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Religious rituals continue to mark the life course, especially in ex-communist countries

Religious rituals continue to mark the life course, especially in ex-communist countries

01 March 12

This project set out to compare life-course rituals in Bulgaria, Romania and England by interviewing older people who have lived through the social, political and religious transitions which have affected these countries after the Second World War. The three countries were selected because they represent one in which religion was successfully removed from public life during the communist era (Bulgaria), a second in which religion retained an important position in society despite persecution (Romania), and a third which has experienced a gradual decline of religious practice (England). In Bulgaria the atheistic communist regime worked particularly hard to replace religious rituals (national and personal) with secular ones, whereas in England a similar process appears to be taking place without evident government direction.

Strikingly , however, the research team of Peter Coleman, Joanna Bornat, Daniela Koleva and European researchers, found that religious rituals remained important to most older people they interviewed in all countries throughout their lives, and were never supplanted by secular ones. In this respect, there was much less difference between Bulgaria and Romania than was predicted. It is in fact in Britain where there has been greater uptake of secular options for marking the key transitions of birth, marriage and death.

Experience of religious ritual was remarkably constant over the course of participants’ lives, despite official disapproval and some consequent fear in Bulgaria and Romania. Individuals merely adapted their ritual practice to the context, conducting baptisms and marriages covertly in the home rather than church. Grandmothers were found to have been important in ensuring ritual continuity, and communal religious rituals give older women social presence and power that they might otherwise lack.

Using life history interviews with people aged 75 and over, the project answered an urgent need to capture these living memories through a unique combination of oral history, gerontology and the study of religion.

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