Taking prayer on the road

The summer months are sometimes referred to as conference season and this year we are taking “Prayer as Transgression” on the road, with presentations in Toronto (May 28 – 30th, Canadian Society for the Study of Religion (Congress), Lausanne (July 4 – 6th, International Society for the Sociology of Religion), and Leeds (July 12 – 14th, British Sociological Association, Sociology of Religion Study Group SOCREL).

Academic conference presentations are one of the rites of passage for a graduate student, and even for the seasoned professor, they represent opportunity to network, gain insight into the emerging edges of a field, and enhance one’s academic profile.  Conference presentations also allow researchers to present preliminary findings to an audience who might challenge, affirm, or otherwise offer valuable input into one’s work.

Here are some thoughts on how this materialized for us:

Emerging edges in the study of prayer and religion. The emerging edges of the study of religion showed up at these conferences, even though they had quite different conference themes.

  • Religion, cooperation and conflict in diverse societies. Religion’s social force for good and bad was a recurrent theme at these conferences.  Religion as social capital, where faith communities and governments look to contributions for social involvement on the one hand, and on the other hand where governments and faith leaders find the need to “manage” religion for the conflict it can generate.  For our project on the study of prayer, we see in our data cooperation and conflict co-existing not as binaries (either/or) but rather as tensions (both/and).  As we stated in the conclusion of our Lausanne paper,

Cooperation and conflict–who gets along, who doesn’t–can be pitted as a binary that’s not helpful and not necessarily what we’ve seen in our participants that have and are navigating differences. Rather, it’s a variation of acts, movements and relations that range between cooperation and conflict. (Sharma & Reimer-Kirkham, 2017)

  • Religion and migration. Transnational flows of religion in historical and contemporary forms continues to be a topic much studied.  As two examples discussed at these conferences — historically, religion provided rationale for the forced migration of the African diaspora through the slave trade (Jualynne Dodson, Michigan State University), and the current Syrian refugee crisis has brought millions of Muslims to Europe (Veronika Rückamp, University of Göttingen).  Lily Kong (Singapore Management University) observed that where religious communities are flexible with their beliefs and practices, they are more likely to reach a state of “accord” in their new locale, although she also noted that integration is the default assumption, even though integration may not be seen as desirable by some diasporic communities.  For our project, prayer has been a key point of negotiation for migrant communities, especially in London.  For example, and not without some resistances, the hospitals have created designated spaces to accommodate the prayers of Muslim workers, patients, and staff.
  • Secularizing trends. Though there are exceptions to secularization as an inevitable, universal phenomenon of modern societies, most speakers spoke to social change in their respective societies that involved some variation of a diminishing influence of religion in public institutions and in people’s day-to-day lives.  For our project and in healthcare services in Vancouver and London, secularizing trends have resulted in the majoritarian religions (Church of England in London; Catholicism in Vancouver) shifting from “pastoral care” to “spiritual care”.   Our project has revealed secularized expressions of prayer, for example where meditation, painting, or being in nature are considered akin to prayer.
  • Micro level/working it out/lived religion (deep equality) – across the conferences we noted the examination of micro-processes of everyday life. Lily Kong in her plenary address highlighted the significance of meso and macro levels to migrants’ religious practices and navigating and integrating into a new place. Importantly, this causes us to pay heed to how the micro processes of prayer are entangled with meso and macro levels such as local hospital management structures and national policy guidelines on spiritual care in healthcare.
  • Social changes drive the need for expanded and adjusted definitions and conceptualizations of religion. These social developments of diversity, global migration, and secularization create the need to continually re-evaluate and adjust conceptualizations of religion, spirituality (and prayer, in our case).  Two examples of dialogue in this regard.  First, there is a dawning recognition that Christianity has been the default centre of the sociology of religion – meaning that it has long been assumed that religion involves beliefs, structures, and moral rules (reflective of Christianity).  There is a move toward alternate sociologies of religion (James Spickard, University of Redlands) that decentre this default position to reflect other faith (and non-faith) traditions.  In Canada, this includes a call to “indigenize” secularity (Carlos Colorado, University of Winnipeg) to reflect the influence of Indigenous spiritualities in mainstream society.  In our project, we have been challenged by participants’ views to open up our definitions of religion, spirituality and prayer, particularly in regard to finding ways to reflect the religious practices of migrant religions, while also opening to non-theistic definitions of religion and prayer.
  • Interdisciplinary approaches. At SOCREL, the conference theme asked, what do the centres of the sociology of religion look like in the 21st Century, and where are the margins and borders? Nasar Meer (University of Edinburgh) in his plenary on religion and racialization observed that sociologies of religion and race must, can and do inform one another. Scholars at the other conferences were also working across disciplinary borders to make sense of the sacred and secular in various domains. In our project we are very much working with centers and margins through our heuristic use of the term ‘transgression’. And while we apply sociology of religion to our data, this is almost always working with other disciplinary lenses such as anthropology of religion, feminist studies, health studies, medical humanities, chaplaincy, theology, geography along with the overlap between medical anthropology and medical sociology. We do this to make sense of spiritual, religious and nonreligious life in the everyday and in the public spaces of healthcare services.

