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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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).