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Artillery Row

Concern trolling the clergy

The Church of England should reject The Times’ advice

At the end of July, Kaya Burgess, the Religious Affairs correspondent of The Times, sent out an email to 5,000 Church of England clergy. It invited them to complete a questionnaire giving their views on a whole range of issues, including whether Britain is a “Christian” country any more, the Church’s teaching on sexuality, their own morale and the leadership of the Church.

It made headlines on Tuesday morning, leading with “Britain is no longer a Christian country, say frontline clergy” in the report on the survey (which you can read here without paying) Then there was a Leader column with a rather different message — that the C of E needs to align itself with culture on the question of sexuality if it is to avoid extinction. The world has moved on and left the General Synod behind, apparently. If it is to avoid irrelevance, the church would be wise to embrace the liberal instincts of its clergy and the country.

Strikingly, the Leader and the research summary are pointing in completely opposite directions. If Britain is “no longer a Christian country” and the Church “embraces the liberal instincts of the country” on sexuality, then won’t the Church no longer be a Christian church?

That is only the start of the problems. The whole basis of the survey, and the confident claims it makes, is based on a falsehood. The article (and news coverage in different media) claimed that The Times had undertaken a survey “of 1,200 clergy”. It had done no such thing.

It sent out 5,000 invitations, then used the results of 1,200 who responded. The one thing we can report with confidence is that “76 per cent of C of E clergy have better things to do in August than complete a survey”. You don’t have to think too hard to work out some of the selective factors motivating you to complete it or ignore it. Suppose you are leading a large and growing church, and you are taking a group from your church to one of the summer festivals. Are you going to fill out the form? Likely not.

On the other hand, suppose you see this as a potential way to stir up the C of E pot again and express your own discontent on various issues — are you going to fill in the form? Quite likely. There is a very clear reason for treating the results as carrying a heavy bias. As far as I can see, The Times has done nothing to assess the balance of responses, in terms of the split male/female, parochial/sector ministry, licensed/permission to officiate, stipendiary/self-supporting, even full-time/part-time or retired. Without these basic checks, the survey offers us little more than the views of those who selected themselves by responding.

This really is the worst way to conduct an opinion poll or survey.

Wherever the report claims “clergy think that … ” or “56 per cent of clergy have this view”, none of that is true. Every single claim needs to be moderated by “of those clergy who selected themselves by completing the survey”.

It gets worse. If you look very carefully at the bottom of the chart on “Workload pressures”, the only responses considered are of clergy who are under the age of 70. This turns out to be a mere 769 of the 1,185 responses in total, 65 per cent of the responses on which the conclusions are based, and a mere 15 per cent of the 5,000 invited. At one level, it is not surprising that more retired clergy found the time to complete the survey — but it raises even more sharply the representative nature of the responses.

I completed the survey in August, but with just about every section, I wanted to say, “But that is a false dichotomy!” or “Yes, but not for the reason you think”. On 25 August, having completed the survey, I wrote to Kaya Burgess and highlighted numerous problems with the wording (including their claim that February Synod voted to bless same-sex relationships, which it hadn’t). He replied that he had taken advice from pollsters (though did not say who, and none are mentioned in the results). I gave him specific examples of errors and omissions, including asking about welfare and hardship but without asking about marital status, which can make all the difference.

In an interview on Times Radio yesterday morning, I mentioned these things. Charlie Bell, who was also on, said it is no good criticising the method if you don’t like the outcome — and I pointed out that I had criticised the method before I knew the outcome.

In short, this survey might give an insight into how some clergy think, but it cannot be taken as indicating what “clergy on the frontline” as a whole think. It means that the survey might agree with evidence from elsewhere on some issues (shoot at random, and you are likely to hit the target once or twice), but on other issues the claims will be very wide of the mark.

The main issues featured in yesterday’s article were whether Britain was a Christian country, views on conducting same-sex marriages, clergy morale and confidence in leadership, and continued decline in C of E attendance. It is likely that other issues in the survey will be picked up in the next day or two — though of course any decent survey would give access to the questionnaire and the raw data, allowing people to draw their own conclusions.

On the question of “Christian Britain”:

Asked whether they think “Britain can or cannot be described as a Christian country”, only a quarter (24.2 per cent) answered: “Yes, Britain can be described as a Christian country today”. Almost two thirds (64.2 per cent) said Britain can be called Christian “but only historically, not currently” whilst 9.2 per cent answered “no”.

