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Book Preview – Ageing, Ritual and Social Change, edited by Coleman, Koleva and Bornat

Our book connects the subject of ageing with that of religion in contemporary European society. This might seem a natural association to make but in fact is largely missing in current research in both gerontology and religious studies. . . . The study of ageing in its turn has also given limited attention to the role of religious faith and practice, as well as to secular alternatives to religion, in providing existential meaning to older people’s lives.

[Peter Coleman, Daniela Koleva and Joanna Bornat preview their edited collection in Ashgate’s AHRC/ESRC Religion and Society Series, Ageing, Ritual and Social Change: Comparing the Secular and Religious in Eastern and Western Europe (Ashgate, 2013).]

The Rationale for Our Study

Our book connects the subject of ageing with that of religion in contemporary European society. This might seem a natural association to make but in fact is largely missing in current research in both gerontology and religious studies. The project on which the book is based was the only one funded by the recent UK research councils’ ‘Religion and Society’ programme to consider ageing, whereas many were devoted to the role of religion in younger people’s lives. The study of ageing in its turn has also given limited attention to the role of religious faith and practice, as well as to secular alternatives to religion, in providing existential meaning to older people’s lives.

The ageing of human societies is becoming a central feature of twenty-first-century life, and striking the right balance between the interests of different generations – the issue of intergenerational equity – has become an important political topic. Fairness has to be seen in terms of the responsibilities both of young to old, and of old to young, and this applies also to the practice of religious ritual. Gerontology’s neglect of the religious dimension in this respect is particularly surprising. Older people have traditionally played an important part in transmitting religious practice to future generations although this role has been undermined by social change. Moreover the existential support that religion provides is still observable in the different ways people cope with the inevitable social losses and physical frailties that accompany ageing.

In Western Europe, older people now tend to be greatly over-represented in most Christian congregations (although not in the growing minority faith groups). This appears mainly to be a consequence of the declining Christian religious socialisation of younger age groups. Sunday school, for example, was a major institution in British society until the 1960s. One response from the churches to the changing situation has been to concentrate their efforts of evangelisation on younger persons. But this can have the consequence of neglecting older people and even taking their faith for granted.

In Eastern Europe, by contrast, as a result of long period of discouragement and sometimes outright persecution of religious practice in the twentieth century and its recovery after 1989, the situation is very different. Typically, faith and religious practice has been communicated within the families, rather than by external religious teachers, also as a consequence of government regulation. Grandparents, especially grandmothers, have had important tasks in relation to religious transmission – at least until recently. For example, the Russian ‘babushka’ appears to have played a very important role in maintaining belief and practice in the long years of Soviet persecution, for example taking grandchildren to church, often unbeknown to their husbands, sons and sons-in-law.

In our present comparative study in the UK, Bulgaria and Romania, conducted by a team of scholars from the three countries and representing a range of academic disciplines, we have observed the much greater involvement of older people especially in birth and death rituals in the latter countries. We chose Bulgaria and Romania for their contrasting experience of communist persecution: in the former the state authorities were highly successful in reducing Orthodoxy, along with the faiths of minority groups in the population, to a ‘museum relic’, whereas in Romania the Orthodox Christian character of the nation was preserved despite persecution of religious activists, while the Catholic and Protestant churches for example received much harsher treatment. Yet at the present time there appears to be no memory of the secular ceremonies, including death rituals, which the Bulgarian state carefully designed. Only the traditional religious rituals are regarded as having been ‘genuine’. Within Orthodoxy, older Bulgarians and Romanians are alike in their active participation in the ritual drama following death. They have tasks to perform which they owe the deceased person. The spiritual community of the church more graphically includes the dead as still belonging to it, with the dead represented in the icons of the saints which line the church walls.

