Faith and fishing

With church attendance dwindling, it’s easy to ignore the pockets of radical Protestantism that continue to flourish in many small communities. Research by Cambridge social anthropologist Dr Joe Webster seeks to understand how these groups navigate an increasingly secular world.

Life becomes animated with a kind of magic that makes God and the Devil and everything in between alive with religious meaning and significance.

Dr Joe Webster

The spectacular parish churches of East Anglia are evidence of a world that’s long gone. A world where the riches gained from the wool trade went into the building of magnificent structures dedicated to the glory of God, a world where the whole village went to church on Sunday and the visual stories told on their walls and windows engraved their messages on minds of the congregation. Now these magnificent churches stand virtually empty, their pews full only for weddings and funerals.

In Britain and much of Europe, many of us assume that we live in a secular world where decreasing numbers of people are practising Christians. We now worship in cathedrals of consumerism – giant shopping and leisure centres that provide the new setting for family activities at weekends. Today’s children are more likely to know the lyrics of the latest pop hits or advertising jingles than lines from even the best-known stories in the Bible.  Research into young people’s knowledge of Christianity shows that children in Britain and America are more likely to recognise images of Ronald McDonald than images of Jesus.

But for many communities Christianity remains a powerful and defining influence. There are many people whose lives are deeply intertwined with Christianity and whose religious faith sustains their inner worlds and guides their everyday lives. In particular, there are strands of radical Christianity – such as the Mennonites, Amish and Brethren – whose strong emphasis on personal salvation, holy living, social separatism and the imminent apocalypse endures to this day. Many of these movements can trace their origins to the ‘radical Reformation’ of the 16th century, and to a time when many emerging Protestant churches and sects sought to differentiate themselves from the Roman Catholic Church in the strongest possible terms.

Dr Joe Webster, who was last year appointed a Research Fellow of Downing College, is a social anthropologist whose work looks at present-day radical Protestantism in Scotland and Northern Ireland, home to towns and villages which are culturally distinct from the highly-urbanised and self-consciously cosmopolitan centres of England. His research examines the ways in which people whose identity is shaped by millenarian Protestantism – such as the Brethren – navigate their everyday lives at home, at work and in a wider community where secularism is assumed to be the norm.  These Protestant communities tend to keep a low profile, seeking to remain separate from what they see as the godless and gratuitous hedonism of a world that is interested only in the selfish fulfilment of its most immediate desires.

Sadly, many of the investigations into radical Protestant sects have been highly sensationalist and derisory, with the result that members of these groups have often been left feeling increasingly alienated from (and at odds with) those who do not share their faith. Many have closed their ranks and remain deeply suspicious of ‘outsiders’.

As an anthropologist Webster’s approach is solidly rooted in ethnography – a form of long term ‘participant observation’ which seeks to achieve a level of social embededness that enables careful and sensitive cultural interpretation. His role is to listen and understand, not to judge. On the most basic level, he is motivated by a desire to answer the question: what is a person? Inevitably this begs other questions. How and why do people create meaningful lives for themselves and those around them? What happens when different expressions of meaning collide? Does religion provide special forms of meaning? Or might religion be more similar to kinship, economics or politics?

Webster’s research for his doctorate, undertaken from 2008 to 2011 when a student at the University of Edinburgh, took him to a small village on the north-east coast of Scotland where he spent 15 months living as part of the community. Gamrie is a fishing village with a population of just 700 people and six churches – four of them Brethren and two of them evangelical Presbyterian. Webster spent much of his time attending church services and learning about the local theologies of salvation and ‘the end times’, the belief that the end of the world is imminent.

He also worked on the trawlers fishing out of Fraserburgh harbour. These boats, owned by families who have lived in Gamrie for generations, fish for prawns in the treacherous North Sea on trips lasting as long as a month. The all-male crews work long hours, often fishing round the clock for several days. While not all of those working on Gamrie fishing boats are ‘born again’ Christians – some are sympathetic agnostics, others are hostile atheists – Christianity tends to dominate much of the conversation on deck as the catch is processed.

