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

Like Spring without Flowers:
why older women and the churches need each other

Janet Eldred, MHA Care Group, 2003, 111 pages,
ISBN 1-902452-14-3, £3.99.

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Review by Joanna Walker

This modest-looking publication works on many levels, including as a metaphor for its subject matter. Older women can appear unassuming and with little to offer to the main concerns of busy parish life. This book offers no academic pretensions in its style of writing or the look of its text and layout. It does, however, deal with profound matters and is based on doctoral research. The professional and lay person alike would benefit from its direct approach.

For example, as well as explaining about the theory of narrative both as a device for research and as a means of self development and change, the author uses the stories of older women (in her words, and in their own) to illustrate her research-based proposition: that older women and the church need community, connection and care. Insofar as they both need these three things, their interests are mutual and should be taken more seriously, become better understood and be better nurtured.

Janet Eldred describes herself as a mid-life American woman who has lived most of her adult life in the urban north-eastern US, within a diversity of Christian faith communities. She found that the issues that fired her professionally - feminist theology and older people - were coming together with another powerful driver: she wanted to prepare for the older Christian woman she hoped one day to become. She thus acknowledges that researchers can have personal motivations as part of their professional curiosity, and is prepared to say that this self-understanding led to her comparing her subjects' experience with her own. This prompted further questions and analyses in her mind, to do with how and why older women continued to work at their faith, their spirituality and their churches, often in the teeth of discouragement and ageism.

None of the above will sound surprising to feminist researchers, including those within the fields of gerontology and theology. For the novice in these matters, Eldred includes an appendix on feminist theology, in which she defines terms and outlines current debates. Whether or not her statements would meet with universal agreement amongst proponents I cannot tell, but her guidance gives the reader a handle on the subject and suggestions for further reading that seem most helpful (speaking as a gerontologist, relatively new to its relationship to theology and spirituality).

The meat of the book, drawing on data generated for her doctoral studies of older women members of UK churches, comments on how community, connection and care are illustrated in the stories of three particular women in their (lifelong) experiences within faith communities. We see through their narratives the historical as well as the current factors in their relationships, their attitudes to change, their sense of home and belonging, their self identity as expressed through giving and receiving service. (You can try something similar at home yourself by tracing your own 'faith journey' - it's quite instructive!) So whilst the book is not about pastoral care, ageism, personal change or mature identity, all of these things are there.

Lastly, Eldred seeks to apply her reflections to practical situations in local and church communities, noting that some churches have begun to recognise their mutual dependence with older members and older people's unique status. Others are still in need of great encouragement to recognise that older people have gifts as well as needs, and of help to move away from indifference and ageism.

If encouragement does not work, Eldred suggests, there is a warning that the next generation of older women will not be so accepting of low status and lack of recognition within the church. One of the narratives she has featured is quoted as saying that not having a church connection would be 'like spring without flowers' (the source of the book's title). The warning is, therefore, that this attitude may pass with the current generation of older women. Tomorrow's elders will find belonging, support and spirituality in various places, which may or may not include the church. They will be less likely to align themselves for life to particular denominations or doctrines.

Even so, churches could remain important communities where women gather and nurture that special connection known as fellowship - which knows no age or generational boundaries. Mature and older women's spirituality has much to teach the local church about their essential connectedness within their communities as well as their resilience and means of thriving.

Eldred would be the first to point out that her studies have been small scale and partial, and need repetition on a larger and more diverse canvas. She has, however, provided a framework and some propositions to work with, which have potential for many areas of study within pastoral and theological fields. For gerontologists, there are issues of interdependence, community support and quality of life, to name but a few points of interest. MHA Care Group is to be congratulated on encouraging the publication of such an interesting and unusual 'work in progress' so that its thinking and findings can be shared at an early stage.

Joanna Walker (University of Surrey and Diocese of Guildford)

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