4 Religion for a Postsecular Society? Discourses of Gender, Religion and Secularity in the Reception of BBC2’s The Monastery and The Convent (3/4) – Social Media and Religious Change

Despite the predominant praise of the nuns in the press, The Convent lacks the
allure of the first series for the critics; there is no talk here of being swayed or
seduced, and this representation of religion, which is more about the womens
emotional lives and struggles, is perhaps less attractive because it is perceived
as failing to provide the spiritual and aesthetic imagery which had attracted pos-
itive comments on The Monastery.
4 Retreatants responses to The Monastery and
The Convent
What then of the responses of viewers? To what extent do they mirror those of
professional critics, both in terms of gender and the construction and expression
of a postsecular moment? The viewing figures suggest that the audience, like
the critics, was less impressed by The Convent than The Monastery: the latter pro-
gramme attracted 2.57 million viewers on its first broadcast, and retained 2.39
and 2.35 in the next two, whereas The Convent started well with 2.75, most prob-
ably because of its forerunners reputation, but then dropped each week, to 1.8,
1.65 and 1.61 (BARB 2006). These figures, though still impressive in the context of
religious broadcasting, seem to express something akin to the disappointment
that domina tes the press reviews. Clearly, however, they can tell us little beyond
this in terms of the feelings and responses of viewers. In order to explore such
responses, I attended four retreats at Worth Abbey in May, June and July 2006,
after negotiations with the Abbot and Retreat Leader at Worth, Father Patrick
Fludder. At these retreats I presented myself as a researcher but also as a partic-
ipant, both in the time-honoured tradition of participant observation and as a
fairly accurate reflection of my own position, for like many of the retreatants I
had felt drawn to Worth by the experience of watching The Monastery (in my
case on video, in January 2006). The retreats I attended –‘Finding Faith and
Finding Sanctuary’–were designed by the monks as a follow-up to the pro-
gramme, a way of responding to the wave of enquiries about coming to Worth
which followed it. The retreats coincided with the broadcast of The Monastery
Revisited and The Convent, and there was lively discussion of all three pro-
grammes, often in the informal spaces of the retreats, over coffee or at meals.
However, as the retreats took place one year after the first broadcast, what is
not captured here is the initial response to The Monastery. According to the
then Abbot of Worth, Christopher Jamison, many retreatants who came to
Worth immediately after the broadcast were entirely new to religion. My respond-
ents, on the other hand, were mostly lapsed Catholics or Protestants, or practis-
4 Religion for a Postsecular Society?
ing Catholics or Protestants in need of spiritual renewal fourteen of the re-
spondents identified themselves as Catholic (including lapsed), and the rest in-
cluded Church of England, Baptist and Quaker, or general Christian.
I offered several ways of participating in the research a semi-structured in-
terview or discussion group during the retreat (at a time when most people went
for walks or had naps to recover from the early morning start), or an open-ended
questionnaire, which some people filled in at the time and others emailed later.
In these ways a total of nineteen responses were collected. Of these nineteen
people, fourteen were women and five were men; eleven were White British,
seven were Irish or British Irish and one was Lithuanian. The age range was
quite broad, with four under 35, four in their 40s, six in their 50s, and five
over 60. Most were in or had retired from upper or lower middle-class profes-
sions, and about two-thirds were educated to degree level or above. Again we
can observe that The Monastery is a middle-class cultural success. The high per-
centage of women in the group (and attending the retreats generally) is consis-
tent with other research, such as Heelas and Woodheads (2005) findings on the
significant numbers of women participating in both congregational religion and
alternative spiritual practices. I have given a full account of these responses else-
where (Thomas 2 011); my discussion here revolves around the extent to which
they are consistent with or in contrast to the press reception, and how they
emerge from the context of the retreats.
Of course, whilst my nineteen respondents do not in any way represent the
audience, they are an element of the engaged audience those for whom, in
most cases, the television broadcast has played some role in their decision to
come to Worth on retreat. Some respondents made a very direct connection be-
tween watching the programme and making the journey to Worth:
The Monastery programme has brought me closer to my Catholic faith and I was so influ-
enced by the programme and the love emanating from the monks that I wanted to experi-
ence a retreat at Worth Abbey for myself (F, late 40s, White British, company director).
I was absolutely hooked. It was the way the monks treated the men. There was something
special about them. I thought it would be wonderful to be in their presence. [] It was as
though watching The Monastery seemed to draw me to Worth. It was a journey I somehow
just had to make (F, early 70s, White British, retired secretary).
In these cases, retreatants seem to express a desire to enter the diegesis or nar-
rative world created by the programme and to receive the same attention from
the monks that the men in the programme benefited from. In this way, going
on retreat at Worth becomes a form of pilgrimage to the filmed site, which ac-
quires an added dimension of spiritual significance because it has been filmed
Lyn Thomas
and, perhaps more importantly, because of the way it has been filmed. The pro-
grammes high production values the music, setting and slow pace of the film-
ing make this possible for these predominantly (though not exclusively) mid-
dle- class viewers; there is nothing here to offend or jar, and the programme
corresponds to an aesthetic that appeals to their cultural backgrounds. If, as
Nick Couldry (2003: 77) argues, media pilgrimages are an acting out in space
of the constructed distance between ordinary world and media world”’,
this is compounded here by the fact that the media site is also a sacred space,
that is, one consecrated for worship, and in that sense is also extraordinary.
