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Invisible, but not immortal

23 June 2017

The Church would struggle without the help of women in their seventies and older, and yet they are seldom heard, says Abby Day

Geoff Crawford

Dedicated service: Pat Sainsbury, from St Mary’s, Adderbury, is one of several older women at her church who contributed to its smooth running. She agreed to be photographed, but this article should not be thought to represent her views or situation

Dedicated service: Pat Sainsbury, from St Mary’s, Adderbury, is one of several older women at her church who contributed to its smooth running. She ag...

AS THE oldest and, arguably, last active generation of Anglican laywomen passes away, one might rightly wonder whether anyone will notice, let alone care. Themes of “invisibility” and “mute” ran strongly through my book The Religious Lives of Older Laywomen: The last active Anglican generation (Oxford University Press, with funding from the Economic and Social Research Council).

The presence and contributions of “Generation A” laywomen — born in the 1920s and ’30s and now in their seventies, eighties, and nineties (the grand- and great-grandmothers of Generations X, Y, and Z) — have often been ignored by other researchers and church leaders, who fail to recognise the detailed, mundane nature of real religious lives that operate more vibrantly Monday to Saturday than on Sundays.

As I spent time with these women over two years, I found that they welcomed my presence, questions, and participation. They seemed pleased that I was taking an interest, and wanting to write a book about them. Sometimes, they even spoke (although, characteristically, without “wanting to make a fuss”) about feeling invisible.

One woman, Florence (all names have been changed), told me that she noticed that, when they provided refreshments for large events at the church, the visitors would be polite, but would tend to gather in their own groups, leaving the older women at the back, tidying up the tables, doing the washing up, “and always being the last to leave”.

And a priest I spoke to was trying to be complimentary about Generation A. He said he had always noticed that, at funerals, there would appear “like magic” an array of food and drink. He assumed, betrayed by his light-hearted remark, that this happened out of his realm of understanding, instead of grasping that well-organised, systematic, time-intensive, sometimes dirty, and always, always, hard work was involved.

The theme of being “mute” arose, for example, as I attended a meeting of one church’s parochial church council, when the annual accounts were being discussed. As the priest read out the numbers, linked to various categories, one elderly woman stopped him as he moved on from “social committee”. She said: “I’d like to give my report.” He smiled at her and said that that would not be necessary: time was short. To my astonishment, she stood up and said: “I want to give my report,” and began reading it.

Much of that report covered the detail of coffee mornings, bric-a-brac sales, and raffles. While that may have seemed too trivial for at least one parish priest, it all adds up. The Church of England accounts are clear that much depends on the combined effect of localised fund-raising projects, however dull they may seem.

At one parish spring lunch, for example, I was interested to examine what was on the raffle table. Every church social had a raffle, with the same sorts of prizes: hand creams (M&S, Yardley, Boots); boxes of chocolates (After Eights; Cadbury’s); two or three bottles of wine (Tesco, M&S); a bottle of sherry; a jar of stem ginger if it’s Christmas; home-made jam or marmalade, and, sometimes, a bottle of port or Bailey’s. When I asked who provided all the prizes, a Generation A woman replied: “We do,” which was why she always made a point of watching for supermarkets’ sales throughout the year. If Tesco had a sale of, for example, boxes of chocolates, she always made sure to pick up a few to put away for the raffles.

At that particular spring lunch, the raffle began, as always, once Generation A had cleared away the dishes. As a guest, I was given the honour of picking out the first ticket from a large bowl. “Blue, 236,” I read out. A woman happily skipped up to the table and chose the lavender hand-cream. The male priest then took over reading out the rest of the numbers.

After a few turns, the prize was won by someone who had won before. We all sat still and exchanged a few nervous glances as the priest waved on the winner to approach the table for the second time. “We normally let someone else have a turn if we’ve already won,” a woman whispered to me. I wondered how someone could be a parish priest and not know raffle rules and etiquette? It was also possibly symptomatic of a societal change from a collective, informal ethos of everyone “having a turn” to something more individualised and consumerist.

