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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

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