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Tony Walter
Being Known : Mutual Surveillance in the House Group / Etre
connu : Surveillance mutuelle dans la « maisonnée » religieuse
In: Archives des sciences sociales des religions. N. 89, 1995. pp. 113-126.
Citer ce document / Cite this document :
Walter Tony. Being Known : Mutual Surveillance in the House Group / Etre connu : Surveillance mutuelle dans la « maisonnée »
religieuse. In: Archives des sciences sociales des religions. N. 89, 1995. pp. 113-126.
doi : 10.3406/assr.1995.981
La sed moderna de intimidad tiene un precio : el riesgo de no ser conocido por los otros,
reconocimiento que implica la fragilidad de la identidad per sonal. En este contexto las iglesias que son
cada vez más numerosas en concentrarse en el hogar familiar, pueden ser atractivas y la vigilancia
mutua asociada a sus formas de organización puede tener éxito. El autor explora las dinámicas de
estas iglesias, y pone en relieve una tendencia de las iglesias a separarse de la communidad global
exterior , y otra tendencia que consiste en disminuir la distinción entre iglesia y familia. El acento
aportado en sentimientos y a los valores de «reparto» tiende a producir dos grupos : los que tienen
suficiente confianza en la iglesia para «compartir», y los demás. La arquitectura circular de estos
grupos refuerza este proceso. El autor compara además la vigilancia que se ejerce en el seno de estos con otras formas de vigilancia. Por último, el autor estudia la influencia que sentimientos como
el amor la confianza pueden tener en esta vigilancia.
The modem desire for privacy entails a cost - the danger of not being known, and therefore of a fragile
personal identity. In this context, churches organised around the caring house group (of which there are
a steadily increasing number) can be attractive, and the mutual surveillance that this entails welcomed.
The dynamics of such churches are explored: there is a tendency to strengthen the boundary between
the church and the community outside but to weaken the boundary between church and family; the
emphasis on 'sharing' and on 'feelings' tends to divide those who trust enough to share, from those who
do not - a process reinforced by the circular architecture associated with these groups; surveillance in
these groups is compared with other forms of surveillance. Finally, the question of the extent to which
love and trust transform surveillance is discussed.
La soif moderne d'intimité a un prix : le risque de ne pas être connu des autres, qui induit à son tour
celui une d'identité personnelle fragile. Dans un tel contexte, les églises de plus en plus nombreuses
organisées en "maisonnées" peuvent séduire, et la surveillance mutuelle qu'implique leur forme
d'organisation peut être accueillie favorablement. L'auteur explore les dynamiques de ces églises, et y
repère une tendance au renforcement de la frontière séparant l'église de la communauté globale qui lui
est extérieure, et à un affaiblissement de celle qui délimite les territoires distincts de l'église et de la
famille. L'accent mis sur les sentiments et sur les valeurs de "partage" tend à faire émerger deux
groupes : ceux qui ont dans l'église une confiance suffisante pour "partager", et les autres. Ce
processus est renforcé par l'architecture circulaire selon laquelle ces groupes sont organisés. Une
comparaison est faite entre l'étendue de la surveillance telle qu'elle s'exerce au sein de ces groupes et
les autres formes qu'elle prend. Enfin, l'auteur étudie l'influence que peuvent exercer des sentiments
comme l'amour et la confiance sur cette surveillance.Arch de Sc soc des Rel. 1995 89 janvier-mars 113-126
The Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary defines surveillance as vig
ilant supervision spy-like watching superintendence French surveiller to
watch) Unlike much of the contemporary debate about which
assumes it to be an at least potentially nasty intrusion into privacy
this dictionary definition implies the possibility of surveillance being positive
as well as negative life enhancing as well as threatening Nobody likes to
be spied upon but to be supervised can be reassuring and even welcomed
In this article will explore trend in some churches toward voluntary sub
mission to surveillance This is most clearly seen in the practice of
shepherding among some house churches but also characterises house groups
within what might broadly be termed renewed mainline churches
will suggest that one reason for this phenomenon is that the modern
desire for privacy can leave individuals with the problem that nobody knows
me Being in community in which one is known would seem to be one
benefit of belonging to warm and friendly church just as it is of belonging
to family or therapy group with which will make comparison Being
known however involves degree of mutual surveillance which will argue
reinforces other factors tending to make such churches more sect-like will
also discuss whether current concern about secular surveillance has missed
the possibility that surveillance may be desired by the surveyed in order to
be known as much as by the surveyor in order to control and whether the
social-control function of surveillance is affected by the presence of love and
In village life mutual surveillance goes on all the time through personal
observation and gossip The lack of privacy this entails and its potential for
controlling individuals is not always welcomed by every villager some who
move to the big city find its anonymity refreshing and freeing
The anonymity that brings to urban dwellers freedom from social control
necessitated the development of various forms of non-personal surveillance
Without personal knowledge of customers characters and reputations banks
rely on computerised credit ratings without personal knowledge of customers
