by Graham Edwards.
About ten years ago, I led an assembly in a Primary school; the theme I was given for this assembly was “rules”. After I had done my bit, the Headteacher stood at the front of the hall and said, “remember, rules hold our community together”. There are, of course, rules in the life of the church – rules that govern all Methodist churches, and rules that are particular to local churches. In my experience, those local rules can range (at least pre-covid) from how the offering is taken (am I supposed to hold the big plate to collect the bags?), to who bakes the Victoria Sponge or the Scones for a church event, to how we express the Good News of God where we are placed.
The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu talks about these kinds of rules, which he calls Habitus (1977, p. 95). Habitus is a social process in which groups of people construct a set of ‘rules’ which govern their practice. These ‘rules’ become internalised enabling members of a cultural group or community to know how to act within that context. Habitus is produced by experience, which Bourdieu suggests gives a ‘feel for the game’, that is the life of the community, and gives – a meaning and a raison d’etre, but also a direction: an orientation which enables an individual to know how to act within their community (1990, p. 66). Bourdieu understands Habitus as an unconscious second nature or “enacted belief” (1990, p. 66), where the unconscious habitus becomes the way the community is structured and shaped. When an individual enters a particular social field, for instance, the scientific, political, artistic, or religious fields, says Bourdieu, they must learn the appropriate habitus (1991, p. 176). This helps members of such groups to know which practices are correct and which are not, the habitus in a community becomes an “embodied history” (Bourdieu, 1990, p. 57).
Habitus as described by Bourdieu is not without criticism, some suggest it is too restrictive and does not allow for the possibility of growth, or that it creates endless structures which create the same kinds of community (Alexander, 1995; Jenkins, 1982). In my experience, however, Habitus can allow for creativity and change. A few years ago, I did some research which asked people to reflect on their church life. Lots of memories were shared about change. In one church, members talked about candles; Rebecca remembered, “we wanted to use candles…and Mr. James [the Steward] went absolutely ballistic…we weren’t having candles in our church…he was absolutely beside himself, and there was no way would we have dared to light a candle after that”, but, since then, candles have become important in their worship. Another member talked about bringing her son to church, “he would be about eighteen months [old], and he used to go in the back pew…I used to bring his slippers, and a book, and we used to sit there at the back…[we] used to get all these tuts and people looking”. This memory led Irene to explain how much that experience made her enjoy the noise and busyness of children in her church now. In both memories, something had happened; something had changed. The Habitus had not kept things precisely as they had always been, rather the lived experience of community had shaped the Habitus.
The shared, lived experience of a church community is a powerful thing; it can encourage us, challenge us, rebuke us, liberate us, and everything in between. A church can be transformed by that shared experience, as it is enriched by all that various members of the church community bring, by the world outside the church, of course by study and prayer – and more. Habitus helps us hold on to the crucial things in the life of our community and explore new ways of living them in the world; a church grows and changes with its members. The question is, I think, for the church to ask, both nationally and locally, how do we work with all the lived experience and wisdom we have, to allow our shared life to shape and reshape the church, as we seek more and more to be a growing, evangelistic, inclusive, justice-seeking Church? Our Habitus – our rules, help us not to throw everything away and start again, but to hold on to the core of who we are, as our shared life shapes us.
Alexander, J. C. (1995). Fin de Siecle Social Theory: Relativism, Reduction, and the Problem of Reason. Verso.
Bourdieu, P. (1977). Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge University Press.
Bourdieu, P. (1990). The Logic of Practice. Polity Press.
Bourdieu, P. (1991). Language and Symbolic Power (G. Raymond & M. Adamson, Trans.). Polity Press. Jenkins, R. (1982). Pierre Bourdieu and the Reproduction of Determinism Sociology, 16(2), 270 – 281.