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Our magazine: ‘plus’

Every three months, the Members of Christians on Ageing receive a free copy of the organisation’s magazine.  It is called plus and is a means of communication between the Executive Committee and members, between members themselves, and a source of information and reflection on issues of age and ageing.

Our members consistently say that one of the reasons for maintaining their membership of Christians on Ageing is plusfor the variety of its articles, its support in Christian living and the sign-posting it gives to further reading or information.

The Editor is always happy to receive suggestions for articles or even a finished article to be considered for publication in a future issue.  Contact the Editor by e-mail:

 To whet your appetite here’s an article that has appeared in plus


Spiritual and/or religious?

The lives of some older women in South Cumbria.


What follows is my attempt to condense six years of research and about 80,000 pages of text into just a few for this article. About ten years ago I undertook to interview 70 women in South Cumbria to determine why some women are churchgoers and others church leavers and what significant differences there might be between the two. I should say at the outset that I did not specifically intend to find out how ageing has an effect on religio/spirituality or vice-versa. However, as I asked each participant to tell me their life story, and what had got them to the religious/spiritual/secular position they found themselves in at the time of interview, inevitably, I heard something of each participant’s religious and spiritual journey. Some of the participants were only in their forties when I spoke to them but the majority were older with the oldest being in her early nineties, so I did learn something of the effects of various experiences, including spiritual ones, on these women through the course of their life.

I am an independent researcher, living in South Cumbria, hence this was a relatively local study. It encompasses women living across the South Lakeland District Council’s jurisdiction plus the town of Barrow in Furness to the west and communities in the northern Pennines to the east. Women were drawn from a wide variety of churches and ecclesiologies, including conservative Catholics on the one hand and Quakers on the other. Half the group, roughly, were churchgoers and the other half were leavers, to enable me to make comparisons between the different groups in terms of their values, behaviours and beliefs.

It would be easy to suppose that the churchgoing group exhibited one type of lifestyle and the leavers a different one. In fact, it was not that simple. A book called The Death of Christian Britain by a Scottish academic, Callum Brown, had been published in 2001, in which he attempted to account for the diminishing number of churchgoers in the late twentieth century, both among men and women. His claim was that churchgoing promotes a certain kind of pious identity for women, they are encouraged to be self-sacrificing, meek models of Christian womanly virtue, an example to their husbands, children and all around them. Since the 1960s, the era of the Beatles, free love, ‘doing one’s own thing’ and ‘being one’s own person’, women have rebelled against this pious lifestyle and now live liberated lives, hence no longer attend church. When women don’t go, husbands don’t either nor do their children, hence the decline in church numbers.

As a longstanding churchgoer, if not consistently all my life, this seemed a rather tall claim. Did I know such pious women? Did all the churchgoing women I know fit his description? I rather thought not. So, I was not surprised to find that there was not necessarily a huge difference between the majority of churchgoers and the majority of church leavers in some important respects, which I will enlarge upon later.  Paradoxically, however, there were lots of variations in beliefs, behaviours and belongings even among those who in many other ways seemed very similar.

So how might we characterise the women at either end of what may be considered a wide spectrum? On the one hand there were longstanding churchgoers, women who had spent their whole lives in church, who had never thought to do any other, who did serve their church, family and community faithfully, somewhat as Brown depicts, except few thought of themselves as pious and all enjoyed enormously the sense of fellowship, companionship and doing things together in their communities, which being a regular churchgoer often involves. Their spirituality derived from this sense of togetherness, this assumption they were there for each other, to love and serve each other and the wider community and this is what bound them in warm loving relationship, as they quite unselfconsciously, I would argue, mirrored the fledgling church of the New Testament. Interestingly they rarely mentioned God in their interviews, but I would say that the love of God was the unspoken, almost unacknowledged background to all they did. They rarely mentioned reading the Bible and only infrequently did they mention prayer. One striking, and exceptional, example was a woman who had had a very hard life with almost no support either financially, emotionally or physically from anyone (including the church) in bringing up her children. She prayed constantly she told me, even when crossing the road. Her faith in her case had got her through some heartbreakingly difficult times, but such explicit acknowledgements were rare. As I spoke to these women and thought about them I recalled the many Sunday morning after service coffee sessions I had attended, in which the foregoing hour of worship almost never got a mention. That’s for theologians and ministers maybe, not the women who make up the backbone of the church? I pose this as a question, not a statement of fact.