Part of these differences may also reflect that interviews were undertaken in Eastern Europe and in predominantly Orthodox countries. In general the laity, at least in these two countries, appears to display more ‘ownership’ and shared responsibility for the spiritual services of their church. This may date back to the greater religious education of the laity in the Byzantine church, and the consequential lesser gulf in theological knowledge with the clergy. In general, older Orthodox appear more alert to liturgical requirements and can be quite demanding of their ministers in this respect. It is not only that Eastern Orthodox Christians do more – and over a longer period of time following death – than Western Christians, but that their attitudes to what they do also appear different.

The Content of Our Book

We have ordered the chapters in our book into five sections. The first section provides the background to our study, with the three editors examining in Chapter 1 the subject of ageing and ritual in a changing Europe. They also explain the decision to conduct qualitative interviews with sixty older people: twenty from each country selected and mainly from the dominant religious tradition in each country (Orthodox Christian in Bulgaria and Romania, and Anglican Christian in England), but also with some representation of those of other beliefs and none. Further, all participants were over the age of 75 years, and had therefore experienced World War Two and its consequent social changes.

In Chapter 2, Joanna Bornat elaborates further on our methods of investigation and in particular on comparative oral history and its applications to the study of belief and non-belief in late life. A comparative approach to oral history research is not a common strategy adopted amongst oral historians nor has religion been a topic much researched using this method. In her chapter she considers why this is the case and what can be learned from examples in oral history and from the Memories of Religious and Secular Ceremonies project to develop research linking narratives of remembering across historical and national boundaries.

The second and largest section of the book (Chapters 3-6) provides analysis and exploration of the major questions underlying our project: the emergence of religiosity and non-religiosity in people’s lives; personal explanations for engagement in ritual practice; and continuing commitment to religious ritual in otherwise non-religious people.

In Chapter 3, Simina Bӑdicӑ considers the high levels of religiosity in Romania, comparing these against lower levels in Bulgaria within the context of overlapping national and religious identities. Drawing on interviews from both countries she argues that, whereas religious identity was incorporated into national identity in Romania during the communist period, this was not the case in Bulgaria. She focuses on funeral rites identifying the commitment to ‘dying Orthodox’ in both countries.  In suggesting that this declaration is made by both religious and non-religious people, she concludes that religious identity is embedded in national identity and that enforced secularisation and its accompanying rituals was less important than the continuity of tradition.

Hilary Young’s focus in Chapter 4 is the discourse of non-religious people and how this is developed in the oral history interview. Her chapter begins with a discussion of current debates on secularisation in the UK and then discusses approaches to interviewing about religious practices within the context of secularisation, suggesting that the trend towards secularisation presents a framework for people to understand their religious past as well as their non-religious present. Having drawn on the testimonies from all three countries, she concludes that the stories which emerge are examples of a search for composure, as people find ways of telling with which they feel comfortable – in both the context of their own lives and the times they have lived through.

In Chapter 5, Sidonia Grama examines religious discourse, analysing the depth of meanings conveyed by what people say and do not say in answer to questions about their beliefs and practices, paying particular attention to the meaning of silences. She draws attention to the importance of the dialogical experience on the course of the interview, of shared attitudes and views towards the subject matter. In the latter part of the chapter, she provides detailed analyses of interviews with some of the Romanian participants she herself interviewed who suffered greatly under communism, in part because of their religious convictions and the actions these convictions led them to take in the course of their lives.

In Chapter 6, Daniela Koleva considers the social and psychological dimensions of rituals. She focuses on a seeming paradox: the continuing adherence to religious rites of passage even by non-religious individuals. She is interested in participants’ motives for engaging in symbolic practices that have obviously lost for them their original meaning of relating to a divine power (or have never had such a meaning). Her hypothesis is that a diffuse social normativity  takes the forms of conformity as an unreflected ethos, of a conscious morality expressed in solidarity with the immediate we-group, and of an ideology linking religious experience to a cultural tradition.