Conference attendees’ engagement with the project. Few other papers at the 3 conferences addressed prayer specifically, however at each conference, attendees easily understood our study of prayer as proxy for the broader question of religion in the public sphere.

  • In Lausanne, our paper (presented by Drs. Sonya Sharma and Sheryl Reimer-Kirkham) was placed in a session on Religion in Public Institutions, which had other presenters speak to religion in various workplaces and public institutions (hospitals, courts, prisons). Attendees were interested in models of chaplaincy, whether driven by a value of universalism (e.g., generic spiritual care practitioners) or particularism (e.g., multi-faith chaplaincy), or some blend of these two.
  • At Congress in Toronto (papers presented by Drs. Rachel Brown and Sheryl Reimer-Kirkham), our attendees expressed intrigue around spaces and aesthetics, with questions such as “How can aesthetics shift and transgress the temporality of a clinical space?” This was deemed particularly important for those patients who might not resonate with traditional religious symbols, but who would appreciate nature scapes or artwork.  There was also discussion about the concept of transgression, and whether this was a relatively bounded term or whether it could serve as we intend — to open up new ways of thinking.
  • In Leeds at the SOCREL conference, Drs. Sonya Sharma, Christina Beardsley, Melania Calestani, Sylvie Collins-Mayo and Andrew Todd presented a 2-hour panel. In the question and answer period, one question asked by a delegate focused on transgression and marginalization, noting how in their research on chaplains in hospitals, they were often working at the margins in their role. Andrew noted, the repetitive work of chaplains, making a connection with a patient one day and then re-building that connection the next day depending on what has happened. Thus, there is a constant movement between centers and margins. Another question was asked about observations of group prayer in our data, as many of our examples focused on individual and one-to-one accounts. This highlights how prayer works at a micro-level, but also how prayer at this level can highlight the blurring of sacred/secular, private/public boundaries, and the ways chaplains negotiate identities and practices amidst what Christina discussed, local hospital management and national guidelines. This delegate gave the example of observing Muslim prayer in a hospital setting and how in this moment hierarchies between hospital staff are set aside as all pray together alongside one another. Another question was asked about how hospital chaplains sustain links with their own faith communities. We note that for spiritual care volunteers there may be more fluidity between these spaces and practices, but this might not be the case for all spiritual practitioners and volunteers.

Undoubtedly, these conferences have aided us in our work. And as we move into more data analysis and writing up, we look forward to presenting and dialoguing about our research at future conferences!

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Reimer-Kirkham, S., Sharma, S., Brown, R., & Calestani, M. (May 20, 2017).  ‘The Politics of prayer and belonging in Canadian hospitals’.  Paper presented at Canadian Society for the Study of Religion, Ryerson University, Toronto.

Reimer-Kirkham, S., Sharma, S., Beardsley, C., Calestani, M., Collins-Mayo, S. and Todd, A. (July 12, 2017). ‘Transgression in the Study of Prayer in Hospitals: Emerging Findings from a Canada/UK Study’. BSA Sociology of Religion Study Group Annual Conference, University of Leeds, Leeds, UK.

Sharma, S., & Reimer-Kirkham, S. (July 4, 2017).  ‘Prayer, cooperation and conflict in diverse healthcare settings: emerging findings from a Canada/UK study’. International Society for the Sociology of Religion, Lausanne, Switzerland.


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