The Church of England’s Vanishing Matriarchs

The Religious Lives of Older Laywomen
The Final Active Anglican Generation
By Abby Day
Oxford University Press. Pp. 272. $70.00.

Review by Richard J. Mammana

In this vitally important new book, the University of London’s Abby Day examines the religious lives of English women born in the 1920s and 1930s — now in their 80s and 90s, many of them still considered the backbone of active church attendance and social involvement in the Church of England. The author identifies this group of women as a cohort: Generation A, whose habits, activities, and influence she describes in careful depth as a sociologist of English religion.

Day’s argument is as succinct as it is stark, and as unoptimistic as it is backed up by her demographic research:

social and cultural shifts, combined with the Church’s intransigence on significant moral issues, resulted in alienating the sons and daughters of Generation A—the baby-boomers, born in the late 1940s. The Church lost that middle generation and, consequently, their children, the X, Y and Millennials. And so, I contend, it ends.

When she writes “it ends,” she means “it ends,” and this is the reason for the volume’s subtitle: “The Final Active Anglican Generation.” Day understands her project as ethnographic fieldwork undertaken “to provide a detailed record of a vanishing people.”

Part of this record is an account of Queen Elizabeth II’s role as an exemplar of the duty- and family-based church involvement of Generation A, and the degree to which women of this generation “are most likely to be unequivocal and undaunted monarchists” with little interest in republicanism. They serve as a front line of contact for visitors to churches, act informally as social workers among one another and other parishioners, host the majority of coffee- and tea-based social events in churches, and contribute actively to the cleanliness and the regular opening of church buildings on weekdays. Day engages in some of the only sustained research into the attitudes of sacristans (altar guild members) as necessary women-organized labor in the service of most parishes’ worship.

Day is especially subtle in her examination of the roles and thoughts of Generation A women about their clergy. Where parishes have been served by ordained men, these women report a complex relationship in which a priest is “part son, spiritual leader, and [sometimes] husband.” Her fieldwork uncovers situations in which lay women in Generation A express concern about the potential “usurpation” by younger ordained women of traditional roles inhabited by women of earlier generations. Day posits women’s “pew power” from the middle 20th century until today as a primary and implicitly female form of church leadership — as engaged with pastoral care, Christian education, fundraising, and religious-cultural formation as leadership expressed from pulpits or at altars.

“The impact of their loss has been neglected mainly because the importance of their routine acts [has] been underestimated,” Day writes. Against backgrounds of extensive social change, Generation A was not “able to … transmit wholly specific church-related dispositions, habits, skills, beliefs, and practices to their baby-boomer children and churches. Counter-intuitively, the church’s emphasis on attracting young people is wholly misplaced: it is the ‘middle’ generation they should have retained.” The raw data of regular communicant numbers have begun to make this neglect impossible to ignore on the parish level. (Statistics for cathedrals involve differing trends.)

This book is essential reading for anyone interested in modern Anglican church life or what may be its future. In addition to its description of major changes in one Anglican province, the book sets out methodologies that could be applied fruitfully to dynamics of the sexes, belonging, growth, and decline elsewhere within the Anglican Communion.

Richard J. Mammana is the archivist of the Living Church Foundation.


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