Further conclusions from the Cost of Conscience Survey
Last month this column was given over to publishing the initial results of a major survey of Anglican opinion. The information was gathered by Christian Research, the leading organization in this field, from a wide ranging and completely representative group of clergy and laity representing, in proportion, every aspect of persuasion of the Church of England. The huge response rate, incorporating some 20% of the parish clergy of the Church of England, and a 76% return from the representative laity make the survey’s findings very reliable. At a press conference to launch the first set of results we were extensively cross-examined by journalists who are, sadly, quite used to being spun a yarn by some Church factions who do not baulk at producing imaginative figures with no supporting evidence. We were happy to provide full details of the survey’s credentials and the full results tables and analysis of the relevant sets of figures. As a result we received extensive (and fair) coverage in the major secular and religious press.
The findings published so far can be summarized briefly thus:
Clergy 51% in favour
25% implacably opposed
24% do not want women bishops to officiate or stay in provinces that do not have them.
These figures gravely undermined previous feminist claims for 80 per cent support for women bishops. With such a radical divide in the clergy, almost half and half, it is scarcely surprising that Bishop Nazir-Ali’s committee has asked Synod to extend its reporting time by a couple of years.
We were able to reveal that, although 94% clergy were confident in their ministry as priests, only 84% were confident in their ministry in the CofE and only 81% confidently expect to remain Anglicans.
Our results revealed that bishops have been regularly, and one must assume deliberately, putting pro-women bishop incumbents in Resolution ‘A’ & ‘B’ parishes which have voted not to have even women priests!
Our initial findings revealed clergy beliefs to be less robust than one might have hoped and, in some articles of the creed, disturbingly weak. It is to this area of the survey that I return, in much greater detail, this month.
I have rehearsed these matters briefly because, shocking though some of these revelations were, they are far from the end of the matter. This month we are in a position to publish further related information from the survey, which has grave implications for the governance, unity and future of the Church of England.
Our sample of women priests was, necessarily, numerically smaller than that of male priests. There are less of them in the Church than male priests and we wanted a balanced and proportionate response. However, the survey went primarily to incumbents and those of incumbent status, so the women polled were, inevitably, of the more senior and experienced group. The group, indeed, from which, in four or five years time, the first English women bishops will be chosen.
Responses to credal statements (for example, ‘ I believe in God the Father who created the world’) were given under a number of headings from certain belief to certain disbelief. A category of believing but not understanding the doctrine was also offered. This would imply uncertainty at best and a clear inability to teach that doctrine with any confidence.
We wanted to know if there was any difference between the responses of female clergy and male clergy. We asked Christian Research to analyze the results and report back. Because the female sample is a smaller number it is important to state that there is a plus or minus 5% margin of error on these figures.
The Holy Trinity
Female clergy’s confident belief in God the Father registered 74%. Male clergy returned 83%. A correspondent to The Times protested that if there had been an option of God the Mother women priests would have done better. We have no reason to argue with that assertion. It is eloquent.
Female clergy returned a 70% confidence in the doctrine of the Trinity, male clergy posted 78%. The female score was undoubtedly boosted by the enthusiasm, in feminist quarters, for the Trinity as a model of relational theology.
On the Holy Spirit, often dubbed by women as feminine and the Sophia, matters were much closer 74% (F) to 77% (M).
If these figures illustrate a gap between the sexes on central articles of faith, they are as nothing to what happens when we begin to ask about Jesus, the defining person of the faith.
‘I believe Jesus Christ died to take away the sins of the world’ is confidently asserted by 76% of male clergy. This confidence falls to 65% in women clergy.
Jesus is asserted as the only way to salvation by a pitiful 53% of male clergy. Even so, this is streets ahead of the women priests who can only muster a 39% assurance.
Belief in the bodily resurrection of Christ is more positive with male clergy confidence up to 68%, while female clergy just make it over the halfway line at 53%.
Belief in the Virgin Birth tumbles to 58% certainty in male clergy and collapses to a dismal 33% in women clergy.
