Many scholars of religion surely share my experience of how often, in conversations about religious beliefs, someone makes a reference to a mother, grandmother or older female relative who, in some way or other, has served as their link to God or the church. The Religious Lives of Older Laywomen is devoted to the topic of such women, more precisely Anglican laywomen born in the 1920s and 1930s. More or less frequent churchgoers will recognize these women – “Generation A”, as they are named in the study – forming the core of the worshiping community in Christian churches on a regular Sunday. Despite this, their religious practices and their role in sustaining organized religion have largely remained unexplored in the sociological study of religion.

For this reason alone, Abby Day’s study of the religious lives of older lay women is a much needed and highly relevant contribution to the field. The book presents findings from ethnographic fieldwork carried out over two years in 18 churches, primarily in southern England, but also in North America. Most of the accounts from the fieldwork focus on the women’s everyday involvement with their church outside of services: their hidden, often taken-for-granted activities of cleaning, making tea and arranging church sales and lunches, all of which make the church a living religious community.

The book is organized in three sections, each clearly introduced and connected to the core arguments. The first section presents the theoretical starting points of multi-sited ethnography and sociological theories of religiosity, generation and gender. This part also situates the ethnographic work historically and socially in post-war British society. The second and third section presents and discusses how the everyday and embodied work of the women should be seen as religious or “sacred” work, and its significance for sustaining a particular form of religious institution.

To simplify the main argument of the study somewhat, what makes the Anglican Church a vital religious community is the practice of laywomen, rather than the preaching of ordained men. But Day also clearly shows that these laywomen should not be reduced to meek and dutiful carers. They are the carriers and guardians of a particular form of religiosity, based on a church-based spiritual authority that supports certain institutions held sacred by their generation; besides the church, these are the nation and the traditional values of gender and family life.

As stated in the introduction, the book has several objectives. It is an ethnography aiming to provide a detailed account of religious practice among a particular group of people. In addition, it has at least two larger objectives: to theorize about why this generation of women engage in this particular form of religious practice; to critically discuss theories about religiosity, women and generation; and to reflect on the consequences for the Anglican church of what is expressed in the subtitle as the passing of “the last active Anglican generation”.

The first objective is particularly well carried through. In the first section Day offers critical insights about ethnographic fieldwork and interviews as a source of data, arguing for a more embodied way of studying religiosity by “doing religion” along with research participants rather than attempting to construct conversations about beliefs and attitudes where these would not arise naturally. This part also contains a critical discussion of common hypotheses about why women are more religious than men, asking what kind of religious practices these assumptions are based on and pointing to the lack of thorough understanding of the gendered patterns that structure women’s lives, in order to understand why they appear more religious than men.

Throughout the second section, Day presents the research participants’ way of doing religion and being religious through core practices and events shared through everyday interactions in church. These events and practices are put into conversation with theory – such as Marcel Mauss’ concept of the gift, Alfred Gell’s discussion of the role of objects in forming social relations, and Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of habitus – in order to uncover the significance of practices such as cleaning the pews, or serving tea, in maintaining a particular form of religiosity; a “holy Habitus”. This is a great contribution to research about the growing area of “lived” or “everyday” religion, offering ripe possibilities for further studies about the embodiment of belief (as discussed by Day in her earlier book Believing in Belonging. Belief and Social identity in the Modern World).

Day also argues convincingly that the older laywomen’s practice, which may seem tedious and banal, forms a particular kind of “pew power” (p. 163). This kind of embodied and relational power is instrumental to and for the life of a church, and is summarized in a model of seven strategies for creating and sustaining belonging that start with recognition and move through routinization to gradual internalization. This concept offers rich insights into not just how these women engage in a particular mode of religious practice, but also into the complexities of why they do so, and thus contributes to the second of the book’s larger objectives to theorize about why this generation of women engage in this particular form of religious practice.

The ambition to combine a detailed account of the religious practice of a particular group of people, where the researcher herself forms a crucial part of the methodology, with objectives of revising theory and predicting the future of a religious institution, is a difficult task. This difficulty comes across in a certain unevenness, particularly in the concluding chapter, between uncovering the too-long obscured significance of older lay women’s religious life, and predicting what the consequences of their passing will mean for “the Church and wider society” (p 23). Day argues strongly that Generation A is the last active generation, and that their passing away will be devastating for the Anglican Church as a living religious community. One reasons given for this is that Generation A has not been able to pass on their way of being religious to the next generation. The values they passed on were independence and liberty as much as care, and the “sacred” objects that their children value are no longer church, nation and family. A further possible explanation lays in Day’s understanding of the women’s relationship to their church as “home” and “family”. This points to how “pew power” is a kind of power that is both sustained and limited to “presence and an embodied knowledge of belonging” (p. 70), and which might not be possible to transfer beyond those who share similar values and ways of living. Such conclusions, which remain close to the ethnographic fieldwork, come across as more thoroughly grounded than the parts that address the objective of challenging existing theory regarding gender and religiosity, that question actions taken by the Church of England to attract new generations, or that speculate about its future. Nevertheless, to understand better the practice and power of older laywomen in the Christian Church is of crucial importance for any researcher studying continuity and change in contemporary religion.