This is a community where religion isn’t confined to an hour on Sunday: a set of strongly-held religious beliefs and practices is incorporated into the fabric of life. Preaching, praying, reading the Bible, hymn-singing, evangelising the ‘unsaved’ and looking for signs of the Second Coming of Christ makes Gamrie’s religiosity – and its social life – what it is. For Gamrie’s fishermen, God determines where and how they fish. Without God as their ‘protector’ and ‘provider’, the entire industry would collapse, they say. Those most committed to their faith avoid being at sea on a Sunday whenever possible, a fact that has even caused some to abandon the industry where such working schedules became economically unsustainable.

Strong though its observance of religious faith is, Gamrie faces a growing crisis – as do many communities like it. The population is ageing, fish stocks are declining and the apocalypse is rapidly approaching. Prosperity, which swept through fishing communities in the 1980s as the result of bountiful catches and the soaring price of prawns, is blamed for the increasingly lukewarm faith of younger members of the community. With the advent of widespread car ownership, the village became more mobile and the attractions and comforts of life outside the village drew many away from the churches. Sabbath observance, teetotalism and traditional patterns of marriage are far from the unquestioned norms they were in days gone by. With lots of young men earning high wages, the throwing-off of old constraints has led some into a new lifestyle dominated by drink, drugs and fast cars, occasionally with lethal results. Yet the older villagers remain steadfast in their religious conviction: those who do not embrace the gospel of born again salvation are ‘lost souls’ destined for a ‘lost eternity’ in hell, they warn, with uncompromising assurance.

Credit: Joe Webster

Credit: Joe Webster

An exploration of language – and specifically the power of words to enchant the world – represents a key part of Webster’s research. Preaching a sermon, reading the Bible and sharing spiritually encouraging experiences are the stuff of religion in Gamrie, experienced primarily through words and language. “Life becomes animated with a kind of magic”, Webster explains, “a magic that makes God and the Devil and everything in between alive with religious meaning and significance.” While hell is recognised as a fearful reality, heaven is anticipated as a joyous deliverance. And in the meantime, ‘this-worldly’ lives are lived with urgency and expectation. Fishing for both prawns and men, Gamrie’s Christians live with intense purposefulness.

“Starving the flesh, and curbing worldly appetites, is offset by feasting on words – the words of scripture,” says Webster. As young people are increasingly attracted to cities, the hold that religion exerts on many of their lives continues to weaken. Cities are seen as sinful places where the Devil is most active. Yet religion is not dead to the youth of Gamrie. Many young people raised in Gamrie’s strict Protestant households find themselves drawn to new Pentecostal and Charismatic churches that place a stronger emphasis on outwardly visible gifts of the Holy Spirit such as speaking in tongues, the offering of divine prophecy and the exorcism of demons. “Here again words and language are central – religiously, culturally and experientially,” Webster asserts.

Using his work among Gamrie’s Christians as a foundation, Webster is now turning his attention to a study of expressions of Protestantism among the Orange Order in Northern Ireland and Scotland. Founded in 1796, the Order takes its name from the civil and religious liberties conferred by William of Orange, the Dutch prince who became King of England, Scotland, and Ireland in the Glorious Revolution of 1688.  In Northern Ireland and Scotland (the regions where it has its strongest following), the Orders have much in common – traditionally male-dominated, paternalistic in tone and inherently conservative. Both organise parades as highly visible demonstrations of their culture and heritage. But the two Protestant fraternities also have strong regional differences. It is these regional expressions – of both similarity and difference – that Webster hopes to be able to research as he plans a new period of anthropological fieldwork.

The debate about Scottish independence has manoeuvred the Orange Order into an interesting position. While its members associate strongly with sense of Scottish history and heritage, with fierce loyalties to a Scots identity, the movement also defends its politically Unionist roots, remaining loyal to the Crown and seeking to resist the inroads of the Scottish Nationalist Party and its plans for a referendum on full independence.  “The Orange Order in Scotland is an example of the ways in which identity – local, regional, and national – can be mediated by religion, religious language and religious symbolism” Webster states, and it is these themes that he will explore when he returns north to conduce more research.

Webster is currently finalising a book manuscript, based on his research in Gamrie, entitled Protestants and Prawns: Enchantment and ‘The Word’ in a Scottish Fishing Village to be submitted before he begins new fieldwork among the Orange Order in the autumn.

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