At the other extreme were the women who had left and had reneged on all forms of religion and spirituality, a very small but quite vehement group who could tell me exactly why they now adopted this worldview.   Generally, relationships were involved here, those that had gone wrong. At its most extreme was the woman whose husband was a non-stipendiary vicar who was a weekday workaholic and a weekend full-on man of the cloth, leaving her to run the house, work full time, care for their two children, attend the church to support him and pop in to see his churchgoing parents every day, receiving scant thanks from the latter. When her children were grown up she decided she had had enough and left the church. Then the husband left to go and live with someone else and she was left on her own – perhaps not surprising that she equated the church with anything but warm relationship. God was dead as far as she was concerned. But she was an extreme example.

So, in between, was another group of women who had left the church in their teenage years, quite typically, but had then returned. These women were also strongly affected by the need for warm relationship. These women had usually come up against some really difficult times and had found themselves cast adrift in a seemingly hostile world without anchor or rudder, not knowing where to turn. Then a friend had come along, helped them up, got them back on their feet and, eventually, invited them back to church (but in that order). One of them described this as finding her way again, ‘I know where I am now’, was how she put it. Her spirituality was nurtured by the evangelical Anglican community which, with its fixed Sunday morning liturgy, kept her grounded and secure, she said, in an uncertain, sometimes hostile, changing world.

Another group of women had left their first church to join a rather different community from the one they had left behind. These women talked a lot about God and their spiritual experiences and how this linked to their sense of identity and, again, their need to find relationship. But for these women it needed to be of a different kind from the one they had left behind. They valued the spirituality to be found in the practice of silence at a Quaker meeting, sitting companionably alongside those who do not judge as to one’s sexuality, gender, race, colour or class, such judgemental attitudes having driven them away from other worshipping communities. They valued finding ‘that of God in everyone’, listening to others, even when they did not always agree, and trying to understand, as they themselves were perceived as being listened to.

So much for the churchgoers. Apart from the non-religious/non-spiritual women referred to already, that left the rest of the church leavers. What makes a church leaver? We’ve already seen in our extreme case above why some may want nothing more to do with the church. But that left me with a large group who also did not want much to do with the church but did remain intensely spiritual and who, again, did talk about God or Jesus Christ as part of their life story. One of the women said, ‘I may not be in church but what I do is done with Christ behind me’. She was a teacher by day but also a Samaritan, a prison visitor and a leader in the Guiding movement. She wanted relationship with women like herself who were grappling with, and helping others to grapple with, some of life’s biggest problems as she tried to get alongside those who were suicidal or whose life was blighted by crime. The women in her church, she said, didn’t seem to want to engage with such difficult issues and she felt more comfortable operating outside, on the margins. But she prayed regularly, read her Bible for help with what she had often seen and heard, sustained by ‘Christ behind me in what I do’.

A last group of women sometimes set foot in church, perhaps to light a candle for a loved one or to listen to a cathedral choir as a spiritual experience, but often connecting more readily with the transcendent other in nature experiences. They were more likely to acknowledge God as the ‘Great Other’, the ‘Universal’, the ‘Great Energy’, ‘Mother’ and so forth. Some of these women had had bad experiences in church, sometimes also at the hands of their husbands or male partners, and a male God for such women was problematic as part of their connection to the spiritual.

Finally, I return to what connected all the women regardless of whether they attended church or not, regardless of their faith or secular worldview. Without exception, they all practised what might be called ‘the ethic of care’, that is, they saw it as part of their voluntary but necessary role in life to care for those around them, even when this was difficult, frustrating, painful or demeaning but also, quite often, of course, a joy. I concluded from my study that there were few ‘pious’ women around, inside or outside church, but that the women I met were carrying burdens of care, unpaid, sometimes supported by the church and their faith, sometimes outside the church, sometimes still supported by their faith, sometimes without any of that support but doing it nonetheless. For which, in these cash-strapped times with its lack of state-provided social care, we all need to be thankful.

Janet Eccles

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