By Stringer, Martin D.
Cross Currents , Vol. 58, No. 3
I first met Lowell Livezey in Chicago in the early 1990s. Lowell was in the early stages of the Religion in Urban America Project (Livezey 2000a) and I was part of a group from the Department of Theology in Birmingham who had come to Chicago to explore questions of young people and violence in the city (Read and Wollaston 2001). It was clear to both of us that we shared a great deal in common. We were both fascinated by, even obsessed with, the city and the idea of the city. We had both had experience of community organizing in different fields. We were both committed to the idea that the study of the city must involve direct contact with real people and real communities. We both saw and hoped to be able to demonstrate the very important role that religion does, and should play within the contemporary city.
There were also a number of significant differences. Lowell had far more experience in a range of different activities than I did; he was older and undoubtedly wiser. I had background training in anthropological and ethnographic methods that Lowell told me he wanted to learn from. The kind of cities I was used to in the UK, Manchester and Birmingham were very different from Chicago, Boston and New York, which have been the major centers for Lowell's work. More importantly, perhaps, Britain and the United States had had a very different history of religions, of religious institutions and of immigration and all these were to affect the different ways in which we each thought about essentially the same issues.
Lowell was to focus, in much of his work, on neighborhoods and religious institutions, although almost always on the local institution, the neighborhood church or synagogue rather than national structures (Livezey 2000b). I began to be interested not so much in the institutions, although I have done some work within congregational studies (Stringer 2004), but more on the people who do not claim a religious identity and do not link into institutional networks (Stringer 2006). This does, to some extent, reflect differences between Britain and the United States, but to stretch this too far would be to distort the real picture. There have been some very important studies of religious institutions within British cities (Guest 2007), and some very significant work on the understandings of religion among ordinary people with the cities of the United States (Bender 2003). Both Lowell and I, however, had our main focus on the local, on the intra-city aspects of religion.
During our many discussions over the intervening years, as we met at various conferences, or while sharing hospitality in Chicago, Vermont, New York or Worcestershire, we both talked about how we might be able to build on our own, and our colleagues', individual work on the local role of religion in the city and to be able to talk more broadly and more generally about the role of religion within the city as a whole. Other theorists have attempted this, with greater or lesser success, but these have tended to be scholars working entirely at the theoretical level, without the rootedness in the local that has been such an important part of both our work (see e.g., Baker 2007, Sandercock 2003, Sassen 1991). We were also conscious of the difficulty of talking about the city as a single unit and trying to decide either where its boundaries should be drawn, or what kind of model or map of the city we might be working with (political, economic, cultural or whatever). I am not sure that we ever got to a satisfactory conclusion to these debates, and nor, I guess, were we really trying to. In this essay, however, I want to take the opportunity to put some of that thinking down on paper and to attempt an initial foray into thinking about the roles of religion within the city as a whole. My only regret is that this will only ever be one side of our discussion. I really miss the possibility that Lowell could reply, and I therefore invite others to enter into the discussion in order to continue the debate. …