Even allowing for the maximum margin of error there is a huge gulf between the genders on the person of Jesus. Gaps of 3%, 8% and 9% on the other persons of the Trinity grow to 11%, 14%, 15% and 25% when we come to Christ!
These figures will not come as a great surprise to those familiar with feminist theology and the women’s movement in the Church. They may come as a shock to many ordinary churchgoers (and clergy) who have accepted the innovation of women priests without enquiring too closely into the movement’s origins and ends. The figures on women clergy beliefs are truly shocking. The senior analyst, who researched these figures, himself a supporter of women priests, remarked to me, as he handed them over, ‘This is very bad news for the future of the Church of England.’
If the women clergy figures are shocking, and they are, the men clergy figures are hardly reassuring. The question naturally arises, Was the weakness across the board of churchmanship in men or was it to be located more specifically?
One of the questions we had asked was for our respondents to identify organizations or movements with which they were associated. Clergy membership and affinity here would likely give some kind of steer on doctrinal bases.
The first thing that became apparent was that one group was disproportionately represented in the tally. Christian Research, with its impeccable database, had managed to throw up twice as many Affirming Catholic clergy as there are, proportionately, in the Church of England. Indeed, we had returns from the equivalent of one third of its actual clerical membership. It was the one blip in the otherwise exact proportions of all categories of priest, parish, gender, urban/suburban/rural, large/small etc etc. How had this come about? Was there a fault on Christian Research’s database?
The answer was utterly revealing. Parishes that had always been reliable traditional Catholic parishes on the database now were showing up with Affirming Catholic incumbents. Parishes that had passed Resolution ‘A’ (no women priests) now had 25% of their incumbents appointed who were in favour. Parishes that had passed Resolution ‘B’ (no women incumbents) were now showing 40% of the incumbents appointed in favour of women bishops. The ‘error’ was not an error at all but revealed with startling clarity the appointments policy of the bishops.
Affirming Catholicism was founded by, inter alia, men like the former Primus of Scotland, Richard Holloway, and the Archbishop of Wales, Rowan Williams, ‘to put the Catholic view in a positive light’. This was shorthand for being enthusiastic for women priests and positively tolerant of practising homosexuality. It has always been known by traditional Catholics as ‘girls at your altars, boys in your beds’. This has made its members particularly useful to liberal bishops seeking to undermine traditional parishes. In spite of this and in spite of Holloway’s apparent newly embraced atheism, Affirming Catholicism has always claimed to be fundamentally Catholic. This survey was about to test that claim.
(Other groups were proportionately represented with Evangelical Alliance at 28%, Forward in Faith 10%, Lesbian & Gay Christian Movement 5%, Reform 5%, WATCH (women’s lobby) 4% , Prayer Book Society 3.5% ( in reality much bigger but mainly a lay organization), and Modern Churchpersons Union 2.5%. The Affirming Catholic clergy accounted for 18% of the survey. In reality they are about 8% of the parochial workforce.)
Margins of Error
The larger groups’ returns may be subject to a plus or minus 5% margin of error. In the case of Affirming Catholicism this is, in practice, much smaller as we have, in fact, returns from one third of their clerical support. With the smaller groups there is a plus or minus 8% margin of error. As we are about to see, this doesn’t, in fact, make a great deal of difference.
A confident belief in God the Father showed Reform out in front at 96% followed closely by Evangelical Alliance (EA) at 93% and Forward in Faith (FiF) at 91%. Prayer Book Society (PBS) clocked in at 84% before we drop to 70% for Affirming Catholics (Aff/Caths), 66% for WATCH, 53% for Lesbian &Gay (LGCM) and Modern Churchpersons (MCPU) at 39%.
The Virgin Birth sees Reform at 92% certainty, EA at 85%, FiF 82%.
Aff/Caths lead the liberal charge with 24%! WATCH scores 20%, LGCM 17%, and MCPU 8%. (It is unkind but irresistible to remind you that there is a possible 8% margin of error on these last three figures.)
