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Leaving Church: England c.1900
Leaving Church: England c.1900

One of the things about teaching the sociology of religion is that, at various points – from its function and role in society to secularisation theory – you’ll find yourself referring to “religion in the past”.

And if you want to anchor your observations in something slightly more-solid than an airy wave of the hand behind your shoulder, this bit of film I’ve stumbled across might help.

It’s around 4 minutes of “people leaving church”; the first 2 minutes focus on a single (unnamed) Church while the final couple of minutes feature people leaving a Church in Hanley, Staffordshire and a parish Church in Sheffield.

While this, in itself, isn’t particularly interesting, the fact the films date from 1901-1902 should give them a little more resonance – particularly if you use them to illustrate a range of sociological ideas, observations and discussion points about “religion in the past”.

I’ve noted a few to get you started:

1. What do the very large numbers of people leaving each Church service tell us about “religious attendance” in the past?

2. The people leaving the services are, in the main, very well dressed for the time. What does this tell us about both the process of “attending Church” and the class of people for whom Church attendance was important?

3. Why was Church attendance important to the urban middles classes around the turn of the 20th century?

4. How do the films provide evidence that an integral part of “Churchgoing” was “to see and be seen” – not just in terms of displaying “religious piety”, but also social status? How might this – and also the film of large numbers of children in a Church parade – be related to Durkheim’s ideas about the function of religion?

6. Is there any evidence in the films that suggest Churchgoing was as much a social as a religious occasion?

These questions are, of course, merely indicative – the kinds of questions that popped into my head as I watched the films.

If you think of any better ones, feel free to let me know.

Leaving Church: England 1901-1902

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