preferences advertisers rely on computer held information on the characteris
tics of individuals in order to target mailshots without personal knowledge
of where their clients are at every moment of the day some probation officers
being encouraged to explore the possibilities of electronic tagging Such sur
veillance usually invisible until you are refused loan or until the advertising
brochure arrives personally addressed to you is often resented by the public
presumably because it intrudes into the life of individuals who value privacy
highly 2)
Surveillance by more personal agents of the mass society can also be
resented book Haven in Heartless World 1977 highlighted the
failure of the modern suburban project the goal of creating private haven
from an alienating and impersonal mass society for ourselves and our family
had no sooner been attained than the haven was besieged by an army of social
workers educationalists and baby care books telling us how to run our marri
ages and how to bring up our children Likewise Cohen 1985 has docu
mented how the penal system in attempting both to prevent crime and to
change the behaviour of offenders has co-opted family school and neigh
bourhood Neighbourhood Watch schemes have the potential to transform
neighbourhoods whose inhabitants once hoped they might be havens of com
munity in heartless world into an arm of the all-seeing state while some
correctional programs in the USA require parents to keep diaries on the com
ings and goings of their delinquent children
The threat to privacy posed by such kinds of surveillance is well known
would like to concentrate however on another problem not an immediate
threat to privacy but rather consequence of privacy It too tends to end up
in surveillance but of different kind
The problem is simple The more private become the less am known
by others and not to be known is not to exist The furious yell of the
teenager to its parents or of the claimant to the social security clerk You
really know me You understand my situation reflects very
real loss of identity How then are we to be known
In their classic article Marriage and the Construction of Reality Berger
and Kellner 1964 have argued that the most common way of becoming
known is to get married by which term also refer to co-habitation
is structured way of knowing another and being known Within the modern
nuclear family there are very high levels of mutual surveillance between part
ners and between parents and children and these are in the main wel
comed If modern often fragmented and precarious sense of identity
derives as Berger and Kellner argue from the disparate and disconnected
arenas in which they act out the roles of worker shopper church goer leisure
centre visitor etc. then it can be very comforting to know that there is one
person my partner who has an all round knowledge of me For foibles
and weaknesses to be known and accepted because this person our partner
or even our children also knows our strengths means that in well-function
ing families pretence as to our true character is not needed as well as being
nigh impossible Partners can reveal themselves to each other can accept
mutual surveillance because there is mutual love and trust and because they
know there is payoff being known
That at any rate is the hope In practice major cause of unhappiness
in marriage is that the hope is not fulfilled How many husbands start an
affair with their secretary who presumably knows them rather well with the
line My wife really understand me In this case the wife does not
have access to those eight or so hours day when her man is at the office
she cannot survey him when he becomes worker and to this degree does
not really know him especially if there is no conversation about his work
when he gets home Surveillance is not total and therefore knowledge of her
husband is weakened
He is similarly handicapped in keeping under surveillance her life as
paid worker but he does have considerable powers of over her
life in the house assuming the still conventional distribution of housework
and childcare Through he may be at the office while she is doing the house
work or having an affair with the milkman he nevertheless knows intimately
the setting the house in which she is spending much of her working time
He can experience the defunct central heating that has caused her to wait in
all day for the repair person who never showed up he can see that his dinner
was hastily concocted at the last moment his children talk
It is perhaps therefore even more painful for her to feel she is not un
derstood Women often complain that their man monitors everything they do
yet still he know me If she does not know him in part because
of lack of opportunities for surveillance he does not know her in spite of
extraordinary for She ends up with the worst of
all worlds without privacy yet without being known and understood No
wonder so many women feel de-selfed by marriage Not being known by her
most significant other she herself barely knows who she is Or he knows
all too well that she spends all day as housewife and mother and thinks
all she is
In order once again to find herself she may seek therapy If surveillance
by her man has not succeeded in firming up her sense of being known then
therapy either with real therapist or by reading book on self-help therapy
offers the possibility of self-surveillance Hamnett 1990) and hence self-
knowledge This is offered particularly by the more popular humanistic thera
pies Psychoanalysis by contrast relies more on being known by the analyst
which when transference operates is comforting for the patient Being known
by the analyst however need not produce sense of being known by oneself
know of at least one case where an analyst refused to tell his patient the
truth for fear it would kill him.
