Thursday, January 13, 2011

believing without belonging: the author retracts

Everyday Religion: Observing Modern Religious Lives is an important book. It’s a collection of chapters that focus on the way ordinary people, in their everyday lives, practice religion.

It includes a most intriguing chapter by UK sociologist, Grace Davie. Grace coined the phrase “believing without belonging” to describe the idea that people can maintain faith and values, but not attend church. It’s a phrase used often in emerging church/Fresh expressions circles. But in her chapter “Vicarious Religion: A Methodological Challenge, Grace decides she wants to retract “believing without belonging” and replace it with “vicarious religion.”

the notion of religion performed by an active minority but on behalf of a much larger number, who not only understand, but quite clearly approve of what the minority are doing (22)

She suggests that vicarious religion can operate in a number of ways. For example, church leaders can perform ritual, enact belief, embody moral codes and offer space for debate, all on behalf of wider society. More specifically, society expects churches to help them mourn in times of tragedy. Or church leaders to act in ways that the public never do. Or church buildings to stay open in a community, as “special places”, even as declining attendance makes them unviable.

Her examples are all drawn from modern Europe. She stresses how different and unique a case is the practice of religion and spirituality in the United States. She wonders if her notion of “vicarious religion” might work in the Southern Hemisphere?

It made sense for me of a number of moments in recent New Zealand history – the (Anglican) church involvement in the Pike River Tragedy or the funeral for Edmund Hillary. Or the outcry from a local (Mt Eden) community when a Methodist church decided to close it’s doors.

Theologically, what also intrigued me was when Grace suggested that the phrase “vicarious” was linked to “vicar” who does something on behalf of someone else. A way of being church based on a person doing religious activity for someone else! Is that really why people train to be vicars? How helpful is it as a notion of church-paid-staff today?

I remember a few years into paid ministry filling out a government census form. It included asking what I did for a job. After much pondering I wrote that I helped create community and resourced people’s spirituality. I didn’t consider this doing something on behalf of someone else, but rather of inviting people to participate for themselves in the Kingdom purposes of God.

Yet looking back now, I know there have been times when I have done something on behalf of someone else. For example, at a funeral, when the family are too shocked to bury their loved one.

A thought provoking read. Now I’m off to check how many emerging church/Fresh expressions books actually have used “believing without belonging” ! Not mine, (The Out of Bounds Church?: Learning to Create a Community of Faith in a Culture of Change) I employed the notion of spiritual tourism!

Posted by steve at 01:20 PM


  1. Surely both would exist, wouldn’t they? I’m speaking without any real prior reading/knowledge on the suspect, but if you just lay those two phrases in front of me, they are two quite different things.

    To me, “vicarious religion” happens a lot now … it is, as you say, the fact that broader society likes and endorses having a “values centre” in the form of religion, and calls on it for ritual purposes, but otherwise doesn’t really engage with religion.

    By contrast, “believing without belonging” is more about people who are explicitly engaging with their faith tradition either alone or in small groups (eg house church) but without engaging with institutional (or even vaguely organised) religion.

    I would have thought that “vicarious religion” is therefore the dominant trend of our time, while “believing without belonging” has made a more recent entry and is experiencing growth – but is still a very relevant concept for the emerging church movement …

    Comment by IainM — January 13, 2011 @ 2:47 pm

  2. I think you get it pretty right Iain but I also think that you can argue Grace’s case. There does seem to be set of people who seem to vacillate between some sort of faith but doing nothing about it and being quite happy others preform “religious” tasks. A comment at the recent UCA presbytery ministers conference comes to mind however that of what is taken as “religion” is so often not christian at all but “folk religion” that replaces any real commitment to following Jesus. You some times see this in the aftermath of natural disasters. Last years Victoria’s fires produced a “ceremony” which helps people acknowledge their grief, but christian no I don’t think so.

    Comment by Geoff — January 13, 2011 @ 7:36 pm

  3. The word ‘vicar’ does relate to vicarious, but not in the way used in this post.

    As a vicar, you are working on behalf of the Bishop. He has overall responsibility for the diocese, but appoints vicars to work on his behalf in various parishes. It is not a case of doing the religious stuff so parishioners don’t have to, rather of doing the work that the Bishop would do if he had unlimited time and resources. By extension, a vicar is working on behalf of the whole Church of God.

    As to the main point you make, I think that where I am in rural north-east England there is a great deal of vicarious religion. So many people think of the Church as being ‘theirs’, yet without stepping inside it from year to year. If anything changed, however, there would be trouble. It is an interesting context to work in.

    Comment by Liz H — January 13, 2011 @ 8:10 pm

  4. Liz, your comment re Vicar being vicarious on behalf of Bishop is very helpful. Thanks.

    Geoff, your notion of “folk religion” – might that be what Paul was referring to in Acts 14 when he points to the seasons, and Acts 17 when he points to unknown gods? Could it be that the gospel task is not dismissing this “folk” religion, but inviting people to deepen and explore it further, using the Gospel?

