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