Even if therapeutic self-surveillance results in sense of being known
however it bears the risk of further isolating the individual If patients are
to reveal themselves to the therapist or to other members of therapy group
whom they trust they must know that such revelations are confidential and
will not be passed on to third parties Since the risk of gossiping outside the
group is omnipresent group therapy works best for relatively anonymous ur
banités who can be reasonably sure that fellow group members do not know
their neighbours employers partners or lovers Members of close knit com
munities by contrast may be very reluctant to participate in group therapy
as Myerhoff 1979 182 observed in Jewish retirement community Or
to use 1969 terms the back stage of the therapy group must be
kept strictly out of sight of the front stage of everyday life 4)
If being known within the family is uncertain and if being known in
therapy has its costs another approach to the problem may be to join warm
and caring church that offers to embrace every area of my life Here perhaps
can be known here perhaps will be the love did not find at home here
perhaps will be the community so absent in the one-hour-a-week therapy group
whose members am not even allowed to acknowledge should chance across
them in the supermarket Those who join such religious groups often say they
were attracted by being loved and cared for by members of the group for
young adults especially the group may provide them with new and attractive
identity Barker 1989)
am not suggesting that all who join such groups are motivated by the
desire to be known But the modern concern with personal identity is certainly
one which such churches address as they preach Christ who cares for the
individual and in whom the individual can rest secure
Groups offering to reflect love in their own love for their members
are likely to use rather high levels of surveillance but converts and
accept this as part of the package welcome it even To be cared for must
be known To care for other members must know them Mutual surveillance
mutual care sense of community being known they all go together
This package is offered by some new religious movements Barker 1989
and by restorationist house churches Walker 1989) but mainline churches
that stress the importance of members being part of local house group or
cell and an increasing number do offer much the same How then does
the package work
Personal disclosure and group boundary
Sharing is word commonly heard in these churches by which is meant
not so much sharing of possessions as sharing of hopes and concerns burdens
and anxieties verbally through conversation and prayer This sharing listening
and praying occurs to large extent within the house group which is in many
ways like therapy group Though it is debatable whether praying and laying
on of hands have their secular equivalent in group therapy both kinds of
group consist of dozen or so people caring about their own and each
welfare contracted to talk openly and personally and to listen to
personal disclosures As already noted such groups require confidentiality
and certainly this is an implicit ground rule of church housegroups Although
some information may be shared with church members attached to different
house group it is assumed that discretion will be exercised when it comes
to talking with people outside the church fellowship itself One is hardly likely
to ask for prayer for some personal or embarrassing problem if fellow group
members may gossip about it to neighbour or newsagent
This surely helps account for why this kind of breaking of congregation
down into small intimate cells typically occurs in certain urban and suburban
areas where clear boundary can be maintained between the
and the local community Reed 1978 When church members come from
large catchment area and where friendships within the church
therefore do not coincide with his or her friendships with neighbours or work
colleagues it is easy to keep the contents of the house group within the eccle
siastical box Attempts to introduce this suburban style of house group into
village however almost always fail since potential participants know it
will be impossible to control the flow of information both into and out of
the group rural house group that succeeded in maintaining confidentiality
would undoubtedly and correctly be viewed by those outside as at best
clique at worst divisive and sectarian
House groups that work on the principles of open sharing and mutual
surveillance require tight boundaries if not around the house group itself
at least around the congregation of which it is part This suggests that
sects will find it easy to operate house cells and that non-sectarian con
gregations such as Anglican parish churches that successfully organise
themselves around house cells are likely to find themselves becoming more
sectarian If not all members of congregation belong to cells then an in
formal sect may emerge within the In the Church of England
these tendencies strengthen an already existing trend toward sectarianism
caused by among other things the decline of establishmentarianism
The church/family boundary
If churches that organise successfully around house cells are likely to have
or develop clear boundary between them and the local community there is
likely to be much less clear boundary between the church and the members
