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Some things stay the same

by
08 May 2012

This study of change suggests continuities to Grace Davie

One of the workers himself: the Revd Tony Williamson (on the fork-lift), a vicar's son, became news in 1961 when he chose to take up manual work as he prepared for ordination to the priesthood in Oxford TOPIX

One of the workers himself: the Revd Tony Williamson (on the fork-lift), a vicar's son, became news in 1961 when he chose to take up manual work as he...

THIS is an important book in terms of its provenance, content, and reflections. It is substantial output from the publicly funded Religion and Society Research Programme (see www.religionandsociety.org.uk/index.php for more details). A primary task of this research initi­ative was to advance both our knowledge and our understanding of religion and society.

Religion and Change in Modern Britain does both these things. It looks first at the changing nature of religious forms in modern Britain. It then introduces “wider influences” — meaning religion and the media; religion, welfare, and education; and religion, politics, and the law. The final section sets out a range of theoretical perspectives.

This is essentially a team venture ably led by the Religion and Society Programme director, Linda Wood­head, and her research associate, Rebecca Catto. The chapters, moreover, are almost all written by more than one author. The result — the fruit of two meetings in Lan­caster — is a whole that is consid­erably more than the sum of its parts. The book offers a coher­ent, rounded, and well-written account of the religious situation in Britain, one decade into the 21st century.

It is interleaved by case studies containing state-of-the-art research commissioned by the Religion and Society Research Programme, and will become required reading for a wide variety of people: those who practise religion, those who take public responsibility for religion, those who reflect about religion, and those who want to learn about religion.

The coverage is wide: in Part I, for example, there are good chapters on the evolution of Christianity, on the very varied other faith communities now present in Britain, on alternative spiritualities, on the changing nature of God (i.e. our perceptions of God), and on the changing nature of ritual. And, bearing in mind that no book can cover everything, it seems churlish to point to “gaps”.

That said, there was relatively little in these pages on cathedrals, and still less on the related issue of pilgrimage, noting that the latter is growing exponentially all over Europe, including Britain. I would also have preferred a grass-roots account of ecumenism (think of Liverpool) rather than a case study of organisational change (in this case, the United Reformed Church — an admirable institution).

More important are the bigger themes. The title suggests an emphasis on religious change. Of course, this is true: Britain itself has changed dramatically since the immediate post-war period — the adjustments in religion are part and parcel of a wider transformation. Reading these chapters, however, evokes for me a sense of continuity just as much as change.

The vivid account of the chaotic lives of young people growing up in the deprived communities in Manchester and Glasgow is a case in point. It brought back memories of the background study that I did for Faith in the City on the nature of belief in the inner city. Then, as they are now, levels of religious belief were high, and levels of practice were low. Both reveal a decidedly ambiguous, though not entirely negative, attitude towards the institutional Church.

Woodhead’s introduction is worth reading in its own right. It constitutes a provocative essay on the intricate relationships between welfare and religion on the one hand, and state and market on the other. Woodhead argues that in the mid-post-war decades, the notion of welfare pretty much became a religion in itself, embodied in a hegemonic welfare state. Both wel­far­ism as an idea and as an organ­ising theme began, however, to recede as the century drew to a close. Neo-liberalism and the rolling back of the state took their toll. A new set of interconnections began to emerge, relating more to the market than to the state. At the same time, new spaces opened up for new (and not so new) forms of religion.

Is it fair to say that religion is now more governed by the market than it is by the state? I have argued elsewhere that there has indeed been a turn from obligation to consump­tion in the religious field. I would also argue — with Woodhead — that religion based on choice rather than habit or obligation does not mean that religion is necessarily trivialised. Seriously made choices have serious implications for public as well as private life. This volume is full of examples. Nor is the market necessarily pernicious.

All that said, I would — I think — put more weight than Woodhead does on the notion of religion as a public utility, and the mentalities that go with this. Old habits die hard: there are still large sections of the population who expect their parish (i.e. state) church, just like the NHS, to be there at the point of need for those who need it. Among the latter are many who do not have the luxury of choice.

Dr Grace Davie is Professor Emeritus in the Sociology of Religion at the University of Exeter.

SURVEYING South African history from the discovery of gold in the Witwatersrand to the first democratic elections, in 13 chapters with an introduction, The Cam­bridge History of South Africa: Volume 2: 1885-1994 brings together the work of 18 scholarly contributors under the editorship of Robert Ross, Anne Kelk Mager, and Bill Nasson (Cambridge, £100 (£90); 978-0-521-86983-6). This sub­stantial book of more than 700 pages covers political, economic, social, and intellectual develop­ments, and their connections; and the stated intention has been to achieve clarity and objectivity.

SURVEYING South African history from the discovery of gold in the Witwatersrand to the first democratic elections, in 13 chapters with an introduction, The Cam­bridge History of South Africa: Volume 2: 1885-1994 brings together the work of 18 scholarly contributors under the editorship of Robert Ross, Anne Kelk Mager, and Bill Nasson (Cambridge, £100 (£90); 978-0-521-86983-6). This sub­stantial book of more than 700 pages covers political, economic, social, and intellectual develop­ments, and their connections; and the stated intention has been to achieve clarity and objectivity.

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