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Why new faith patterns matter

26 September 2007

Martyn Percy admires a study that interprets signs of the times

The Sociology of Religion
Grace Davie

GRACE DAVIE’s Religion in Britain Since 1945 (rather catchingly sub-titled “Believing without Belonging”) was first published in 1994. It surveyed the previous 50 years with a composition and ease that have won it a deserved reputation as an accessible but rigorous academic treatise.

It is also one of those rare volumes that, although clearly sociological, is also ecclesiologically empathetic. Consequently, it has found a place on most clerical bookshelves. It has an oracular quality to it: in order to understand ministry within modernity, a contextual understanding of sociology is as essential as it desirable.

In this new book, Davie introduces us to new horizons in the sociology of religion for the 21st century. It is well written, engaging, accessible, and intelligent. It is also a veritable feast for those who want to understand how patterns of belong-ing and believing are starting to shift and alter in an increasingly diverse and dispersed society. It arguably builds on the agenda set by David Martin, Peter Berger, Robin Gill, and others; it offers a comprehensive, nuanced, and convincing account of the place of religion in the modern world.

The first part of the book deals with theories and methods (for example, rational choice, secularisation, etc.). Readers will find it informative and rewarding. The second part moves on to “substantive issues”, which include fundamentalisms, globalisation, and religion in public life. Davie is also interested in the re-emergence in the early years of the 21st century of what some are now terming “furious religion” — “God’s revenge”, as it were, on the causes and consequences of secularisation.

In 12 short chapters, the book addresses new theories (and critiques) of secularisation; examines minority and marginal religion; explores the growing impact of Islam on the contours of belief; and assesses the leading theories and debates that attempt to understand religion in the modern world.

One of Davie’s estimable qualities is her capacity to read and interpret the signs of the times. On contemporary churchgoing in Europe, she notes two dominant outlooks. The first is a “market model” that assumes voluntary membership will soon become the norm. The second is more like a “utility” model, in which member-ship is ascribed rather than chosen. In the first model, individuals opt in to become members. In the second, all are, in some sense, deemed to belong, unless they opt out.

The two models are in partial tension, and arguably depend on each other. As Britain seems to drift more to the first model and away from the second, the question, of course, is: can either of these outlooks survive without the other? It seems doubtful.

Davie is one of only a handful of writers who can make sociology intelligible and relevant to theo-logians, clergy, and churchgoers. But in this book, perhaps more than others, Davie invites her readers to revisit her insights back on her own home (sociologically speaking) turf. The journey is worth it. Readers who invest time and patience in understanding these new horizons in the sociology of religion will gain a richer understanding of their own context and praxis.

Canon Professor Martyn Percy is Principal of Ripon College, Cuddesdon, and of the Oxford Ministry Course.

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