families If you are member of two units in which there is total openness
and mutual surveillance namely the house group and your own family then
the boundary between the two must be weak or efforts will be made to
weaken it This will be fraught if one or more members of the family adult
or child do not belong to the church If house group and family are to func
tion well you cannot tell the house group all about your sexual life without
your partner also being party to the discussion or to the prayer you cannot
be open with your partner about your religious doubts but not with the house
group Openness in each setting requires linkage between the two
Since not all group members come from families in which there is open
communication nor in which every member is converted it is not surprising
that concern for members families is often high on the agenda The
restorationist house churches studied by Walker 1989 177-88) for example
were characterised by considerable concern and on occasion clear advice
from house group leaders and elders as to how to conduct family life As
one leader quoted by Walker 159 writes It is not assumed that those
coming into the churches automatically know how to bring up their children
or how to have successful marriages These practical topics are carefully
taught and through close discipline the new understanding is woven into the
fabric of new style of living
The house churches concept of shepherding involves hierarchical struc
ture of care and responsibility Simplifying somewhat national apostles are
responsible for church elders elders for cell leaders cell leaders for members
husbands for wives parents for children Surveillance and discipline within
the family and within the church are part of the same shepherding structure
Walker also notes that these churches attract more equal distribution of the
sexes accounted for to some extent by their attracting the young to middle
aged fathers so notably absent from mainline denominations Walter 1990)
Mount 1982 has argued that the disintegration of the family that many
churches observe and regret is in reality of the control
over the family the ordinary mass of people has rejected the right
to tell them what sexual ethics contraceptive practices or discipline of their
children they should adopt The message from the house churches would ap
pear to be that churches that teach about the family but do not actively su
pervise their members families cannot be sure of regaining control over these
families Teaching especially if internalised by only one partner is unlikely
to have anything like as much effect as teaching both partners plus actively
supervising their family life
Sharing and polarisation
The introduction of open-sharing house groups often along with certain
kinds of charismatic theology and ecclesiology into congregation that pre
viously had rather blurred boundary with the local community can produce
within the congregation polarisation and division Although members typically
attribute such polarisation to the generation gap or to disagreements over wor
ship and theology can be due also to the dynamics of surveillance
Many people who like the new songs and choruses nevertheless feel un
easy because they feel their privacy is not respected they sense
they do not desire In many Anglican churches the sharing of the peace during
the communion service now consists not just of the celebrant offering the
peace of God to the congregation but of the members of the congregation
greeting each other sometimes involving extensive seeking out of people to
greet and hug For some this can be embarrassing they may not wish their
privacy to be invaded especially in the midst of worship Nor is this invasion
feared only by older or more conservative church members think of two
teenage girls who like the new choruses but each week dread the peace
Others may be cautious about mentioning personal doubts and problems
to fellow church member if they do not want that information shared with
certain other members One hears people keeping quiet only half
joking for fear might be prayed for The fear here may be not just loss
of confidentiality but also that if they are not themselves house group members
the personal problem will be put before house group for prayer re-inter
preted with little chance for the originator to establish the original meaning
As Hamnett 1990 observes the power to correct misunderstanding is key
requirement for making surveillance acceptable Hence those in the congre
gation who belong to house group may become more open with their prob
lems while more marginal members of the congregation keep quiet about
theirs and in the process marginalise themselves still further
In one Anglican church observed by the author those who joined the
newly formed house groups were typically young adults who had only recently
moved to the area or who had personal problems and only tenuous local friend
ships They found in the house cells caring group offering advice and coun
sel who would pray for them and provide emotional support and friendship
and even network for finding work in effect an alternative society Bruce
1984 But longer established members of the church also long established
in the neighbourhood had neither time nor need for an alternative society
In not joining house group they unwittingly colluded in their own margi
nalisation bewildered several eventually left
The architecture of worship
