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Religious sociologist at large

16 October 2015

Robin Gill assesses avolume in honour of Grace Davie’s work

Modernities, Memory and Mutations: Grace Davie and the study of religion
Abby Day and Mia Lövheim, editors
Ashgate £65
Church Times Bookshop £58.50 


THIS rich collection honours the work of Grace Davie after her retirement from a personal chair in the sociology of religion at Exeter University. As a Festschrift it is unusually well organised and focused. Some can simply be collections of disparate papers written for other occasions. Here, however, the contributors have written papers afresh about some of her central concepts — “believing without belonging”, “vicarious religion”, and the shift from “obligation to choice” in religious belonging — and about how they have shaped their own work.

In the foreword, Linda Woodhead notes just how much Professor Davie has achieved despite taking a career break to bring up three children. She has made a significant contribution not only to European sociology of religion (she is fluent in French), but also to the Church of England (she is a lay canon in the diocese of Europe). It is a pity that so few of the subsequent contributors pay much attention to her church contribution. Many English dioceses will know just how extensive it has been.

Each of the three sections of this book starts with a contribution from a star within the sociology of religion. In the first section, it is the veteran French sociologist Danièle Hervieu-Léger who has herself significantly influenced Professor Davie, especially with her concept of “religious memories” that survive in apparently secular societies such as France and Britain. She offers a powerful example of the near-contemporary public funerals of Diana, Princess of Wales, and President Mitterrand in Westminster Abbey and Notre-Dame de Paris respectively (despite their ambivalent relationship with either Church).

The second part opens with a fine essay from David Martin which places her work in the spectrum of other scholars over the past 50 years. He has known her since she was a postgraduate, and writes with obvious pride in her achievements. He also teases her for “notorious even-handedness”, especially in giving credence to so-called “rational choice theory” (which treats religious belonging as akin to economic choices). For him: “Even-handedness is not fairness. Sometimes truth may be extreme, dark and paradoxical.’” In her response, ever the teacher (she is an excellent teacher), she maintains that rational-choice theory (even if wrong) livens up seminars. She is right, but Martin’s point is more interesting.

In the third part, Anders Bäckström, emeritus sociologist of religion at Uppsala University, gives a fascinating and measured account of differences and similarities between the part played by religion in welfare provision in Britain and Nordic countries. Professor Davie has made many visits to Uppsala, and has contributed significantly to some of the research programmes there. This is an area of considerable interest, especially for those of us who have tried to investigate how religion might still contribute to social capital in the modern world.

In every section, there are many other sociologists of religion, young and old, who make significant contributions, including Sylvia Collins-Mayo (on young people), Douglas Davies (on Breivik’s religiously inspired massacre in Norway), Adam Dinham (on religious literacy), and Abby Day (on believing in belonging).

This is, indeed, a rich collection, but perhaps just a little too affectionate. Professor Davie’s staunchest critics (such as Steve Bruce and David Voas) have not been included. It might have been livelier with at least one of them. And in expensive hardback it may need to be consulted in a library. In places, it is also too repetitive: for example, too many contributors make similar points about “vicarious religion”. Yet there is still much to enjoy here.


The Revd Professor Robin Gill is the Editor of Theology and Canon Theologian of the Cathedral Chapter of the diocese in Europe.

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