How can you ask a question like this without allowing some exploration of what the phrase “Christian country” might mean? Gavin Collins, suffragan bishop in Oxford Diocese, drew the comparison with Iran as a religious nation on LBC yesterday evening — as a good thing that we are not like that.

Christians are called to shape and influence the culture they are in

This involves asking a complex set of questions around our constitution, since King Charles took an oath at his coronation that he would defend the “Protestant Reformed faith of the Church of England”. There is a long legacy in our landscape of church buildings; the most striking feature of any English village is the church spire. There is the foundation of our legal system in the belief that justice and the law is not something we merely decide for ourselves, but something given and external to us to which we are accountable. There are also the rapid changes we have seen in our culture over the last 30 years, reflected in our entertainment media as well as finding their way into strategies and priorities for Government and in education.

Underlying all that is the question: how many people in Britain are professing Christians? I was encouraged that, on Times Radio, Charlie Bell and I could agree that the heart of this question is how many people know Jesus as their saviour. Christians are called by Jesus to be salt and light, shaping and influencing the culture and context that they are in and not “allowing the world to squeeze you into its mould” (Rom 12.2).

It might be that those clergy who said Britain is not a Christian country saw this as something positive: we have a job to do in proclamation of the good news of Jesus and his offer of life, and teaching about what it means to follow him. These are the first two of the Five Marks of Mission of the Anglican Communion.

On the inevitable question of sexuality:

A majority of priests want the church to conduct same-sex weddings for the first time and formally drop its centuries-old opposition to premarital and gay sex, in a historic shift that campaigners hope will lead to a change in teaching.

Here we find the poor methodology coming to bite. This self-selecting group is now claimed to represent the views of “the majority of priests”, which of course they don’t. I do find it curious that those who want change in the Church’s teaching seem to resort to dubious methods and make false claims to support their cause. I wonder why that is?

Earlier this year, the “Campaign for Equal Marriage” invited clergy to sign a statement saying that they would be “willing to conduct same-sex marriages should they become legal”. That is quite a low bar — that in the case that the Church changes its doctrine, they would do this — and yet they only got 1,000 clergy out of the 20,000 to sign. That suggests that the Times sample was not at all representative. In Synod, even with the assurance that the doctrine of the Church remains unchanged, the proposal to continue to explore possible “prayers of love and faith” only passed by 52 per cent to 48 per cent in the House of Laity.

Even the basis of the question by the Times was in error:

Bishops have, however, said they will allow priests to “bless” gay couples and are under pressure to go further and permit same-sex weddings.

If you followed the debate at all in February’s Synod, it was strenuously denied that any Prayers of Love and Faith would offer “blessing” of a relationship.

This makes the response of supporters of change rather strange. Andrew Foreshew-Cain of the Campaign for Equal Marriage (who left the C of E to marry his partner) thinks it is “absolutely huge”. Linda Woodhead says, “These are very interesting findings.” Neither appear concerned at the poor methodology and the unrepresentative nature of the group. If such a change would be so significant, why has no one commissioned an actual, well-researched survey that would give a clear view?

Faith in the pews is a long way from Christian orthodoxy

The answer appears to be entirely pragmatic. According to Woodhead, the way we should do our theological thinking is not by reading scripture, or by engaging in the issues carefully, or considering the views of theologians past and present, but by having our leaders “listen” to the grassroots. Apparently, we ought to do our theology by opinion poll. That would save a lot of time and effort — but there is a snag. Research on “ordinary theology (what members of the average congregation actually believe) shows that much of the faith in the pews of the C of E is a very long way from anything resembling Christian orthodoxy. Many Anglican churchgoers don’t believe that Jesus really was the second person of the Trinity incarnate, and they don’t believe that his death really had atoning effectiveness.

The interview work presented here indicates that atonement theology in particular is often a stumbling block for many. Indeed, the majority (those with soteriological difficulties, the exemplarists plus some of the traditionalists) have bypassed the traditional theology of the cross, judging it irrelevant to their religious needs. Their dominant theological position may be said to be “Christianity without atonement”, as observed in Taking Ordinary Theology Seriously.

The exception is those churches that actually believe in ordained leaders teaching the faith and lay members taking this learning seriously. They mostly call themselves “evangelical”. The New Testament word for those committed to learning is “disciple”.

