How not to pray at Ground Zero


Memorial Day.jpgThe usual suspects plus some unusual ones are unhappy with Mayor Bloomberg’s decision to conduct the 10th anniversary commemoration ceremonies at Ground Zero without benefit of clergy, and at first blush, the decision is a little hard to comprehend. After all, these days Americans do tend to solemnize such occasions with some sort of joint religious exercise.

On second blush, however, the mayor is simply insisting on sticking close to the ritual that was established 10 years ago and continued ever since: a reading of the names of the victims with moments of silence for attendees to fill with whatever thoughts or prayers they may have. This approach seems to sit well with the victims’ families as well as with leading religious figures in New York, such as Archbishop Timothy Dolan and Rabbi Joseph Potasnik of the New York Board of Rabbis.

But let’s try a third blush–one that provides formal religion for those that want it, without imposing it on those that don’t. Let’s hark back, in other words, to the way New Englanders used to remember the fallen on Memorial Day.

In “An American Sacred Ceremony,” anthropologist W. Lloyd Warner‘s classic account published six decades ago, Memorial Day in “Yankeetown”–Newburyport, Mass.–began with members of the different religious bodies attending services in their own houses of worship; then forming a parade and marching together to the town’s main cemetery, where separate ceremonies were performed; then reforming the parade with a final collective salute, and heading back to town. As Warner summed it up:

Here we see people who are Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and Greek Orthodox involved in a common ritual in a graveyard with their common dead. Their sense of separateness was present and expressed in the different ceremonies, but the parade and the unity gained by doing everything at one time emphasized the oneness of the total group. Each ritual also stressed the fact that the war was an experience where everyone sacrificed and some died, and not as members of a separate group, but as citizens of a whole community.

In today’s America, it is no longer possible to make the civil religious umbrella work with a rabbi, a Catholic priest, and a Protestant minister; or an Abrahamic triplet of rabbi-priest-imam; or anything short of a herd of be-robed clerics. And even then there will be exclusions–of those of no faith, of course, but also Mormons and Missouri Synod Lutherans, and others who for their own theological reasons will not pray with those who do not share their beliefs.

So let the members of New York’s several religious bodies who wish convene simultaneously in nearby houses of worship this Sunday morning to memorialize the dead of 9/11 as they see fit; and then let all proceed to Ground Zero, for the collective secular ritual that brings the community together.