The Religious Lives of Older Laywomen

The Final Active Anglican Generation

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Abby Day
  • Oxford, U.K.: 
    Oxford University Press
    , April
     272 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Abby Day’s book, The Religious Lives of Older Laywomen: The Last Active Anglican Generation, explores multiple timely themes: church decline, religiosity and gender, power, and aging. Setting her analysis against a backdrop of institutional church decline, Day weaves social theories of power and gender based upon her ethnographic data, collected on Anglican laywomen born in the 1920s and 1930s, which she names “Generation A.” In recording their routine religious actions, Day argues that the impact of their loss has been ignored in that “the importance of their routine acts have been underestimated” (193), and in a related but not causal argument, Day contends that Generation A will be the final “active” generation in the Church of England.

Day sets out to achieve four objectives: 1) provide a record of a “vanishing people;” 2) propose insights into elderly Anglican women’s religious practices; 3) propose some possible outcomes for the institutional church when the women have died; and 4) revise theories related to religiosity, women, and generations (23, 181). In order to do so, Day ethnographically immersed herself in the daily routines of one mainstream Anglican church. She then sought to “broaden and interrogate” the emerging themes through other site visits and purposive sampling in the United Kingdom, Canada, the United States, and Sri Lanka. This results in a nuanced portrait of white, financially secure, mainstream Anglican women of Generation A in the south of England.

Day’s ethnographic data grounds her revision of theories of power, gender, and religiosity. Her view of “pew power,” or a form of power that “rested on presence and an embodied knowledge of belonging” helpfully complicates discussions about women’s power (70). The women do not gain power through submission—such as those in R. Marie Griffin’s God’s Daughters: Evangelical Women and the Power of Submission (University of California, 1997)—but rather, they gain power through their everyday religious activities that keep the doors of churches open, buildings clean and hospitable, and events organized. Day describes priests relying on the elderly women’s activities to keep small parishes running. Generation A women explain themselves as integral to the maintenance of the church, not only the physical building, but also sustaining the spiritual communion. Day expands notions of ritual from narrow liturgical definitions such as prayer, attending services, kneeling, and partaking in the Eucharist to include the ritual of providing tea and coffee after Sunday services, the correct way to dust wooden pews, and providing weekly morning coffee times, where two laywomen would provide tea and biscuits (cookies) to down-and-out regulars. Day proposes, “What counts as power through ritual and labor has been underdeveloped in the literature thus far in emphasizing the public rather than private and preparative … it is women’s labor, not religiosity” that explains the idea that women are “more religious” than men (206). These women’s everyday actions for and in the church are what gives them their identity as religious women.

The ethnographic data Day presents undermines simplistic notions of assumed religiosity. Day interrogates the “truisim” of women as “more religious” than men, by focusing on religiosity as connected to power, hierarchy, and leadership, which are largely the domain of men in all world religions. Day turns the idea of religiosity on its head, by focusing on who has institutional power in religion, rather than who admits to various narrow categories such as frequency of silent, personal prayer.

While this book offers much to scholars of lived religion, Anglicanism, assumed church decline, gender and religiosity, and power, it appears that the ethnographic data does not fully support some of Day’s conclusions. This is seen especially in her third objective, proposing what the future will look like for the institutional church without the ritualized labor of Generation A.

Day seeks to expand her application to wider sections of “mainstream” Christianity, but there is little engagement with race or class, and how the findings could differ in other Anglican settings—both within and outside of the United Kingdom. While she visited Sri Lanka in the course of the project, she never mentions or quotes a non-Western or non-white woman of Generation A. Like many scholars, Day ignores Majority World religious dynamics and the influx of immigrants to the West from the Global South. She assumes a narrative of irrevocable church decline, without any engagement of scholarship on church growth or change, perhaps limited by her focus only on the Anglican Communion. Additionally, in two brief pages in the conclusion, Day predicts that the Anglican church—in England? in the West? she does not say—will be “fewer, larger, and increasingly populated by gay men, a demographic least likely to reproduce offspring, religious or otherwise” (202). Thus, Day’s conclusion seems considerably weakened by this brief idea, which she does not substantiate with secondary literature or her own fieldwork, other than mentioning that gay men and women featured “prominently” in “many” of the churches she studied.

Finally, a deeper engagement with her positionality and more reflexivity would have strengthened the volume, or at the least given credence to Day’s analytical perspective. She admits to having a negative outlook regarding the future of the church, and says that some church members found her prognosis of the future “too pessimistic for their liking” (21). Discussion of the author’s positionality would have helped me assess her analyses more accurately. For example, Day proposes an enigmatic question: “what did these women do, almost single-handedly, at least in the space of one generation, to bring down the Church of England?” (39). I took this to be a statement of agency and power with an almost laudatory tone, though it could be read in a tone of judgment and blame. More reflexivity could have enabled me to trust her explanation of irrevocable church decline.

However, in spite of its limitations, The Religious Lives of Women reveals both a nuanced portrait of English women in the oldest Anglican generation, and a much provocative reflection and analysis of power, religiosity, and gender.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Emily Zimbrick-Rogers is an independent scholar whose published work investigates gender and theology in Madeleine L'Engle and the experiences of evangelical women theologians.

Date of Review: 
September 8, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Abby Day is reader of race, faith, & culture in the epartment of Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London.


Professor Abby Day

I very much enjoyed this engaging review.  I’m so pleased that the gist of the book, and its method, came across. Dr. Zimbrick-Rogers has been very generous with her careful summary, her general approval, and her thoughtful critique. Especially as homage to the Generation A women I studied, I appreciate her discussion of the actual work that these women, often invisibly, carry out.

There are a few comments I would like to respond to. As noted in the review, I did not interview women during my brief visit to Sri Lanka.  I needed to keep the work’s focus on a specific generation: Anglican women of the global north born in the 1920s and 30s. My reflections on that decision are included in Chapter 2, beginning ‘I must position myself and this work as not just a work of a woman about women, but more specifically a work by a white woman about, predominantly, white women of the Global north.’  I agree that more needs to be done, and discussed this for a substantial part of the chapter and, on several other occasions in the work, I highlight the Church of England’s institutionalised racism and the lack of diversity in many congregations I visited.

It was a fair point in the review to raise the need for in-depth discussion of ‘Majority World religious dynamics and the influx of immigrants to the West from the Global South’. Indeed, there are many excellent studies of black-majority churches in the UK, and there should be more, but my case study was focused on mainstream Church of England venues, and my thesis was clear: I do not think the decline of the Church of England is a result of immigration, but rather a shift in values between the elderly women of Generation A and successive generations.

I agree that class structure is an important theme, and tried to indicate mine through reflexive comments (not knowing the price of a pint of milk, for example) but, most importantly, recent social class literature (such as, Joanne McKenzie, Mike Savage, Adrian Stringer) combined with fieldwork that helped me uncover a previously neglected aspect of Generation A’s work -  how they provide a safe, supportive space for vulnerable, marginalised people.

As for part of my prediction for the future, indeed, I suggested that gay people may play more of a public, role. The Anglican Communion has been split apart by views about gay people, but that is now changing. Finally, as noted in the review, mine is a story of decline. I used, amongst others, the Church of England’s own statistics and quotes from senior management and clergy to substantiate that claim. Whether their ongoing work to revitalise the Church is successful remains to be seen. My argument was that they have missed vital generations meanwhile, have been out of step with the general population, and created an irreversible trajectory. Maybe I’ll be proven wrong, in which case I’ll enjoying writing, or reading someone else’s, sequel.


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