Episode 6: The Anglican Church Community in Rural Australia

For many towns in rural and regional Australia, it’s normal to see a church on the corner. You drive by, maybe slow down to take a look. But to Monica Short, the role of religion in Australia’s rural communities goes much beyond old buildings.

            In her work on the Anglican Church in rural Australian communities, Monica sees religion as a force that provides a sense of belonging and community. And more than that, she argues that these seemingly abstract concepts–community, social wellbeing, belonging–can and do influence an individual. And so, in times of hardship and struggle, the local church becomes a place of connection and support.

            On this episode of What’s Sociology Got To Do With It?, a bunch of philosophers and sociologists are name–dropped as Monica also explains how sociology allows individuals to see each other in a more critically and reflective manner. That is, rather than looking at others and our societies through our own norms and values, Monica argues that sociology allows us to step out of our heads and look at the bigger picture. And through the sociology of religion, Monica argues that academics and researchers can tie religion to its effects on cultures and communities across the world.

Monica can be contacted through her e–mail, mshort@csu.edu.

Transcript of Monica Short episode

Monica Short episode

[00:00:00] Monica Short: [00:00:00] Sociology pushes us to get beyond that, to wonder about things, to have an imagination, our sociological  imagination, and start to wonder is this common everywhere else?

 [00:01:00]

Sarina: [00:01:01] Okay, so thank you so much for joining us today on What’s Sociology Got To Do With It? Can we start by you telling us about your research?

Monica Short: [00:01:11] My name is Monica Short. I’m a lecturer at Charles Sturt University and a social science researcher. And what I do is I look at different things through a social work, sociological and theological lens. And more particularly, I’ve been focusing on looking at how the rural Anglican church engages with different populations: so people living with disabilities, people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. And it’s a lot of fun. It’s just great. And sociology is wonderful.

Sarina: [00:01:44] So this podcast is about sociology. We’re hoping that our listening audience has a good grasp of what we mean by ‘sociology,’ and ‘sociological lens’, but you mentioned there ‘theology’ and a ‘theological lens.’ Can you, for [00:02:00] our audience,’ explain what that means in lay person terms?

Monica Short: [00:02:03] So, theology is thinking about the big picture and meaning of life. Thinking about God. Thinking about why we’re here and bringing meaning into that. Now in terms of the Anglican church, it’s obviously from a Christian perspective-the theological perspectives that are being considered.

 And sociology and theology actually have a lot in common. There’s a branch of sociology called sociology of religion. And it’s a fantastic branch and that branch, when matched and brought together in relationship with theology, it’s a very powerful relationship that exists. And social work also has an interest in this field. It’s called spirituality.

So when the three come together, you get a much more holistic, comprehensive understanding of what’s the social side of what’s going on, like in a church. It’s great!

Sarina: [00:02:59] So, the [00:03:00] sociology of religion, can you talk us through some examples, um, ground that in real life experience for us?

Monica Short: [00:03:08] Well, it’s really interesting sociology. Religion has been around for a long time. So for example, you people might’ve known a Weber or Durkheim and they’ve talked about it. But there’s also another sociology of religion thinker, really early one called Anderson. It’s interesting when you read these people because when you read them, you think, ‘oh, you know, they wouldn’t have an idea about what’s going on right now.’ But when you actually read these people, you sit there and you think ‘not much much has really changed.’ So for example, I’ve been focusing on rurality and the church within a rural setting. And Anderson, when I read his stuff was writing about similar issues back then, like the role of the church of bringing people together. The role of the church about expressing what’s going on in society; whether that’s dealing with drought [00:04:00] or a lack of jobs or whatever, within a rural context. And then really thinking through, you know, how church brings support, like a spiritual wellbeing, physical and emotional wellbeing. Even things about, you know, people after church talking about ‘how am I going to get my cropping’ and someone saying, ‘look, I’ve got this. I can lend you this equipment,’ or ‘ I’ve got this hay, and you’ve got some animals.’ So just that whole social side of coming together as a community. Then alongside that, you’ve got sociologists  like Tönnies, who talks a lot about society and community. He calls it-I’m not going to say it very well because I’m not  European, but-Ge-Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft.

Sarina: [00:04:43] Uh, huh.

Monica Short: [00:04:43] But the whole idea of, you know, there’s different relationships within an urban setting and a rural setting. And-and that whole idea, he really pushes the idea of community and how important community is. And yeah, sociology brings themes [00:05:00] like engagement and belonging and inclusion into that justice. Yeah, it’s great.

