousin; it ended with a Shinto sake ritual performed by the bride’s Japanese cousins in full kimono dress. I explained, not what these rituals meant in their traditional context but what they meant to this couple on their wedding day. The groom wrote a poem to express their values and the meaning of this transition in their life as a couple. At the centre of the ceremony was the vow they wrote and their request that those present help them keep it.

Do you have any advice for people hoping to craft their first ritual? Be true to yourself and to those with whom you are creating this ritual. There will most likely be tears and laughter. Use the Checklists!

Posted in Highlight on May 18 2020