Here, as may be expected by long-term observers of the Church’s drift into liberalism, is a critical fault line. The main lobby groups for the liberal causes simply have no grip on the central doctrine of the Incarnation. With this profound weakness at the heart of their theology, it should follow that the place of Christ as unique, definitive and determinative should be similarly impaired. We are not surprised, therefore, to learn that the uniqueness of Jesus as Saviour of the world shows a similar disturbing split.
While Reform leads again with 92% confidence, WATCH leads the liberals with 22%. Aff/Caths declared 21% certainty, LGCM 12% and MCPU 6%.
With such a view, the whole task of mission is obsolete. If Jesus Christ is simply one of the ‘many ways up the mountain’, then most of the Church’s endeavour, not to mention the witness of her saints and martyrs, has been a profound waste of time.
Salvation in Christ
There is some recovery of confidence in the third question about Jesus. That he died to take away the sins of the world has Reform on 96% conviction, EA 92%, FiF 86% and PBS 84%.
WATCH leads the liberals again with 57%, Aff/Caths 53%, LGCM 38% and MCPU 25% in its familiar position.
However, when we return to confidence in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, figures for the liberal groups slump again. While Reform posts 93%, EA 91% and FiF 83%, WATCH manages 36%, a whisker ahead of Aff/Caths at 35% with LGCM at 25% and MCPU at 12%.
It is worth remembering with all these figures that they are returns from clergy who are supposed to be teaching the faith and preaching the gospel.
An embarrassing number seem to be drawing their stipends under false pretences.
Even when the liberal groups make a stronger showing, for example WATCH and Aff/Caths get over 60% for the Trinity and the Holy Spirit, LGCM gets up to 50% and even MCPU records 39%, it is still an alarming performance and between 40 and 50% adrift of traditionalist Evangelicals and Catholic groups. The clear implication of these revelations is that the liberal groups either do not understand the Church’s teaching about Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour or they simply reject it wholesale. The figures reveal a substantial proportion of clergy who must say the Creed with their fingers crossed.
Ignorance and doubt
What should be equally alarming is the level of ignorance. The liberal groups regularly returned some 20%+ of their clergy who claimed not to understand a particular doctrine. Levels of incomprehension in traditionalist groups, by contrast, averaged single figures. Again, in the biggest trad groups (EA, FiF, Reform) scarcely 1% evinced positive disbelief in any credal item or even agnosticism. In contrast, again, definite disbelief and proclaimed agnosticism reached levels as high as 82% in some liberal groups, seldom dropped below 20%, and in matters pertaining to Christ were especially weak.
I shall return to the extraordinary nature of these findings at the end, but there were two more questions that required investigation. We asked Christian Research if there were any obvious links or overlaps between membership of the various groups. Not surprisingly, most members of Reform were also associated with the umbrella group Evangelical Alliance. Forward in Faith clergy (I was pleased to discover) showed a 16% membership of that sinister and reactionary force, the Prayer Book Society! No other significant percentage associations occurred in the traditionalist camp.
When we turn to the liberal groups there is a significant cross membership. Nearly 20% of the Affirming Catholics were connected to Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, 11% to MCPU and 14% to WATCH. A quarter of WATCH respondents register their link with LGCM and a further 15% with MCPU. The association between the feminist and the gay lobby is logical in that both require a reductionist view of the authority of the Word of God.
The links between these groups are marked by the independent analyst at Christian Research as, ‘statistically significant and could not have arisen by chance’.
Women bishops and belief
In the light of all the above there was one final question we wanted asked by Christian Research in this particular area: Was there any difference in the beliefs of those who wanted women bishops and those who didn’t? Given the fact that ‘pro women bishops’ clocked up 51% among the clergy, their support cannot simply have come from the liberal groups. They must have some Evangelicals and Catholics among their supporters. Also, we can be pretty clear from the figures published last month that there are a good number of liberals who are not altogether happy about the prospect of women bishops. This is unlikely to be for doctrinal reasons. So it is important to get some idea of the doctrinal balance in the pro- and anti-camps.
