“Vicarious religion”… and St Edward’s

Why are we here?

I have been reading the 2nd edition of sociologist Grace Davie’s ‘Religion in Britain’ in which she develops the theme of the 1st edition: believing without belonging. Twenty years on from that her research has led her to identify vicarious religion, which she describes as “the notion of religion performed by an active minority but on behalf of a much larger number who… …not only understand but appear to approve of what the minority is doing… …for example churches… …perform ritual on behalf of others (at the time of a birth or a death for instance); if these services are denied, this causes offence, the more so amongst those who do not attend church with any regularity.” (Davie,  2015 p.6) There is a curious disconnect between the offer of baptism with conditions, to the unquestioned availability of funeral services in the Church of England, if not at St Edward’s.

Amongst the churchgoers there has been “a gradual shift from a culture of obligation or duty to a culture of consumption or choice”  (ibid p7 ) with people attending Cathedral services in greater numbers than before, for the beauty of the building and the music as much as for the liturgy and the anonymity.

I’ve been reflecting on this notion of vicarious religion and what it could mean for us at St Edward’s with no Vicar-Chaplain and a small, gathered, congregation. We are important, not only to each other, but to all who live and work and visit in our parish: we are important as the still-burning light of Hugh Latimer’s last words on the stake: “we shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.”

The range of services being developed at 11am and 5pm on Sundays offer a different sort of experience to people who may find more conventional churches too repetitive or constraining: in order to attract people to share our life at St Edward’s we need to establish  regular,  varied services,   settled and welcoming congregations, and that sense of timelessness and peace which is so attractive to people unfamiliar with it. “The church [is] the only community that has the experience and authority to offer to its surrounding culture words for repentance,… …for a shared grief over a past that can never be anything other than a record of failure and betrayal… …being named honestly for what it is by people who are not ashamed of naming failure… …and also the animation of the believing community thanksgiving.” (Rowan Williams, in Wells and Coakley, 2008 p178)

In this period of vacancy we can begin to look outward, to observing our position in the centre of Cambridge, to ensuring that the churchyard is tidy, the church open as often as possible to welcome visitors, to provide a beautiful place for people in need of peace a chance to step out of their busy lives and into a place “where prayer has been valid” (Eliot,1942, 2000 p32.)

For all that St Edward’s may have been peculiar in the past, it is now firmly part of the Church of England, with a parish, and a responsibility to minister to the people who live and work here. Vicarious religion indeed. Let us work together to keep the light burning.



Grace Davie: Religion in Britain: a persistent paradox. 2Nd edition. Wiley-Blackwell, 2015

T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets, Faber 2000

Samuel Wells and Sarah Coakley, eds: Praying for England: priestly presence in contemporary culture. Continuum 2008

                                                                                                                Jillian Wilkinson

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