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P. G. Coleman, D. Koleva and J. Bornat, eds., Ageing, Ritual and Social

Change: Comparing the Secular and Religious in Eastern and Western

Europe. Farnham and Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2013. Pp. xviii,

283. Pb. £19.99. ISBN 978-1-4094-5215-7.

This volume is a compelling and authoritative contribution to the literature

that seeks to understand our quest for meaning in later life. The twelve

essays, carefully organised and edited, make a significant contribution to

our understanding of the nature of ageing in human society and within

two different areas of Europe. The technical nature of this writing may

make the book over-specialised for the general reader, but its findings

have significant implications for our understanding of religion and its

practices in Europe today.


In a variety of ways, we are asked to consider whether and in what

way religion might contribute to our well-being, particularly in old age.

We are encouraged to reflect on this intriguing question by a rich variety

of shared narratives that offer the reader insight into the ways in which

value and belief enable individuals and communities to live through

the physical processes of ageing. These discussions are contextualised

within the experience of rapid social change across Europe. A distinctive

feature of this book is that it offers a dialogue between the increasingly

secular culture of the UK and the more traditional religious communities

of former socialist countries where religion has a very different place

in family and community. We learn in these narratives of the essential

and existential support that religion provides to enable people to cope

with social loss and physical frailty. A picture emerges of how older

people play a role in the holding together of religious communities and

in transmitting the Christian faith to younger generations. As the interrelationship

between ageing, ritual and social change is examined, we note

the profound value of older people in religious communities and see how

religion can contribute to a good old age.

The book is organised into five sections. Section One offers a

background which includes an overview of ageing and ritual in Europe;

and a discussion of the methods of investigation and in particular oral

history. The largest section of the book (chapters 3–6) provides an analysis

of the major questions which underlie the research project behind the

book; 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. The

next two sections examine the role of religion in enabling adjustment to

ageing. This includes a focus on death and bereavement. The final section

of the book offers a discussion on what conclusions can be drawn from

the project. Throughout the book, there is meticulous documentation of

sources with a helpful set of appendices, bibliography and index.

Why, then, should the general reader of theology take notice of this?

In addressing issues of numerical decline, the Church often laments in

having to inhabit a demography of an ageing Church. It may follow that

many of our strategies (and the theologies that support them) promote

implicit and explicit ageism. This is serious for our understanding of age,

for older people and for our attitudes to them. This book and its findings

show us that it might be possible to hold together some inter-generational

equity whereby we might counteract negative stereotypes and the

marginalisation of our ageing congregations. Older people may be our

natural spiritual constituency and a vital part of sustaining the religious

and spiritual life of our communities.


James Woodward



“At fifteen I was committed to learning.

At thirty I took my rightful position.

At forty, I was no longer totally perplexed.

At fifty, I began to understand the unfolding

of my true nature.

At sixty, I was in harmony with contradictions

and ambivalence.

A seventy, at long last, I may follow my heart’s desire

without going astray.”


-Confucius at the age of Seventy




Last month my wife and I were on a Road Scholar trip in Europe and we were having dinner with a Japanese woman.  We got to talking about age and she asked how old I was. “Seventy” I replied, thinking of Gloria Steinem’s apt phrase, “This is how 70 looks.”  Our dinner partner said to me, “No!  You don’t look 70 at all,” and I instantly felt a tinge of pride at my good health, appearance, and vitality.  Then she quickly added, “But then, Caucasians never do look their age.” I instantly felt an encounter with reality.


The incident reminded me of the time I turned 65 and had my first chance to get the senior discount at a museum.  As I went up to the cashier I fumbled for my driver’s license, expecting to be “carded” to prove my eligibility.  Before I could reach into my pocket, the cashier said, “Don’t bother.  You clearly qualify.” Once again, “reality therapy” for gerontologists,          How do I do Morris, who used to tell me “I feel like I’m 18 inside.”


The truth is doctors get sick, funeral directors die, and gerontologists grow old.  I once convened the first symposium on plastic surgery at a gerontological conference: “Face Lifts and Tummy Tucks in an Aging Society.”  It was also the last symposium of its kind.  Some topics in aging we just want to avoid.  I get the impression that many of us in the “field of aging” don’t want to talk much about our own attitudes toward what it means to look, or to feel, our age.  It’s a conversation we ought to be having.


See “This Is What 80 Looks Like” at:
HR Moody


The truth is that we shall only understand the balance of severity and confidence, of the strenuous and the relaxed, in the context of the common life.

Every believer must have an urgent concern for the relation of the neighbour to Christ, a desire and willingness to be the means by which Christ’s relation with the neighbour becomes actual and transforming. But that urgent concern arises from the sense in myself of the cost and grief involved in separation from life in God, the self- awareness of frailties and failures that I cannot overcome for and by myself. I have, by God’s grace, learned as a member of the Christian community what is the nature of God’s mercy, which does not leave me to overcome my sin by my own effort; so I have something to say to the fellow-sufferer who does not know where to look for hope.

And what I have to say depends utterly on my willingness not to let go of that awareness of myself that reminds me where I start each day – not as a finished saint but as a needy person still struggling to grow.


the look


“The World is not something to
look at, it is something to be in.”
Mark Rudman

I look and look.
Looking’s a way of being: one becomes,
sometimes, a pair of eyes walking.
Walking wherever looking takes one.

The eyes
dig and burrow into the world.
They touch
fanfare, howl, madrigal, clamor.
World and the past of it,
not only
visible present, solid and shadow
that looks at one looking.

And language? Rhythms
of echo and interruption?
a way of breathing.

breathing to sustain
walking and looking,
through the world,
in it.


Denise Levertov, Looking, Walking, Being



“Age puzzles me. I thought it was a quiet time. My seventies were

interesting and fairly serene, but my eighties are passionate. I grow more

intense as I age…


We who are old know that age is more than a disability. It is an intense

and varied experience, almost beyond our capacity at times, but something

to be carried high.”


-Florida Scott-Maxwell, The Measure of My Days


8, The tomb of Bishop Lancelot Andrewes, who helped translate the Authorised Version of the Bible[1]


A prayer of Lancelot Andrewes



Guard Thou my soul,

Strengthen my body,

elevate my senses,

direct my course,

order my habits,

shape my character,

bless my actions,

fulfil my prayers,

inspire holy thoughts,

pardon the past,

correct the present,

prevent the future ……




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