Tom Swarbrick on LBC Radio raised this question in his interview with me. He quoted Nick Baines, the bishop of Leeds, who commented that:

The church is the church, and, as such, not a club. It has a distinct vocation that does not include seeking popularity.

Swarbrick responded, “But your own clergy don’t believe the Church’s doctrine!” The dissonance here is just one part of a wider problem: despite very clear statements about the doctrine of the C of E in canon law, despite the clarity of the Articles and Ordinal as founding documents, and despite the clear statement made by clergy at ordination that they believe and will expound the doctrine of the Christian faith as the Church of England has received it, it is very clear that many clergy do not. Because of this almost unbounded diversity of views within the C of E, we have lost the ability to speak clearly on any major issue — other than those where our views will not cause any real dissent.

The comments on clergy morale seem to me to be much closer to the evidence found elsewhere — but even in this survey, there is something interesting happening. There is general gloom about the future of weekly services, with only 44 per cent of the respondents thinking that it is “very likely” that their church will continue to hold weekly services. Only 10 per cent think that “church attendance” will grow over the next 10 years, and another 10 per cent think it will remain static. At the same time, only a third feel their workload is manageable, and a third have thought about quitting in the last five years.

This self-selected group think that the Church should change its doctrine on marriage, see continued decline as the future of the Church, and don’t think the task of local church leadership is manageable. It is an interesting combination.

That takes us, finally, to the proposal of the Leader comment. I think it is right to note the challenge that the C of E faces in its leadership:

The Church of England is enduring a prolonged crisis of confidence, and it is nowhere more clearly illustrated than in a survey of frontline Anglican clergy conducted by this newspaper. The findings make disquieting reading for the church’s leadership, suggesting widespread pessimism and discontent amongst those who struggle to maintain congregations and keep parishes alive.

It is not hard to see how decisions to gradually reduce the clergy stipend and slash the pension have contributed to this. It is also not hard to see the impact of the way that the debate on sexuality has been handled — raising stress levels, exacerbating division at every level, and creating a prolonged period of uncertainty. This has been made worse by the very poor way the whole debate has been conducted, with those seeking change appearing content to drive proposals through by force or even backroom coercion.

Where the Leader comments goes wrong is precisely on this point:

In supporting these views Anglican priests are doing no more than mirroring those of the general population; more than half of Britons believe the Church of England should marry same-sex couples. The world has moved on and left the General Synod behind. If it is to avoid irrelevance the church would be wise to embrace the liberal instincts of its clergy and the country. The rearguard action being fought by traditionalists has gone on too long and will end only one way.

This is a statement marked by ignorance and intolerance. There is complete ignorance of the views of the world-wide church, indeed the consensus view of the church catholic down the ages.

The creational-covenant pattern of marriage … is a consensus doctrine of the church catholic. Until the present generation, all Christians everywhere have believed, and every branch of the Christian tradition has taught, that marriage is man-woman monogamy … Marriage, the whole church has always confessed, is not only a monogamous union but also a man-woman union.”

The statement also shows ignorance of the basic patterns of history. How did Britain ever become the “Christian country” which is now apparently in decline? It wasn’t by Christians aligning themselves with the culture around them. As historian Tom Holland has expressed eloquently, the reason we no longer believe that some people can be traded as objects in the marketplace, why justice should hold all to account, and why sexual desire (particularly that of men) should be disciplined and have social boundaries, is precisely because Christians down the ages did not “embrace the instincts” of the culture they found themselves in. Instead, they remained faithful to the teaching of Jesus and the gospel. Eventually culture was shaped by the gospel, not the other way around.

It also shows ignorance of the way that, up till now, the C of E has done its theological thinking. It is ignorance of what is happening in the church in England — that those attending C of E churches make up a mere 20 per cent of Christians in church on a Sunday, and that overall attendance is not in fact in decline. It is ignorant of the fate of the Western churches that have changed their doctrine of marriage — which have all, without exception, seen accelerating decline almost to the point of oblivion. There is finally complete ignorance of the theological position of those other churches that are growing — the vast majority of which uphold the historic, consensus position that continues to be the C of E’s doctrine.

Bypassing well-researched polling, bypassing understanding of the Church, of history, of theology, this comment demands that the Church of England conform to the secular views of a secular paper in a secular culture.

I wonder whom they will target next?

A version of this piece first appeared at Psephizo.

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