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Department of Religious Studies, Furness College, Lancaster University LA1 4YG.

Mapping the Congregational Domain

We began this task by putting together a list of the different churches in Kendal, beginning with publicly-available information and filling in the gaps by talking to people. Having obtained the list, the next thing to do was to attend services at all the churches, and observe and describe them. In order to be sure we were getting information from the different services that addressed the project's research questions and allowed us to compare the churches to each other, we developed a list of issues to attend to in the observation, drawing from and adapting that outlined in Ammerman et al. This was used as a sensitising list for unstructured fieldnotes, rather than a checklist.

At the visits, Karin would go to the church about half an hour before the start of the service. She would introduce herself to the ‘greeter’ on the door, ask permission to observe the service and take notes. Usually, the greeter at the door would introduce her to the minister or to the person in charge of the service. After these introductions, she would settle in at the back of the church or somewhere unobtrusive, and would spend that initial half hour writing observations about how she had been welcomed, the environment of the church - the built environment, church furniture, decorations, etc, the manner in which people came in, what they were talking about, what they were wearing, what sort of literature was available to read and / or take away. She also collected examples of whatever literature was lying around.

When the service began, attention switched to recording the actions of the people involved, both those leading the service and the congregation, paying attention to issues such as service structure, what was said and in what manner, what hymns were sung and in what manner, etc. After the service, Karin participated in post-service activities, if there were any, and chatted informally to members of the congregation about their church and what it meant to them. As soon as possible after attending the service, these notes were used as the basis for a detailed narrative description of the service. This produced a set of descriptive fieldnotes for each church visit.

This was a very powerful method for achieving our initial goal of a detailed description of institutional Christianity on the ground in Kendal. Of course, there were some difficulties. We had identified 26 different churches in Kendal, and attending services at each required 26 days of fieldwork. However, since church services happen on a Sunday only, and since it was principally Karin's responsibility to engage in participant observation, these 26 days required a commitment over at least 26 weeks - more when you take into account that once or twice attending church on a Sunday would be impossible because of illness, Christmas, other research commitments, and other similar issues. This was addressed in part by combining this work with other project activities, such as planning and carrying out the church attendance count. Some churches also met at other times; for example, the First Church of Christ, Scientist holds a mid-week service which Karin attended in lieu of going to a Sunday service. The other difficulty with approaching initial data collection in this way was that attending only one Sunday’s worth of services at each church usually gave us a fairly clear idea of the church but occasionally the service was atypical in some respect, for example having a baptism, or a visiting speaker.

But these disadvantages were balanced out by the strengths of this approach, the principal one being that the constant comparison between different services at different church was invaluable for sharpening our observations, by bringing to light very clearly the similarities and differences between the different churches. It also enabled Karin to build up a lived experience of what it was like to participate in worship in each church, which could not have been done in any other way.

These fieldnotes were shared on an ongoing basis between members of the project team, particularly Karin and Linda, and as the data collection continued we spent a lot of time with the data looking for patterns, similarities and differences, and meaningful ways of describing and summarising the observations. We found quickly that existing typologies (such as for instance evangelical / liberal, strict / mainstream) were not adequate to capture the variety of church life in Kendal, and did not reflect what appeared to be the principal groupings arising from working with the data. Eventually, following several weeks and some full days of working with different rearrangements of the data, we were able to divide the churches into four main groups. We used a terminology of relative 'hard'ness and 'soft'ness, inspired by Kajsa Ahlstrand's work in Sweden, where she observed a general 'softening' of the Church of Sweden along a variety of indices: a shift from God beyond to God within, from humans as sinners in need of forgiveness to humans as wounded beings needing healing, from an ethic of obedience to an ethic of creativity, from exclusivistic to universal ideas of salvation, from hierarchical to experiential location of authority. This hard-soft terminology seemed to capture the main groupings we observed in the data, without imposing too many pre-conceived ideas about the nature of the churches on them. Our typology had four categories: hard, medium-hard, medium-soft and soft churches.

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