Couldry (2 003: 77) argues that we cannot fully make sense of such journeys un-
less we also consider their relationship to the domestic space from which the
media pilgrim sets out. Interestingly, the second respondent cited above ex-
plained to me that she had taken bed and breakfast accommodation for the
night before and the night after the retreat. Her motivation was clearly practical
in that her journey home was a long one by coach to the opposite end of the
country, but at the same time, the B and B seemed to be providing a transitional
space that would enable her to re-adapt to a less heightened reality, to ordinari-
ness; she described its homely comforts and how the woman owner would be
keen to talk to her about her experiences perhaps providing some of the
love that my respondent had imagined coming from the monks.
Others, as I have described elsewhere, talked about their ordinary lives in
terms of the exhaustion of working in a neoliberal regime, often in a caring
role (Thomas 2011). The domestic spaces were not entirely havens but were in-
vaded by struggles with bereavement, with personal and professional caring re-
sponsibilities and even, in the case of a (woman) vicar and a vicars wife, with
being, in some sense, professional Christians, never off-duty. The programme
had allowed these retreatants to imagine a space where they could be cared
for by the monks, like the men, but also a space of other-worldliness. Once
on the retreat, it was clear that many were fascinated by the monks, who were
simultaneously available and not available, in the world but not of it. This ef-
fect , clearly resulting from the monks vocation, which placed clear boundaries
around their interactions with retreatants, was intensified by the fact that they
had also appeared on TV and thus also in this sense represented distance
from ordinariness. The monks appeared from the closed space of the monastery
at the offices, chanted ethereally and then disappeared, just as they had trav-
ersed the television screen. The retreat leader, Father Patrick, slep t in the retreat
house, and he and one or two other monks shared meals with the retreatants, so
that ordinariness was at times restored in encounters over toast and cornflakes.
Nonetheless, there was a shared feeling of being in a special place. Retreatants
commented on the powerful atmosphere of the Abbey church, and some sat in
4 Religion for a Postsecular Society?
the church late at night in the darkness; others were moved by recognising some
of the chants from the programme or by seeing monks they recognised from the
television at the offices. The experience of the retreat seemed to be intensified by
being in the space where silence and mystery had been made visibl e. Signifi-
cantly, almost all the respondents singled out Tonys white stone moment,
which was also remarked on by the press, as memorable:
I was transfixed by each individual journey. Tonys moment was something which I still
find extremely moving. (F, early 20s, Irish British; childcare worker)
Tonys strange experience with Francis the white stone moment. (F, early 50s, Irish)
Tonys revelation very moving. (M, early 50s, Irish British)
My favourite image however was the one when the monk gave one of the men the white
stone and said it was something they did, following the book of revelations. That moment
it felt like all the talk of faith which could seem alien to non-believers was made real. (F,
early 30s, White British, administrator)
The last of these comments illustrates precisely how the programme has suc-
ceeded in making religious experience visible and real in a sometimes inimical
cultural context. For the retreatants, as for some of the critics, the representation
of spirituality and of mystery is a key element in making this representation of
religion desir able.
For anot her respondent, watching the programme had put religion back on
the agenda and acted as a reminder of a long-held desire to re-engage with Ca-
I was also impressed with the intellectual capabilities of pretty much all the monks. At the
point of watching I was very much a resting Catholic having been unable to reconcile the
rational historical nature of the studies I had been engaged in for some considerable time
with the leap of faith needed to remain a believer. (F, late 50s, White British, administrator)
One of the striking features here is the comment on the intellectual abilities of
the monks, which, along with the aesthetic qualities of the programmes, seem
to give permission to be moved by the representation of faith (Thomas 2011).
The secular, or even at times secularist, elements of the press reception are a sig-
nificant aspect of the cultural context in which the middle-class believers and
spiritual seekers interrogated here are operating. It is not surprising if they
found in The Monastery a form of religion that they could match with middle-
class taste and a source of support in secular cultural milieus:
Lyn Thomas
For myself I had many of my views reinforced. I was given permission to hold views I have
only felt able to share with few people in the past. (F, early sixties, White British, retired
social worker)
The programmes are used as a resource, not only in the sense of surviving in a
predominantly secular world, but also in a spiritual sense; they can be watched
over and over again because of their aesthetic and spiritual qualities:
Initially I thought what beautiful grounds Worth is situated in, and then gradually I became
impressed with the sincerity and gravitas of the monks. [] Sprog also recorded the pro-
grammes and we have watched them many times since. I use them as a kind of chilling
device. (F, late 50s, White British, administrator)
In contrast, The Convent is not seen as functioning in this way or as offering
these pleasures and support. The retreatants are at least as critical, and in
some cases more critical, of the programme than the press reviewers. Like the
latter, they are almost entirely positive in their comments on the nuns but very
critical of the women participants and of the programme-makers, whose motiva-
tions they distrust:
I felt that the makers of The Convent were trying to create titillating TV by putting in char-
acters such as the woman who lived with two men and contrasting her with the nuns in the
cloistered convent, i.e., trying to shock the nuns. Having these characters in the pro-
gramme totally detracted from the good things that could have come out of the programme.
(F, late 40s, White British, company director)
Feelings of irritation and anger with the women meant that the programme was
the opposite of a chilling device; for these retreatants, in search of spiritual
space and nurture, watching four disturbed and at times rebellious women strug-
gle with a regimented life was not relaxing. The phrase titillating TV also sug-
gests that The Convent has not met the requirements for quality television that
The Monastery so amply delivered. Whilst the monks were seen as more than ca-
pable of dealing both with the programme-makers and the men (whose most re-
bellious moment was when two of them ran down to the village to buy sweets),
the nuns were seen as vulnerable to exploitation:
My daughter and I have discussed The Convent and we both felt irritated / angry with the
women, respectful of the nuns, and slightly worried that the nuns, unlike the monks, were
being exploited both by the female participants and the programme makers. (F, early 50s,
Irish, consultant in health sector)
4 Religion for a Postsecular Society?