Beyond the fringe: researching a spiritual age
Calver: Cliff College Publishing, 2005, £7.99,
Unlike Quitting Church, which examines the phenomenon of believers giving up church, Beyond the Fringe is a study of the views of people who have no significant connection with church. The book is ‘the report of the Rev. Yvonne Richmond’s research in the Diocese of Coventry into the spirituality of people outside the church. It comprises the interviews carried out with sixty people, and then breaks the transcripts down into subject areas to show areas of common belief and some diverse ones too. Thus when reading it you see a series of quotations on a particular subject, interspersed with a commentary by the author. Quotations are course anonymous, but the backgrounds of the interviewee’s remarks are revealed, for example ‘Female, pre-family, urban city’ or ‘Male, late family, rural’.
The book falls into two parts. Section A concerns the ‘Big Questions’ which people have and how they have answered them, if they have. The questions are the ‘life, world and universe’ kind and the responses are very interesting. Whilst quite a number denied they believed in God, the same people were obviously equally uncomfortable with a wholly atheist philosophy. Others had surprising levels of faith, whilst still others had their own folk religion. As the title of the book suggests, the research indicates that there is quite a lot of spirituality, although in some ways it becomes somewhat superstitious.
Section B looks at how the same people view Christianity. They were asked who they thought Jesus was; what the Bible was; their attitudes to heaven and hell; about their experience of church and so on. On the whole these answers seemed to me more predictable and whilst Jesus was respected, the church came off quite badly in some ways. The book closes with some thoughts by the author on why the church experiences what he calls ‘disconnectivity’ between itself and large sections of the population. He believes there needs to be a better balance between the church being distinctive and listening to those people who feel excluded. Sometimes it seems to be a case of failing to get its message across to people where the only barriers are perception and misunderstanding.
I found this book very easy to read, and I had the feeling that although the pool of respondents was not large, it really does capture a cross-section of the nation’s viewpoints on matters of faith. I would have said this was a useful piece of research, and for those people who have conducted Alpha or Christianity Explored courses it might suggest what people ‘on the outside’ are struggling with. The author does not try to prove that Christianity is thriving outside the church, nor does the report seek to validate all belief. However, it does deal with people’s experiences sympathetically and shows openness to those experiences which are obviously intensely personal. It is both encouraging at times and troubling at others: in short, it has a lot to commend it.
Contributed by: Robert L. Foster, BA, DipIM, MCLIP, Deputy Counter Supervisor in the Maughan Library, King’s College, London who is a member of the CLIS executive committee.