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Interview: Grace Davie, sociologist of religion

24 March 2016

‘’I bring myself, and therefore my faith, to the academic table’

I’m a sociologist interested in religion. I pay attention to many different kinds of data in order to discern, and to explain, the patterns of religious life in this country, and others.

My work, like that of all social scientists, rests on the assumption that human living is not random. Why is it, for example, that Christian churches in the West are disproportionately attended by women? That requires an explanation.

My initial interest was in France. My doctoral thesis focused on a small group of French Protestants in the interwar period who had atypical political views. How could I explain this anomaly, effectively a minority within a minority?

After my Ph.D., I took a break from academic work when my children were small. An invitation to contribute a background paper to Faith in the City encouraged me to restart my career. Inner City God (Hodder & Stoughton, 1987) was the result, and the first step towards Religion in Britain since 1945: Believing without belonging (1994).

Twenty years later, the second Religion in Britain has a different sub-title: A persistent paradox. This captures the significant change that has taken place since 1994. Britain is more secular than it was 20 years ago, markedly so — but we talk more about religion in public life than we used to.

The first of these statements reflects a dominant European trend. The second is indicative of global, rather than European, ways of doing things. Significant groups of Christians have arrived in this country from different parts of the world, along with growing numbers of other faith communities. New accommodations are necessary, some of which are easier to achieve than others. Every now and again the debate increases in intensity — unsurprisingly, in that there are difficult issues to resolve. The same thing is happening all over Europe.

The most noticeable change in British Christianity since 1994 is the switch from rural to urban. Two to three decades ago, the rural churches — notably the Church of England ones — were still doing relatively well, underpinned by a demographic that is now eroding fast.

A marked generational shift is taking its toll. Urban churches are similarly affected, but here there are compensatory factors, not least new arrivals from the global South. In London, for example, more than half the worshippers in church on Sunday come from ethnic minorities. At the same time, towns and cities offer choice, including a range of Charismatic Evangelical churches, alongside cathedrals and their city-centre equivalents, all of which attract higher numbers, relatively speaking.

A second shift concerns the UK as a whole. No longer are Wales and Scotland noticeably more active in their religious expression than England. Both have experienced late-onset and very rapid secularisation. In the Scottish case, this is linked to devolution. In 1994, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland was the only place where Scottish people could discuss Scottish affairs. That now happens in the Scottish Parliament.

The Christian calling is to be in the world but not of it. That means that there will always be a degree of tension between the Church and the society of which it is part. I was present at a recent dialogue between Anglicans, Roman Catholics, and Lutherans from three European societies. All of them identified the same underlying tension, but the presenting issues were different in each case: same-sex marriage for the Anglicans, communion for the divorced and remarried for the Catholics, and funerals for those who have opted out of membership (thus church tax) for the Lutherans. In each case, church discipline as currently understood militated against pastoral generosity.

How and when does church teaching evolve? In 1994, the big issues for the Church of England concerned gender, not least the ordination of women as priests. The current “problem” is same-sex marriage — which will resolve itself over time, though painfully, and rather more slowly than many would like. What will be next? To assume that there will be nothing is naive.

Concerning the Renewal and Reform programme, I dislike the dichotomising of old and new models — with the strong implication that one is right and the other wrong. I appreciate that the old model of universal provision is unsustainable on a shrinking funding base, just as it is in parts of Catholic Europe (in France or Belgium, for example). We need, therefore, to discern the elements of our inheritance which should be maintained, while at the same time edging forward to new ways of doing things which are financially viable. This is easier said than done, but it would help if we all moved — or tried to move — in the same direction.

One point is clear: the Church of England will become one minority among others, but will retain its distinctive position in society. I am interested in working out the advantages of a weak established church in this mix — they are many.

All too often, we are subjected to an ill-informed and ill-mannered debate. My Cadbury lectures, given in Birmingham last month, explored religious literacy, meaning by this the capacity to speak more constructively about faith in different parts of our society. In pursuing this theme, I am developing the work on religious literacy pioneered by Adam Dinham and his team at Goldsmiths.

Academic theologians must find a discourse, a literacy, that articulates their thinking in ways that resonate with their audience. What they say should not be context driven — far from it — but it should speak to the realities experienced by their readers, bearing in mind that these are many and varied.

My encounters with younger people make me optimistic about the future. The vast majority of students work hard, and are eager to learn. I still take the occasional class, but miss the regular contact that I had with students when I was teaching week by week.

Holding fast to the notion that faith is the opposite of certainty, I do have faith. And, like everyone else, I bring myself, and therefore my faith, to the academic table. This means that I have a particular, and very personal, combination of insights and blind spots which I need to be aware of.

But so does everyone else. To argue that only faith introduces the question of bias is manifestly incorrect. Secular-minded scholars need to be equally scrupulous about value judgements.

Given the number of invitations that I receive, it seems that what I do is appreciated. Much of this concerns context: my training enables me to give a clear account of the situation in which we find ourselves.

I am continually struck by the generosity of those with whom I work, many of whom have become friends. I find it particularly rewarding to see a new generation of scholars emerging in the field. Former doctoral students are now running their own research projects.

I was brought up in an academic home in Cambridge, and went to a highly competitive, all-girls school. My big mistake was to think that this was normal. That said, the package suited me well. My own children were raised in Liverpool — a very different environment. We were in Liverpool through the Sheppard-Worlock years, a deeply formative experience.

Moving to Exeter in 1987 was somewhat traumatic, but we survived. Some of us mourned the distinctive nature of church life; others (in fact, all of us) missed the football. My children are now in their 40s, with families of their own.

Favourite sounds: the World Service when you cannot sleep; the sound of a key in the lock when you are waiting for someone you love.

Two things currently make me angry: they are both political. For the Labour Party to lose its own leadership election not only demonstrates extreme incompetence, but deprives us all of an effective opposition — a cardinal element of a robust democracy. For the Conservative Party to jeopardise the stability of the EU because of internal dissent is, in my view, profoundly irresponsible. More generally, waste upsets me.

I am happiest with my family. We are far-flung, but good at celebrations. Last year we fitted three birthdays (one big one), American-style Hallowe’en (lots of dressing up), and a trip to Disneyland into one tumultuous fortnight hosted by our California-based children.

On a more regular basis, I gain a huge amount from my parish church. In it I find a diverse and caring community, and enjoy with them a ministry of encouragement. It costs nothing to encourage. Why don’t we do more of it?

For most people, Easter is a welcome break at the beginning of spring. The supply of chocolate is reliable; good weather is less so. I will spend Easter at home with my family. Some of us will attend church.

In the preface to the first Religion in Britain, I wrote the following: “The dedication of this book is to my mother, from whom I learnt first-hand that academic commitment is compatible with marriage and parenting, despite the pressures of each. Neither activity would prosper, however, without the absolute dependability of my husband, to whom my warmest thanks.” I have not changed my mind.

I would choose to be locked in a church with Neil MacGregor, a consummate European with an unparalleled knowledge of art, and the capacity to make this live. To make the most of my opportunity, I would choose my church with care.


Professor Davie was talking to Terence Handley MacMath. She is Professor of Sociology at the University of Exeter. Her Cadbury lectures will be published by Theos later this year.

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