The traditional church layout with pews facing toward the front focusses
the eyes toward in Catholicism the altar in Protestantism the
pulpit Individual worshippers bored or yawning may feel guiltily observed
by the preacher or by God but their personal response to the service is largely
private vis-a-vis other Or stiff upper lip Englishmen and women
who do not usually cry in public may with some regularity have moist eyes
during worship without embarrassment since their tears go largely unob
served Indeed this architecturally-induced privacy may be key to the re
gression to dependency that Reed 1978 claims is central to worship 5)
Churches built in the past twenty or thirty years however have often
been built on circular plan in which the focus is on the
unity rather than on altar or pulpit Some older churches have had the pews
removed to be replaced by chairs which are then frequently arranged in
circle circular layout is also invariably the case in house group meetings
and in churches meeting in private houses In Catholicism this reflects Vatican
emphasis on the laity and the congregation in the charismatic movement
it reflects rediscovery of the doctrine of the ministry of all believers and
desire for participation Organising the church around house groups and
circular layout of the worship space typically go together
The circular layout is well designed for mutual surveillance The weeping
worshipper will be attended ministered to at the end of the service with
concerned huddles of two or three left behind in the worship area while the
rest of the congregation move to lobby or hall for coffee It also means that
the worshipper who is not truly caught up in the enthusiasm of the worship
is at considerable risk of detection Despite the rhetoric of spontaneity pres
sure to conform is enormous As David Martin puts it 1980 95)
house has to be rebuilt on an open plan with each cubby hole exposed to
public view Corners are offensive Personal meditation is disallowed Draw
ing on Victor Turner Martin observes that the old dialectic between subjec
tive meditation and the massive objectivity of the rite is replaced by an
attempt to pack everybody into unified collectivist circle 102 note 4)
Everyone is expected to receive the same message symbols are supposed to
have single and true meaning explained in advance to the congregation
Whatever the discomfort felt in such settings by some their appeal espe
cially to new converts is clear The setting instructs them how to behave
during worship and it facilitates an emotionally cathartic occasion that being
shared rather than private is all the more effective
Feelings and polarisation
Charismatic worship whatever else it is involves public display of emo
tion There are probably fewer rules concerning dress and outward comport
ment than in more traditional churches and the emphasis on personal
revelations from the Holy Spirit means that many renewed churches are less
dogmatic about the minutiae of dogma than have been some more conservative
churches Once clothing or even theology is dispensed with as mark of
respect or commitment other cues come to be relied on to detect commitment
Consequently the mutual surveillance of the circle is used to ensure not so
much that members all act or believe alike but that they feel alike The wor
ship is all about the congregation feeling joyful or thankful for what the Lord
has done for them or feeling responsive to what He is telling them recall
the anguish of one elderly and recently widowed woman who found herself
in two hour worship session in which every chorus and every spontaneous
prayer presumed everyone to be caught up in unmitigated praise
One consequence of this attempt to unify feeling is that those who reckon
their feelings fit the group expectation and who are concerned to be part
of the group allow themselves to become very open about their feelings It
is through such openness that you part of the group Those however
who suspect their feelings are not the required ones or who do not trust the
group with vulnerability become much less open with their feelings
Hence in English churches in which there is charismatic/non-charismatic
split one may observe the charismatics making emotional and other personal
revelations during worship while the non-charismatics reveal much less than
they might have done in more traditional worship This contributes to the
polarisation already mentioned and may also help explain why the worship
itself can be such bone of contention It is not the worship alone but its
combination with mutual surveillance that creates the two very different re
It is possible to argue that emotional conformity is becoming norm in
certain educated circles in the western world generally The emphasis on feel
ings that emerged in the 1960s along with certain popular forms of psychol
ogy that provide inventories of appropriate feeling eg in bereavement or in
anger) has created determination among many not to behave properly but
to feel properly
This is most apparent in the area of bereavement Mourning in respectable
Victorian society involved dressing and behaving in certain prescribed ways
irrespective of what you actually felt indeed the veil could conveniently hide
your true feelings Today the norms promoted by the bereavement counselling
movement are not behavioural but emotional indicating the kind of feelings

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