Those examples, and others, made me think about why Generation A was so easily brushed aside. One reason, as feminists have argued, may be the general tendency for women to be subsumed, masked, and universalised in a masculinist environment, whether a church, a company, or a political party.

Another may be the ease with which non-professional, voluntary, or badly paid labour is seen as less important, and therefore deemed less influential, than well-paid positions. Research in the United States showed a strong correlation between the drop in ministers’ salaries and a reduction in the number of men being ordained.

And then, as I eventually concluded, there is the generational dimension: Generation A are not just the oldest generation in the Church: they are a special generation of people whose lives and sensibilities were shaped by war, rationing, and nation-building.

Although they were often dismissed as old-fashioned or disagreeable, Generation A women were clear about what mattered. It seemed from my conversations that Generation A held to be sacred specific institutions and related values: God, Queen, country, family, male authority, and Church.

Their baby-boomer children, who formed and were formed by the 1960s cultural revolution, rejected the rigidity and authoritarian nature of those institutions. One woman, Muriel, commented to me that she always became emotional when she heard the National Anthem. She said: “It used to be at the end of the pictures; but now we don’t. It’s PC gone mad so we don’t upset other religions. Like Charles says, he’s a ‘Defender of the Faiths’. Is that right?” She shook her head without waiting for an answer.

Years ago, when the Church was revising the liturgy and dispensing with the Book of Common Prayer, many Generation A women voiced their opposition. They didn’t think there was any point in changing a service style and wording that had served the Church for centuries. Indeed, many churches now advertise the “BCP” service for the early Sunday-morning or mid-week eucharists that Generation A attend.

At PCC meetings, many of the women argued against ripping out pews; turning over church halls to outside bodies, if it meant disrupting the church social calendar; and hiring consultants to advise on church growth.

Counter-intuitive as it might sound, I concluded from my research that Generation A was not as exercised about “church growth” as church leaders were. Like anyone with responsibility for daily, material matters, they were concerned about more immediate, local issues, such as the repair of their church’s roof, the cost of candles, or the price of tea.

More than once, I heard them grumble about the high financial cost of both keeping their church open and paying their church’s quota to the diocese. As Agnes and I were looking over a description of items for fund-raising, for example, something caught my eye.

Just after “a week of flowers, £30”; “pack of communion wafers, £10”; “weekly church gas and electric, £80”, I saw an entry for “one week diocesan share”. It was more than £500. Taken aback, I asked her what that was for. “Bishops’ pensions,” she replied, tartly. That was a conversation repeated in many churches I visited, with always the same slightly wry, disapproving tone.

The Bishops and other leaders are aware that the Church is facing a dangerous demographic trend. Nearly two years ago, the Church of England’s director of finance, John Spence, said that the evidence for decline was “indisputable”. “Twenty years ago, the demographics matched the population as a whole. Now, we’re 20 years older than the population. Unless we do something, the Church will face a real crisis.” The Archbishop of Canterbury agreed, saying that the Church faced a “demographic time bomb”.

It will remain to be seen whether the Church’s “Reform and Renewal” programme helps the Church to grow; a sociological analysis would suggest not. The larger trend of de-Christianisation in the West has been occurring for decades, and three generations now have no habits of regular church attendance.

The theologian Charles Taylor has argued that today’s more “secular age” has changed from earlier generations, when God was central in people’s public and private lives. Generation A laywomen, often silenced as out-of-step and obstructive, saw that trend, and resisted it — perhaps intuitively recognising that smaller congregations were the result of massive cultural changes, not boring church services or lack of good coffee.

As the Church continues to publish its annual figures of decline — churches closing at the rate of two a month — and says farewell to Generation A, I suspect that the women will go, as they have always gone, quietly, and with the good grace not to say: “I told you so.”


Dr Abby Day is Reader in Race, Faith and Culture in the Department of Sociology, Goldsmiths University of London, where she convenes the interdisciplinary BA Religion programme.

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