The next two sections are of particular gerontological interest. They examine topics of importance to understanding the role of religion and functional alternatives to religion in promoting adjustment to ageing. Section three focuses on death and bereavement. In Chapter 7, Galina Goncharova explores ideas about death and their articulation through religious and secular humanist rituals. Starting with a comparison of the models of bereavement and care for the dead in the three countries, she goes on to demonstrate how personal visions of the end of life are grounded in dynamic constellations of cultural practices, social networks and religious or secular worldviews. This allows her to compare the grief systems influenced by different secularisation scenarios, especially those imposed by communist regimes, and to suggest a perspective on funerary and commemorative rituals as expressions of a community of the dead and the living.

Chapter 8 provides a psychological analysis of the value of religious ritual to the bereaved person. John Spreadbury draws on cases from the three countries in examining the role of religious belief and ritual in the context of bereavement. He argues that religious beliefs and practices have potential therapeutic effects in a number of ways, most importantly beliefs in a life after death where reunion with the deceased would be possible, and in a personal relationship with God that provides support and protection. Individual and group rituals as enactments of these beliefs seem to be important psychological resources for coping with the loss of loved ones and for the mental well-being of the bereaved.

Section four provides separate perspectives on adjustment in older men and women. In Chapter 9, Ignat Petrov and Peter Coleman build on their previous studies of the impact of social change on mental health and subjective well-being of older persons. Explicit comparisons are drawn between those men who remained religious through their lives according to their initial socialisation and those who developed a secular frame of mind during the communist period. In general, both groups have adapted well to ageing, with those of humanist and specifically socialist outlook showing equivalent levels of well-being to the more religious men interviewed. The chapter includes a number of cases of Muslims who remain an important minority in modern Bulgaria.

In Chapter 10, Teodora Karamelska considers the role of religion in relation to women’s ageing, seeking to understand the experience of the lives of women born between the two world wars. She takes her examples from across the three countries to illustrate different emerging themes, including biographical turning points, the function of rituals and the development of expertise in its application, the interpretation of suffering in life, and the tension between religious authority and autonomy in personal spirituality. She illustrates how, as these women have aged, religion has become integrated into their everyday life and interpreted so as to best deal with their particular situations. Clerical authority can be questioned and personal spiritual experience becomes the primary source of trust.

The final section of the book considers what broad conclusions can be drawn from our project about the role of ritual in later life and the value of conducting comparative analysis in this area. In Chapter 11, Peter Coleman, Sidonia Grama and Ignat Petrov consider the oldest and frailest cases in our samples in each country – those mainly over the age of 85 years. In all three countries the most elderly participants tend to have been brought up more religiously and to have remained more religious than younger age groups. Religious ritual, including especially prayer, does indeed appear to provide tangible social and psychological benefits to them. But the lack of comparative material on non-religious very old people makes it hard to draw firm conclusions. The authors consider one of the major findings of the research, the greater respect for religious ritual evident in Bulgaria and Romania as contrasted with the UK, and explore possible explanations, historical, educational and cultural.

In Chapter 12, Joanna Bornat and Daniela Koleva reflect on the process of conducting this research project. They consider what has been learned from attempting to study comparative oral history in the area of religion, and what might be the implications for future research of this kind. They also address the difficult issue of competing interpretations of controversial material, and especially, in regard to conducting research on religion, reconciling the sometimes diverse perspectives of religious and non-religious researchers.

A Concluding Comment

We hope that the publication of our book will help promote further comparative study of religion in society, and especially in European society. We live at a time of increasing movement of peoples across continents and within Europe. As a result, there is a growing awareness of the various religious ritual practices that characterize the different religious traditions.  Grace Davie, who kindly wrote the preface to our book, noted ‘the experiential dimensions’ as one of the elements she particularly appreciated in the interview extracts:

The Orthodox tradition enacts its understanding of faith; in the Western tradition – and more especially in its more Protestant articulations – the emphasis lies more on teaching than doing. Despite – or perhaps because of – my familiarity with the latter, I found the first-hand accounts of family celebrations, or of three generations tending the icon lamp as they rose in the morning, extraordinarily vivid (p. xiv).

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