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The Leveson Centre for the study of Ageing, Spirituality and Social Policy

Community, Connection, and Caring:
Towards a Christian Feminist Practical Theology of Older Women

This is a much abbreviated version of an article by Janet Eldred in Generations Review, Vol 12 No 2, July 2002. Reprinted with permission.

With this project, I aimed to determine if certain key principles proposed by Christian feminist theologians as guiding women's lives (that is, community, connection, and caring) are relevant to older churchgoing women in Britain today. What can existing research from social gerontology, as well as new empirical data, tell us about how women aged 65+ experience and enact these processes? What are the key communities in their lives, and do older women have important things to say about how to foster connection and caring? Do older churchgoing women see continuity between their experiences of these processes and their faith? What might be the implications of this knowledge for local churches as particular communities? Finally, is a new theology of older women called for: one that accounts for their practices and that requires committed praxis in return?

To provide the empirical data for the project, I conducted semi-structured interviews with 40 Methodist and Anglican churchgoing older women. I then produced verbatim transcripts, and analysed them to determine the nature of the interviewees' key communities and connections, and to learn the function of caring - both giving and receiving it - in their lives. Additionally, I studied the role that the women's faith and beliefs had in these processes.

For the interviewees, a community was a social place where meaningful things happened. By the parameters of this project, all of the interviewees belonged to at least one community: their local church. Most of them cited a number of other communities that they were a part of, with the family being at least as important as any of these, including the church.

Being a member of a community (an 'insider') contributed to a sense of belonging, which in turn helped a woman establish and maintain her identity. Being known as an individual with a name and with particular roles and connections helped to counter any external societal messages that she might have little of value to contribute.
Furthermore, the women continued to build new communities as former ones ceased to exist. This was especially challenging, though, if a woman was alone or a newcomer to a town. Some interviewees reported being warmly welcomed; others said that their desire to participate and to offer their gifts was rejected. This was especially hurtful if the community in question was a church, as churches were expected to be open to all.

Connections were relationships that the interviewees had with important people or things (for example God, faith, music, and the environment) within their identified communities. The women recognised that their connections made them interdependent. At the same time, they sought to maintain 'independence in community'.

The loss of important connections - either through personal physical decline, moving house, or the death of loved ones - was a very real part of the interviewees' lives. Making new connections was always possible (and frequently occurred), but increasing age made this difficult due to such things as decreased mobility, lack of transport, and, sometimes, a lack of interest from others who might not be seeking new friendships. As a result, asserting her unique identity - and not being known only as 'an older woman' - became a challenge.

Local churches provided a special form of connection called 'fellowship'. For these churchgoing women, being able to share some part of their lives with other Christians was extremely important to the maintenance of their faith. Although fellowship was occasionally found outside a church context, most often it was sought and found among gatherings of Christians that occurred either at church or under its auspices. A number of the interviewees had experienced the loss of connection to a valued church community in the past or else feared such a loss in the future - and with it, the loss of fellowship.

For the interviewees, caring was the active realisation of connection in community. Giving caring was a key (and lifelong) aspect of their identities and one they were loath to relinquish with age. Sometimes, a woman was not physically able to give very much care; but not being allowed to care, either for herself or for others (even out of the benevolent motivation of family and friends) was a problem. Likewise, women were happy to receive care, provided that it was their choice and they could find a way to reciprocate.

Fortunately, for most of the interviewees, their families and churches were supportive and allowed them to reciprocate in mutually satisfying ways. However, some congregations fell short of this ideal. For example, some did not recognise when older women wished to step down from long-held duties, while other churches pushed women into early, unwanted 'retirement'.

Despite the fact that they constitute a large percentage of the regular churchgoing population in this country, older women are often 'invisible' to clergy and to younger churchgoers. Much of the work that older women do keeps churches running; so, churches and older women are mutually important. Such women need to be recognised for the complex qualities, needs, and contributions they bring to each church. By learning from older women, local churches may find ways to ensure their own survival and means of thriving in the future - as communities that recognise their essential connectedness and that enact caring in creative and mutually empowering ways for all of their members.

The findings from this research, which has shown that the processes of community, connection and caring are still relevant to older churchgoing women, are not new to social gerontologists; rather, they reinforce many existing observations and conclusions. Still, social gerontologists can take note of the significance of the local church as a vital community for older churchgoing women and of the special sort of relationship (that is, fellowship) that exists there.

While feminist theologies do, then, reflect many of the experiences and ideas of older women, there are distinctions that need to be acknowledged. Primarily, the evidence from this study has shown that community, connection, and caring are not universally positive processes, but often involve struggle. For this reason, a Christian feminist practical theology of older women - one that accounts for their experiences and calls for committed praxis by the churches and other interested parties - is meaningful and important.

Janet Eldred

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