Sarina: [00:05:06] Monica. That’s fantastic. And I know you are someone who’s just recently submitted your thesis, is that correct?

Monica Short: [00:05:13] That’s correct! Yes.

Sarina: [00:05:15] So when people ask you to talk about your research and what you’ve done in your thesis,  How do you explain it to other people and especially the part about sociology?

Monica Short: [00:05:26] People usually ask me about stories and they say, ‘oh, have you got any interesting stories? You know, has someone shared you any interesting stories?’ And I tend to focus on the stories that have been published cause they’re in the public sphere. The stories are pretty cool, so. One story, for example, that’s coming quickly to mind is about a young woman who has moved to Australia. And she’s from a non-English speaking background. And when she came to Australia, she was very overwhelmed. She found it very difficult to engage with Australian society. She had not [00:06:00] attended church before, but a friend asked her to church, someone else from her community, her cultural community. So she went along to the Anglican church.  They’re in a rural setting. She just was hanging out with people at church. And what happened was she started her work experience. And when she started her work experience, she became very anxious and distressed. She was worried she was gonna fail and she became so anxious that she stopped eating. And people at the church saw that she was losing weight quickly and became concerned. And so what they did for her was they started cooking meals. And the motivation behind that-one of the things that’s really nice about sociology of religion, it looks at the motivation behind something. The motivation behind that was because of the belief, the teaching, the Bible tenant of love God and love your neighbor as you love yourself. And so they cooked and encouraged her and made her feel like yes, she can do this. [00:07:00] Yes, we care. God cares. Everybody cares about who you are.

So it’s about identity, about culture being respected, about religion being respected. And sociology gets into all that sort of conversation. They’re all big themes for sociologists.

Sarina: [00:07:17] I mean, they’re the key things, aren’t they? And when we start talking about people’s community, their sense of social network or connection or lack of connection with those around them, with their identity and their inner identity, as well as their identity in relationship to other people. That’s all really core issues that we look at when we take a sociological lens to look at a problem.

Monica Short: [00:07:44] It is so cool. It is so cool.

Sarina: [00:07:45] So, what would you say are the benefits of applying a sociological lens to your research interests?

Monica Short: [00:07:53] So actually made a bit of a list of this because, um, I was so excited by that question. And then I [00:08:00] decided I have to trim the list down. So I’m going to get my listing out cause it’s just, it’s so good. So.

There’s an Australian sociologist called Murray Seiffert. He’s a retired sociologist now. I-I did some writing with Murrary.  And one of the things he really points out is it helps us interpret and understand social action. And that’s a huge benefit because, I don’t know about everybody else, but my temptation is to understand what’s going on within a group of people, within society, and the actions that are happening in my own limited experience.  In my own experience of walking out my front door and what’s happening up and down my street.

Sociology pushes us to get beyond that, to wonder about things, to have an imagination, our sociological  imagination, and start to wonder is this common everywhere else? Is this something that allows us to move beyond ourselves and have a global understanding? One [00:09:00] example is, there used to be a lot of ideas that society and the generation of knowledge is going to move through three phases from theological to metaphysical to positivism. The argument being that we will move from an understanding of God to what we can see in the world-the metaphysical. To, you know, a scientific approach to things-to positivism. Actually, when we look at the statistics around the world, that’s not actually what’s going on. It’s the exact opposite. The world, outside of Australia-Australia is an exception and there are some exceptions to this-the world is becoming more religious. And the predictions are that will become even more religious by 2050. Um-

Sarina: [00:09:45] That’s fascinating.

Monica Short: [00:09:47] Pardon?

Sarina: [00:09:47] I said that’s fascinating. From-

Monica Short: [00:09:49] It is really exciting and fascinating to know

Sarina: [00:09:51] -coming from a sociologist I’m in-sorry. Sorry. Go! I interrupted you. Go.

Monica Short: [00:09:57] When I moved outside my front door [00:10:00] and outside of my street in Australia and start looking and wondering sociologically about something, I start to see it in a different way. And my assumptions start to change. Um, so that’s a huge benefit. Like that’s an exciting benefit to be able to see things in a way that can be understood and interpreted more holistically and-and successfully.

 The other thing that sociology really brings is to engage with people in a way where you want to really value their voice. And we really want to see what we write is a reflection of what that voice of people is.

So, instead of me projecting Monica Short’s interpretation on something, I’m being encouraged by sociology to ask big questions and to critically self reflect and think about what is that other messages that are out there and how can I hear them and bring them in to my work. [00:11:00] How can I make sure that when I write about the rural Anglican church, the people in the congregations can say ‘ that’s me?’

