Thursday, September 04, 2014

Can sociologists explain faith communities to the general public? And can church leadership pull its weight? #esabelfast

Furthering Belfast’s aim to become the city of conferences, the European Sociology of Religion conference – Religion in the Public Domain – is running this week in Assembly Buildings.*

The delegates escaped on Wednesday evening to the City Hall where QUB’s Prof John Brewer identified in his lecture that faith leaders and communities find it difficult to know how, when and what to say publicly about major issues. So he challenged the assembled sociologists of religion to take on the role of explaining the good work of religious and faith communities in the public square.

On Thursday morning, Prof Linda Woodhead (Lancaster) addressed the issue of How Public Religion has Changed now that ‘Church and State’ isn’t the only Game in Town. In her very accessible talk, she breezed through:
  • the history of church and state, and the shift from old-style nation-state religion to modern global-market religion;
  • compared state denominations (like slow to turn supertankers administered by committee) with newer churches (relying on lots of enthusiastic volunteers who are quite unaccountable);
  • referenced research on Westminster Faith Debates conducted with YouGov that looked at public attitudes to faith and values;
  • questioned the kind of leadership being demonstrated by major faith leaders (does Oprah have a wider pastoral influence than the Pope** given her 25 million Twitter followers?) and wondered whether they have reduced themselves to photo-gallery leadership?

In the capable hands of Dr Gladys Ganiel and her team of organisers, sessions at the conference continue until Friday, covering issues of church grown and maintenance; pilgrimage and memorialisation; religion and politics; post-secularism; Islam in Germany; religion, public health and death; global justice; religion online and in the media amongst other streams.

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* Worth remembering that one of the successful arguments employed ten years ago against the Presbyterian Church in Ireland moving out of their central Belfast stone-clad turreted building was that it would encourage the perception that PCI was no longer at the heart of the public square.

** While the Pope Francis’ English-language Twitter account has a mere 4.43m followers, if you add on the followers for his other eight language-specific Twitter accounts (including 6.62m Spanish followers), his overall total rises to 15.3m … not so shabby, particularly when compared with the Dalai Lama 9.3m and Justin Welby 0.063m!

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