New research from Goldsmiths, University of London shows that the Anglican Church faces a demographic time bomb as its last generation of active laywomen starts to die out.
The loss of these women, currently estimated to number in the region of 70,000, will have serious consequences for the church’s ability to function into the future, and for vulnerable people who depend on the Church for support, social engagement or simply company.
In The Religious Lives of Older Laywomen, Goldsmiths, University of London sociologist Dr Abby Day sets out how the financial and social structures of the Church of England are kept afloat by a shrinking band of committed women who are now entering their eighties and nineties.
Dr Day, who worked closely with laywomen in Britain while researching her book, found that their unpaid labour in cleaning, furnishing, catering, fundraising and supporting midweek services effectively keeps the church from collapse – but there is no evidence that they will be replaced by new generations.
These laywomen - identified as ‘Generation A’ by Dr Day - are the parents of the baby boomers who came of age in the 1960s, and thus were the last generation whose values are centred on nation, family and God.
This devotion to organisations like the Church has in succeeding generations been replaced by other forms of identification and activism, leaving the church devoid of new recruits to form an active laity.
Dr Abby Day says:
“The prognosis for the Church of England is grave. While elderly laywomen have never been given a formal voice or fully acknowledged by the Church, they are the heart, soul and driving organisational force in parishes everywhere. Their loss will be catastrophic.
“Irrespective of one's religious viewpoint, it's impossible to deny the role the Church of England has played in providing informal social care, and a unique unconditional space for those who often have nowhere else to go.
“As the church itself vanishes through lack of organisational support, it’s inevitable that addicted, homeless, bereaved or socially isolated people will lose out.”
The Religious Lives of Older Laywomen: The Last Active Anglican Generation is out now, published by Oxford University Press.