Sarina: [00:11:08] Yeah. Okay.

Monica Short: [00:11:09] And that’s the tools and resources that I can get from sociology.  The other things I love about sociology is that it has this deep concern. And it’s because of that deep concern for people it’s willing to-to move across disciplines and engage with other disciplinary thinking. And I know that’s relatively new; like sociology hasn’t always been like that. When you look through the history of sociology, some sociologists really pushed back quite strongly about that and really wanted sociology to be a dominant discourse. But more recently you’ve got people like Gary Boomer, you’ve got people like until Peter Berger passed away. You’ve got all these sociologists who are pushing us, um, Giddens, to really think deeply out of a concern for somebody else and see how we can use our writing to bring [00:12:00] empowerment. And in doing that, you know, it becomes one of the number of disciplines that become a voice for social justice and social inclusion and belonging and respect and dignity and identity. And so, it is great.

Sarina: [00:12:15] Yeah.

Monica Short: [00:12:15] I love it!

Sarina: [00:12:17] I mean, I’ve got to agree with you there. I think, especially because that idea of the sociological imagination pushes us to question what are the structures that are going on in our society that interact and influence people’s everyday lives? And it really is that, you know, zooming in and zooming out of everyday lives, it allows us to zoom in and look at the details of people’s everyday lives, but also then to zoom out and say ‘well, how does this link with the wider society and things that are going on in this society?’

Monica Short: [00:12:53] So there’s something called, like for example, the social model of disability and what it argues is [00:13:00] that society can actually disable us. And it’s not actually people’s impairments that are disabling and causing many of the barriers, it’s actually the structures that society sets up. And that really came out in the research I was doing with the church. ‘Cause structures are a big deal. They can either empower and help people to develop and grow. You know, in terms of the church, ask and answer the big questions about who is God, why am I here? Who is Jesus? What did he do?  What is it about the world? Where do I want to position myself within the world? Like all those kinds of big questions about life can be engaged with and discussed. And sociology is just great. It encourages us to ask lots of questions.

Sarina: [00:13:46] Yep. So Monica, how would you say that sociology is disrupting or innovating a normal, hard science way of thinking about your research problem?

Monica Short: [00:13:57] So sociology [00:14:00] has disrupted in both a positive and a negative way in my field. And so that’s been really fascinating to look historically through bits of history of sociology and to think about that. So there’s a guy called Compt or Compte-I’m not certain how people pronounce it, people say both. So I often think, ‘oh, which is the right one?’

Sarina: [00:14:20] We”ll pop it in the show notes. We’ll pop it a link in it-the show notes for our listeners to find you you’re talking about.

Monica Short: [00:14:26] But talked about stages and argued about laws of three stages. And with the idea, and I was mentioning it earlier, of moving from theology to metaphysics to positivism and those stages. So Compt or Compte, however you want to say, he was the first person to coin the word sociology. So he’s a big thinker within the sociological world. And his idea was  quite a disruption, you know, let’s move it towards a purely positivist [00:15:00] view. And up to then, the generation of thinking about how the world works had been interdisciplinary and had been very focused on engaging with religious ideas. So for example, you know, if you look at Pluto-Plato, sorry-Aristotle, like the early thinkers, they engaged with religion; mathematics philosophy, sociology didn’t exist then. But with this integration of sociology into the generation of knowledge, what happened was there was a disruption that occurred. And so a whole heap of disciplines were being encouraged not to engage with the questionings that were going on, including theology. And that was a big disruption. And, and obviously I would argue not a positive disruption.

More recently, sociologists have a new disruption going on and they’re moving out of that kind of phase of being focused on a particular [00:16:00] view of knowledge generation. And it’s moving to, what’s called post-secular thinking. You’ve got sociologists like-and again, I’m terrible at pronouncing-José Casanova  Peter Berger, Gary Boomer. Like there’s all these fantastic thinkers who are encouraging us to move post-secular and to actually understand what is going on in the world. And they’ve brought some disruptive ideas in, which are quite exciting. I’ve got a couple of quotes from them.

Sarina: [00:16:32] Okay, let’s go there.

Monica Short: [00:16:34] So I’ll just look up those quotes. I have got them here somewhere.

Sarina: [00:16:38] That’s okay.