    Iain, thanks for dropping by,


    Comment by steve — January 13, 2011 @ 9:15 pm

  5. Liz, a further comment, I had a beer last year with a methodist minister from North of England. (He might like to comment further on this if he reads it). He talked about the importance of funerals, how the men all stand at the back and how deeply ritualised the funerals are. A great eg it seemed to me of vicarious religion,


    Comment by steve — January 13, 2011 @ 9:18 pm

  6. Liz,

    a further, further comment, in New Zealand Bishops can be “she”, not just “he” 🙂


    Comment by steve — January 13, 2011 @ 9:18 pm

  7. Just a point of clarity about the term “vicar”. It does connect with the term vicarious – a priest in a parish vicariously exercises the ministry of the Bishop. That is, in the technical sense, as a substitute for or extension of, the ministry of episkopos. That’s why ordination and being licensed aren’t the same thing. One is about identity and the other is about a kind of permission giving – a relationship of accountability – to enable one to exercise the Bishop’s ministry in that place.

    I don’t think that is why people train to be vicars – either to “do religion” on behalf of the people or of the Bishop. Most of us who candidate for ordination believe that we are called to the ministry of building up the Body of Christ and what that looks like will depend on the specificity of both our vocation and the communities that call us to be in ministry with them.

    That doesn’t address your question about vicarious religion – an interesting one by itself.

    Comment by Jemma — January 14, 2011 @ 2:19 am

  8. Sorry – internet glitches mean that my comment came after a whole bunch of other comments but was written when Liz hadn’t yet commented on the post.

    I’ve been thinking since then about the experience of Christmas worship and the number of people for whom that is their only participation in worship each year. A small collective could curate beautiful annual worship. In what ways does it matter that the faithful gather week in and week out, grappling with the whole of Jesus’ life and the complexities of Scripture?

    I could think that all that week-by-week stuff means we are doing worship on behalf of all those others who want the church to be there come Christmas and Easter or for the tragic and celebratory moments in life (funerals, weddings, baptisms in traditions with infant baptism). But it is also true that we are there week-by-week on our own behalf – knowing our own need, seeking life the best way we know how.

    More to think about

    Comment by Jemma — January 14, 2011 @ 2:26 am

  9. Jemma, I think your eg of Christmas worship is a great one to add to the vicarious religion. Imagine the outcry if churches canned Christmas.

    Having pondered overnight, I’d like to gently push back on to you and Liz on the vicar/bishop thing. What about pronouncing absolution or saying the benediction. Aren’t those egs of “does something on behalf of someone else” that are saying something about the active participation (or not) of the congregation?


    Comment by steve — January 14, 2011 @ 9:14 am

  10. Sorry, Steve, but I’m with Liz and Jemma. As far as I can see, the vicar performs absolution and benediction on behalf of God – or in more hierarchical theologies, on behalf of the bishop, who acts on behalf of … acting on behalf of King/Queen/Pope who acts on behalf of God.

    Your original post poses the vicar as acting on behalf of those s/he has responsibility FOR, not responsibility TO.

    But it does (for me) raise the interesting theological question of whether/how much absolution or benediction is (or should be) “of God” versus “of the people” … or indeed whether these are separable at all.

    Comment by IainM — January 14, 2011 @ 10:59 am

  11. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by emergentkiwi, Achtung Aeon and others. Achtung Aeon said: sustain:if:able kiwi » believing without belonging: the author … […]

    Pingback by Tweets that mention sustain:if:able kiwi » believing without belonging: the author retracts -- — January 14, 2011 @ 5:13 pm

  12. Iain, the more mainline the church the more, the more the leader does on behalf of people in regard to gathered worship,


    Comment by steve — January 16, 2011 @ 6:01 pm

  13. IainM: I think that ‘on behalf of’ thing is something in the Anglican church construct which I am VERY uncomfortable with, and that’s even though I am currently more involved (as a lay member) with my Anglican sunday congregation than I have ever been with a Baptist or Pentecostal local church.

    But I have no particular desire to ever become ordained, and you’ve laid out very lucidly why I should feel discomfort at the thought. At the back of my mind I’m always thinking that ‘the Bishop thinks he’s acting on behalf of the British Monarch, and the British Monarch thinks she’s acting on behalf of God’.

    And I’m sorry, but I really am too much of a small-d democratic small-d republican at heart to accept that ANY monarch has the ability to speak on behalf of God to an entire nation-state. God is big and He’s quite capable of speaking to each individual. So I’d rather not take any kind of ‘orders’ in the Church of England at all, because I simply don’t think the Church hierarchy is taking a valid God-ordained role. They’re standing in a place where they ought not to be, in my theology.

    If this ‘the Monarch speaks for God’ is an actual theological position of the C of E being articulated against Fresh Expressions (is that the Anglican term for Emerging Church? I’ve not encountered it yet – the somewhat democratic thing we do in our parish is called Shared Ministry, and seems to be extremely under threat in the Christchurch diocese since the appointment of our new bishop) — then I’m very disappointed. I thought we’d got past that kind of obvious theological mistake back around the time of King John.

    Comment by Nate — January 25, 2011 @ 12:11 pm

  14. I’ve just come across Grace’s ‘vicarious religion’ concept in a chapter of another book: The Future of the Parish System by Steven Croft (ed). I’m wondering if there is any research about vicarious religion for the Australian context – which I believe has quite a different religious culture than europe where Grace’s research is derived from. Anyone know?

    BTW – Grace is a sociologist commenting on culture, not on the psychological/spiritual experience of individuals. I think that’s an important distinction.

    Comment by Michelle — February 3, 2011 @ 10:07 am

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.