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

As alluded to in the press reviews, there was also a feeling that the nuns were
not entirely in control of the situation:
For their part, the nuns were out of their depth with these neurotic and manipulative
women, so week by week the viewer had to watch the nuns floundering. The nuns were
far too kind and compassionate when they needed to be firm and compassionate. (F,
early 60s, White British, retired social worker)
Clearly, watching the nuns floundering does not provide the experience of spi-
ritual nurture that was found in The Monastery. A crucial element of that nurtur-
ing is the sense of structure and authority associated with the monks, and par-
ticularly the Abbot. This seems to result in part from the fact that the women
participants do rebel more than the men they are constantly late for offices,
drink and talk in their rooms at night and even go to the pub. However, despite
equally caring and cogent analyses of their guests behaviour, the nuns are not
seen as authoritative figures in the way the monks are; authority is thus associ-
ated with masculinity and found to be lacking in femininity.
5 Conclusion
As the analysis above suggests, both the representation of religion in these pro-
grammes and its reception are highly gendered; The Monastery offers an image of
transcendent spirituality through a representation of masculinity that combines
caring with power, whilst in The Convent, the nuns are equally caring but are
seen as victims or potential victims of the programme-makers and their rebel-
lious guests. This threat to the sacred space of the real and filmed convent is dis-
turbing for some viewers, who are then unable to find in the programme the spi-
ritual comfort and resource that they sought and found in The Monastery. In this
sense The Monastery, which was hailed as a ground-breaking representation of
religion, in fact reinforces existing norms of association of the spiritual with
the masculine. Similarly, The Convent emphasises the cultural connections be-
tween femininity and affect verging on hysteria as well as between femininity
and domesticity.
In some ways the programmes are grappling with a problem that is inherent
in Christianity itself, that is, the gendered nature of Christian virtues: relational
work is still womens work, and putting others before oneself is a requirement of
many feminine roles. Thus the caring characteristics which seem extraordinary
in the monks become ordinary when associated with women. In one review of
The Convent, published in The Guardian, sociologist of religion Kristin Aune ar-
74
Lyn Thomas
gues that the women participants rebellion in The Convent is illustrative of a
general trend of women being dissatisfied with the church because it does not
provide spaces for anything other than traditional feminine roles: Since indus-
trialisation, the church has operated alongside the private sphere of the home.
Home-centred women without careers have been its backbone, running coffee
mornings, visiting sick parishioners and teaching at Sunday school (Aune
2006: 32). Both the experience of watching The Monastery and the retreats at
Worth offered an escape from this domesticated participation in religion,
which has traditionally been expected of women, to my mainly women respond-
ents. Off-the-record conversations with some made it clear that feminist critiques
of the patriarchal structure of the Catholic Church were being put on hold in
order to become immersed in the quiet and nurturing situation offered by the re-
treat experience. For these women, as Aune suggests, the realities of parish life
may be less alluring than the extraordinary spaces of the retreat and the pro-
gramme. The latter are even mo re extraordinary because of their masculinity,
which in time-honoured manner is associated with spirituality and, more inno-
vatively, with caring (Thomas 2011).
Both programmes, then, raise the unresolved question of gender in spiritual
lives and experiences in religious cultures in contemporary Britain; they also il-
luminate some of the tensions between secular and religious currents in British
society. In particular, the press reception of The Monastery expresses a tension
between the adoption of a secular (or even secularist), ironic mode and a dis-
course of being seduced by religion and of finding something in the programme
that is lacking in contemporary consumerist ways of life. The version of religion
that is attractive to reviewers in the quality papers and to my mainly middle-
class retreatants is focused on prayer and silence, offering an escape from, or
containment of, the affective excesses of much contemporary lifest yle and reality
television; it is also aesthetically pleasing. This finding is consistent with the in-
crease in attendance at cathedral services as opposed to ordinary parish serv-
ices, where attendance is in decline (Thinking Anglicans 2011); it seems that a
desirable version of Christianity in a context where a secular stance is often
the mark of education and middle-classness needs to be both spiritual and
spectacular. The success of The Monastery with professional critics and audien-
ces is in part explained by its combination of these two elements with caring
masculinities.
4 Religion for a Postsecular Society?
75
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