Monica Short: [00:16:40] So Peter Berger is an example of the disruption and honesty that sociology can bring into a discourse, into a discussion. So what happened was Berger actually argued in 1968, where he told the New York Times that by the 21st [00:17:00] century, religious believers were likely to be found only in small sects, huddled together to resist a worldwide secular culture. So he actually believed we were going to move away from theology. He himself recanted that in the 1990s. And in 2016, he actually states this and it must have been very hard for him because it was twenty-five years of sociological research that he had to recant and he is an international thinker? Like, he’s someone who often gets quoted. So I-I really admire his sociological integrity. Cause he’s willing to say ‘I got it wrong.’ So it says ” it is a thesis that modern modernity leads to the decline of religion. The more modernity, the less religion. I’ve changed my mind about this. Not because of any religious or philosophical changes on my own. But simply because the evidence did not support this thesis. [00:18:00] Every major religion is going through his period of resurgence in the world. Anything but secularization.” And so. His integrity as a sociologist has now, and others like him, has now disrupted again. Knowledge about religion and encouraging us to ask the questions about what is actually going on and to describe and analyze and critically reflect upon it. And to see how, you know, it’s creating new structures and what those structures mean for people.

Sarina: [00:18:31] And so interesting that quote. He did clarify that that wasn’t necessarily aligned with his own personal views, which is one of the things that you really have to break out of as a sociologist to say, ‘my views and my beliefs, my values, my way of moving through the world is this. But what is the experience of other people? And if I use this sociological lens to other people’s lives, [00:19:00] what is it that I can observe or notice going on there?’ So that’s a fantastic quote to have brought into our podcast today, Monica.

How do you hope to change the world with your research?

Monica Short: [00:19:13] I’m hoping to bring a more-a richer conversation about religion into the public sphere in Australia. And understanding also, a richer understanding of Christianity and a richer understanding of who we are as people and our sociality, how we relate to each other in a social way. Because I think it’s very easy, currently in the world to focus, upon the material side of the world-what we can actually see. But things like COVID-19, emotional scarring of  bushfires; all those things make us realize there’s a lot more to the world than what we actually touch. Our emotional wellbeing, our mental wellbeing and our spiritual wellbeing is just [00:20:00] as important. And I want to have open conversations with people, collecting wonderful stories about people’s lives changing and getting to know people for who they are, but also presenting those to the world so that we can come together with warmth and kindness and love. We can talk about God, we can talk about Jesus. We can talk about each other with openness and integrity and people can accept people for who they are. We can, you know, talk about things like belonging and we can talk about compassion and we can talk about being with each other during difficult times.

Sarina: [00:20:37] Well, I think this year in particular has probably made many people more open to those conversations. Especially, as we realize through the COVID-19 lockdown how much we need our social networks and those people around us. Both people that were possibly our friends or family before COVID-19 and lockdown experiences and those people that [00:21:00] we discovered as new friends through neighbors and sharing and that idea of shared compassion for a wider community.

Monica Short: [00:21:09] Yeah. One of the things that I like about the church is that it is this beautiful institution where people can belong. And belonging is a really powerful thing. And. I sometimes just give a little kind of role play, like a little experience of belonging. Is that okay if I share it with you? It takes thirty seconds.

Sarina: [00:21:30] Um, if sociological focused, sure.

Monica Short: [00:21:34] Yeah. So think about belonging. You know, which is a concept that sociologists took about.

Sarina: [00:21:39] Uh, huh.

Monica Short: [00:21:39] Think of a time where you belonged. Where you feel significant and important where your human rights are respected. Think of the time when you had a voice and what you said counted and people didn’t put barriers or structures that up made you feel uncomfortable. What did that feel [00:22:00] like?

Sarina: [00:22:00] It felt historical for me. As in quite some time ago.

I wonder what our listeners are feeling at the moment as they are thinking their responses to your questions.

Monica Short: [00:22:13] Wouldn’t it be wonderful for everybody to know that sense of belonging? And to be in a community and feel like they truly, honestly, belong. And that’s what my research is aiming for.

 Sarina: [00:22:26] Monica, that was very powerful. Where can our listeners, find out more about your research or get in contact with you? Are you on social media?

Monica Short: [00:22:36] Most people e-mail me. I’m a little bit old fashioned most probably. Um, so most people e-mail me just through the university; at mshort, short as in little, so m for obviously Monica. mshort@csu.edu.

Sarina: [00:22:51] Thank you so much for joining us today on What’s Sociology Got To Do With It?

Monica Short: [00:22:56] It’s a pleasure. That was fantastic. Thank you so [00:23:00] much.

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