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 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
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.
resources from the Leveson Centre