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Generation A — the dwindling force

07 February 2014

Older women do a great deal more than keep the pews warm. They are are significant leaders in their churches, discovers Abby Day, and they are not being replaced


IT'S like sex," the frail, white-haired woman told me as she poured my tea. Sex is something that is inherent, she explained carefully, like religion; it's something that we just know. "No one tells us how to do it, do they?" she asked, with a bright laugh.

I shook my head, shocked into silence. Although I have spent the past two years studying them, each conversation reveals another surprising quality of these unique Anglican women, members of what I call "Generation A", born in the 1920s and '30s, mothers of the baby-boomers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers of Generations X, Y, and Z.

These are the older women laity, often invisible and unacknowledged as they lead from the pews, who rarely have time to take tea and talk about sex because they are too busy hauling heavy boxes up and down church stairs for the jumble sale, or dusting` and polishing, or organising the rota of duties. This may well be the final active generation of the Church of England - because their descendants are not replacing them.

In losing this generation, the Church will not just be losing numbers, but a kind of labour, leadership, and knowledge which has quietly kept churches going. This "pew power" is different from priestly leadership, but has been, I conclude, instrumental to church life.

TO GET to know them, I joined the congregation of a church, and, with the permission of clergy and laity, became involved in many aspects of church-work led, and largely carried out, by Generation A.

After one year of that close involvement, I maintained my presence in that church while visiting others to check whether my emerging findings and themes were found elsewhere. Most churches were in the UK, two in Canada, and two (Episcopal) in the United States.

Congregations were deliberately selected as "mainstream" rather than Evangelical, and had a regular Sunday attendance of 25 to 50 people, mostly over 60 years of age, mostly women.

Through close observation, participation in their routines, and events, lengthy conversations, and formal interviews, I have formed three specific conclusions about what they do, why they do it, and why it matters.

FIRST, there is more to church attendance than Sunday services. The weekday morning prayer and holy communion services are largely attended by small groups of three to ten people, mostly Generation A.

Possibly more important is the widespread church initiative known variously as "church watch", or "church openings", led by Generation A. Their rota ensures that they sit in the church for a few hours on weekdays so that it can stay open for the general public.

A few tourists may come in to have a look, others might briefly say a prayer in a pew, or light a candle; but there is a core, I noticed, who regularly come for a chat. Most are not members of the congregation, but local people, who are recently bereaved, or struggling with alcohol or drug habits, and are semi-homeless. All are lonely. Inside, they find a calm face, a listening ear, and often a warm drink and a generously loaded plate of biscuits.

When I asked one Generation A-er if she ever talked to her visitors about religion, she pulled a horrified face. "Never!" Her part was to listen, and make people feel welcome and wanted. That was how she practised, not preached, her faith.

THE second form of pew power I discovered revolves around the social calendar. Where there is piety, there's a party, and where there's a party, there is food and drink. Like Jesus feeding the five thousand, there always seemed to be a bottle miraculously appearing from a shopping bag to be shared around the table.

These days, more is shop-bought than home-made as the women age, and have less energy to spend in front of their ovens, but the generosity fuelled by often meagre pensions is abundant: layers of sliced ham, coronation chicken, sausage rolls, smoked salmon on brown bread, quiches, cheese, and trifle.

The space will be decorated, and tables set, in themes of the season. There will be plenty of talking; a great deal of laughter; always a raffle; and with Generation A the last to leave after the washing up.

THIRD, Generation A organises, and leads, from the pews, to create belonging. The rota is a sacred text, published in a prominent place near the main doors, so that everyone on it is acknowledged, reminded, and held publicly accountable for church cleaning, church-opening, greeting, and flower-arranging. The names are mostly female, and mostly Generation A.

The effect is not only to keep the church building functioning, but the people involved and interdependent: each person has a duty, and a larger team, and a community to which they belong.

It is also a safety net, as the women look out for each other, and members of the congregation, enquiring after people's health, family, and work. These are small groups with strong networks, managed mainly by Generation A. They ensure that no one will be neglected or forgotten if they become ill, hospitalised, housebound, or otherwise in need.

When Generation A departs, professional cleaners and florists may be contracted, and catering companies hired for the annual Christmas lunch, replacing pew power with professional power.

As the churches close more firmly on weekdays, not many people will notice, apart from a few lonely people. This is a unique space, open unconditionally to anyone.

More widely, when organisations lose their most loyal members they tend to decline quickly. Much as I probe these issues with Generation A, I cannot detect panic. They have seen worse, and survived. And what is the point of faith, if not to sustain hope in the face of futility? Priests may need to think quickly about how to replace that kind of leadership.

Dr Abby Day is a senior research fellow, and lecturer in Anthropology of Religion at the University of Kent, Canterbury, and Reader in Race, Faith and Culture at Goldsmiths, London. She is the author of Believing in Belonging: Belief and social identity in the modern world, published by Oxford University Press at £25 (Church Times Bookshop  £22.50).

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