Christian Research provided the following breakdown.
Those against women bishops (A), either implacably opposed or simply not wanting them in their province, gave God the Father a confident 89%. Those in favour of women bishops (F) only 76% unequivocal support.
The Holy Trinity sees ‘A’ at 85%, ‘F’ at 69% conviction.
The Holy Spirit sees ‘A’ at 83%, ‘F’ at 71% certainty.
Again, when we turn to Christ, the gap widens.
Jesus dying for our sins sees ‘A’ at 84% , ‘F’ at 65%.
The bodily resurrection gets 77% solid support from ‘A’, only 54% from ‘F’
The uniqueness of Christ, consistently weak, gets 62% from ‘A’ and a mere 39% conviction from ‘F’.
The Virgin Birth records 70% from ‘A’ and 40% from ‘F’.
The independent analyst concludes these figures with the sublime understatement that those who are not looking forward to the advent of women bishops ‘have a stronger belief system than those who are. ’ Indeed, had we only included the figures for those who stated themselves implacably opposed to women bishops the ‘A’ figures would have been much higher in credal confidence and thus the gap much wider.
What has emerged from the results of this survey is the final exposure of two separate churches co-existing uncomfortably within the bosom of Anglicanism. One is essentially credally orthodox and committed to the historic and Apostolic mission of the Church. The other is wrapped in the garments of Christian language, but has only the most tenuous grasp of the central teachings of the faith. It is no surprise that liberalizers are tempted to distort or ignore the Word of God to achieve their political agenda in the Church but the degree to which this is revealed here is truly shocking.
Power and influence
It may be tempting to dismiss the liberal groups represented here as relatively small beer in membership terms, but that would be to misunderstand their disproportionate political clout within the hierarchy of the institution. The Modern Churchpersons Union is tiny. Its Christian credentials revealed here as virtually non-existent. However, its way of thinking would not be alien to a number of members of the bench of bishops and, much worse, to a good number of teachers in the theological training colleges. Its President, John Saxbee, has recently been made Bishop of Lincoln.
WATCH is the umbrella women’s pressure group and contains the leading lay and clerical members. It represents the best placed advocates of feminism in the Church. It is quite likely that it will provide candidates for the first woman bishop. Again, it is a relatively small organization, but it has enjoyed membership of the Archbishops’ Council and the ear of most of the liberal bishops with seats on their councils.
Affirming Catholicism has always enjoyed patronage at the very highest level. In its early years it once claimed to have 24 bishops among its members. This was rapidly seen as a major indiscretion and now most episcopal sympathizers to do not officially ‘belong’. Nevertheless, they are on the mailing list and have been among the most generous supporters of the organization’s £500,000 Millennium Appeal. It is unclear whether this generosity has been from their private wealth or from their discretionary funds, the charitable patronages they exercise and the influence they wield, as Visitors, over some the fabulously wealthy religious houses. The Aff/Caths website acknowledges institutional donations from charities, institutions and convents. Why are the supposed guardians of the Apostolic Faith funding an organization with so little credal confidence while regularly excluding orthodox Evangelicals and Catholics from office?
The Aff/Cath Executive Committee includes Bishop Richard Holloway (former Primus of Scotland), the Bishop of Salisbury (David Stancliffe), the Bishop of Sheffield (Jack Nicholls). Its American patron is Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold. But towering above all these minor bishops and the ranks of, the now closet, episcopal support is the man whose sermon, on June 9th 1990, launched the organization – Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Wales and expected to be Archbishop of Canterbury.
Williams, trustee and member of the executive committee, said then that Affirming Catholicism was to affirm tradition ‘in its proper and fullest sense’ not as ‘a lifeboat in which to escape the present’ but as ‘a crucible in which the experiment of the Christian life is constantly tested.’ The tradition ‘in its proper and fullest sense’ does not, from this survey, apparently, include much of the historic Christian faith. You have been warned.
Robbie Low is the Vicar of St Peter’s, Bushey Heath in the Diocese of St Alban’s.