“Vicarious religion”… and St Edward’s

Why are we here?

I have been reading the 2nd edition of sociologist Grace Davie’s ‘Religion in Britain’ in which she develops the theme of the 1st edition: believing without belonging. Twenty years on from that her research has led her to identify vicarious religion, which she describes as “the notion of religion performed by an active minority but on behalf of a much larger number who… …not only understand but appear to approve of what the minority is doing… …for example churches… …perform ritual on behalf of others (at the time of a birth or a death for instance); if these services are denied, this causes offence, the more so amongst those who do not attend church with any regularity.” (Davie,  2015 p.6) There is a curious disconnect between the offer of baptism with conditions, to the unquestioned availability of funeral services in the Church of England, if not at St Edward’s.

Amongst the churchgoers there has been “a gradual shift from a culture of obligation or duty to a culture of consumption or choice”  (ibid p7 ) with people attending Cathedral services in greater numbers than before, for the beauty of the building and the music as much as for the liturgy and the anonymity.

I’ve been reflecting on this notion of vicarious religion and what it could mean for us at St Edward’s with no Vicar-Chaplain and a small, gathered, congregation. We are important, not only to each other, but to all who live and work and visit in our parish: we are important as the still-burning light of Hugh Latimer’s last words on the stake: “we shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.”

The range of services being developed at 11am and 5pm on Sundays offer a different sort of experience to people who may find more conventional churches too repetitive or constraining: in order to attract people to share our life at St Edward’s we need to establish  regular,  varied services,   settled and welcoming congregations, and that sense of timelessness and peace which is so attractive to people unfamiliar with it. “The church [is] the only community that has the experience and authority to offer to its surrounding culture words for repentance,… …for a shared grief over a past that can never be anything other than a record of failure and betrayal… …being named honestly for what it is by people who are not ashamed of naming failure… …and also the animation of the believing community thanksgiving.” (Rowan Williams, in Wells and Coakley, 2008 p178)

In this period of vacancy we can begin to look outward, to observing our position in the centre of Cambridge, to ensuring that the churchyard is tidy, the church open as often as possible to welcome visitors, to provide a beautiful place for people in need of peace a chance to step out of their busy lives and into a place “where prayer has been valid” (Eliot,1942, 2000 p32.)

For all that St Edward’s may have been peculiar in the past, it is now firmly part of the Church of England, with a parish, and a responsibility to minister to the people who live and work here. Vicarious religion indeed. Let us work together to keep the light burning.



Grace Davie: Religion in Britain: a persistent paradox. 2Nd edition. Wiley-Blackwell, 2015

T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets, Faber 2000

Samuel Wells and Sarah Coakley, eds: Praying for England: priestly presence in contemporary culture. Continuum 2008

                                                                                                                Jillian Wilkinson



Filed under Letters

7 responses to ““Vicarious religion”… and St Edward’s

  1. Elizabeth Edwards

    Gillian ­ This is very interesting and I agree with it except for the last paragraph. St Edwards has always been part of the Church of England; it has always been a parish church; it is peculiar because of its funding (no parish share) and the circumstances of its founding (by order of the King). Our Chaplain is chosen by the Trustees ­ not by the Bishop.

    You and Adrian are doing a great job in very difficult circumstances . For me the most attractive of our present morning services is the Meditative one – as last Sunday. We could dispense with an organist when Adrian plays our Grand Piano!


  2. Elizabeth Edwards

    Gillian ­ I have enjoyed your article and agree with it except for the last bit. St Edwards has always been part of the Church of England; it has always been a Parish Church; it is a Peculiar because of its funding (no Parish Share) and its founding (by order of the King). The vicar Chaplain is appointed by the Trustees not by the Bishop.

    You and Adrian are doing a great job in very difficult circumstances. The Morning Service I prefer is the Meditative one – as last Sunday. Particularly enjoyed Adrian playing our beautiful Grand Piano (no need for an organist!).


  3. Although I only step into St Eds occasionally (we live in Burwell), I appreciate this and St Eds being there.

  4. Jill

    Re. the last paragraph – when was a decision made to relinquish ‘peculiar’ status, who made the decision, and why? The ‘peculiar’ status is exactly what has attracted many of us in the past and without it I personally see no point in continuing to support St. Ed’s.

    • Jill

      Apologies if this comes across as too negative. I do highly value St. Ed’s but especially its ‘peculiar’ status and I don’t think that status should be dismissed lightly. Without it, St. Ed’s couldn’t have been the ‘Cradle of the Reformation’.

  5. Jillian Wilkinson

    the question of Peculiar status is a vexed one: St Edward’s, as Elizabeth reminds us, has always been a parish church, with a parish boundary: the peculiarity arose because of its appropriation to Trinity Hall on 10 November 1446, by Henry VI in compensation for the loss of St John Zachary, demolished for the building of King’s College chapel. This did not change the relationship of the church to the Bishop. Trinity Hall continued to supply the Vicar-Chaplain until as a result of an anonymous donation a Trust fund was set up for the emolument of this V-C, under the oversight of Trinity Hall. This continues to be the case. I refer to the work of Daphne Brink ‘The Parish of St Edward, King and Martyr, Cambridge’ published by the Cambridge Antiquarian Society 1992. That writer concluded that ‘a mistaken belief persists that the parish has been extra-diocesan since 1446’ and then goes on for 74 pages explaining her research, with appendices.

    None of the above had any relation to St Edward’s being the ‘cradle of the Reformation’: this was doubtless due to the clergy in post at the time, and their colleagues in nearby Colleges.

    What makes St Edward’s special, on the other hand….is something we can all take part in enjoying and making flourish.

    • Jill

      Thanks for that explanation, Jillian. I haven’t read Daphne Brink’s book but have just ordered it on Amazon! But David Berkley, in his ‘Cambridge: City of beauty, reformation and pioneering research’ says of St. Ed’s: “The Crown thus became the patron of that church and the local Bishop of Ely no longer had any jurisdiction over what went on inside. He could merely place a cordon of guards outside to act as a deterrent to known frequenters. Once past the guards and inside the church you were safe. Bilney and Latimer were of course members of Trinity Hall and Clare respectively and therefore had automatic access to the building.” I don’t know which historical sources his version is based on, but I also had the impression from the present Bishop of Ely, when he preached at St. Ed’s about three years ago, that he didn’t regard himself as having jurisdiction over us, nor was he seeking it.

      I agree that what matters is how we take St Edward’s forward now and in current conditions, but I still think that the ‘peculiar’ status is an important and significant one and I would be sad to see it undermined.

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