Terry Buckingham summarizes the insights provided by a recent survey of the beliefs and views of over 1,000 committed Christians from a broad Anglican spectrum
Supporters of the legislation enabling women to be consecrated to the episcopate wrote to the House of Bishops in May this year, urging them to ‘listen to the mind of the church’. By this they meant the mind of the Church of England rather than that of the universal Church – which tends to take a very different view of the issue.
Nevertheless, if we are to ascertain the mind of the Church of England we could do no better than to look at recent work published by Christian Research; a respected, independent research organization, they are adept at exploring and contrasting attitudes and beliefs of Christian and secular groups.
Sometimes it can be very difficult to get a sense of proportion over statistical data. It may help by contrasting support for the monarchy. In May this year the Guardian reported that, in her jubilee year, the Queen is enjoying record popularity with 69% support in a survey on the monarchy.
Christian Research consulted over 1,000 committed Christians, 90.4% of whom were lay and 49.2% female. Full results of the survey are appended. Survey results give both numerical responses and, in brackets, percentages – respondents did not have to answer all the questions posed to them.
Their commitment may be gauged from the fact that 95% declared that they attended church at least once per week, 92% praying daily or most days and 67.8 % reading the Bible daily or most days.
It was not surprising, therefore, that 82.3% were happy to assert that they knew that God really existed and had no doubt about it. It was heartening that 63.4% described their faith as the most important thing in their life and 31.1% as more important than most things in their life.
Question 7 asked the participants whether they agreed or not with a number of statements – that were, in fact, statements taken from the Church’s Creed. Given that 90.4% of respondents were lay, it was gratifying that respondents believed in their hearts what they professed with their lips. Questioned on their acceptance of these creedal statements, e.g. belief in God, the virgin birth, the Holy Spirit and so on, levels of agreement were typically over 98%. Slight reservations were expressed about the virgin birth (an acceptance rate of 96.2%); that faith in Jesus Christ was the only way to be saved (an acceptance rate of 91.3%); and that the Bible had supreme authority to speak into our lives (an acceptance rate of 92.6%).
It is interesting to compare these data with those published following a survey of 1,800 clergy, by Christian Research in 2002, about their beliefs and moral teaching. Then, clergy were asked if they had a sure faith and the confidence to teach the central unifying statements of Christianity. Acceptance rates of conservative evangelical and catholic clergy in 2002 were broadly similar to that found in the present study. Among affirming catholic and liberal clergy, however, such acceptance rates were reported as significantly lower.
Respondents could be said to represent the backbone of the Church of England. They were committed, devout, faithful Christians drawn from a broad Anglican spectrum with orthodox theological perspectives. The breakdown of the respondents by ‘churchmanship’, canvassed and qualified by Question 3, mirrored results already gathered in a 2005 Christian Research survey of the same subject.
The results are very direct. The online, private nature of the survey has managed to avoid the inevitable bias generated by having to declare one’s views publicly. This would seem to be more effective than having to infer trends from voting patterns at Deanery or Diocesan Synods, fora where minority views are never easy to express.
Among the most topical of issues facing the Church of England is that of the consecration of women to the episcopate. In Question 9 respondents were asked their opinion on the introduction of women bishops. It is not surprising that 47.6% of respondents would like to see female bishops in the Church of England as soon as possible. Some within the Church, noting the changes within contemporary society, question the basis of Christian tradition.
Are there ill-founded aspects of that tradition that in some way undermine our witness? Less well-informed commentators characterize the church as being ‘out of touch’, ‘irrelevant’ and ‘in danger of being left behind’. Yet people of faith march to the beat of a different drum, often at variance with that of the secular world. We are in the world but not of it.
It would appear that the remaining 52.6% do not feel that the Church of England is at this moment ready to make this move. Some 22.1% feel that the Church of England might be ready in 5 to 10 years’ time; 15.3% foresee a move only when a consensus is achieved among all other churches; while 15.2% are clear that the consecration of women as bishops should never take place.
It seems clear that the church remains pretty divided; about 52.6% of the respondents are opposed to the consecration of women as bishops at this time and 30.5% are opposed to the move in the foreseeable future.
In 1992 it was estimated that about a third of the Church of England were opposed to the ordination of women as priests. Given the prevalence of women clergy and the number of people who left the Church of England in the wake of 1992, it is surprising that opposition to the innovation remains largely unchanged.
It is a wonderful experience to see new people enter into the life of the church. Once they do so they often begin to ask questions both of themselves and of the Church. ‘Why’, they ask, ‘are there no women priests in the great churches of East and West?’, and question the Church of England’s authority for its actions. Given the evidence of the last 20 years it seems unlikely that the minority view will disappear.
Is there, in future, to be no honoured place within the Church of England for such individuals who support her historic claim to be part of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church?
Those who, in conscience, are unable to accept the introduction of women priests and bishops, are often characterized by some fellow Christians as being sexist and out of touch with the modern world. Others view them as acting in obedience to their interpretation of Holy Scripture and the historic tradition of the Church – one that is shared by the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. Question 10 of the survey asks respondents to indicate their views about those in such a position.
Provision for those opposed
Among those surveyed, almost no one (1.6%) believes that those opposed to the ordination of women have no business in the Church of England any longer. 16.2% believe that opponents have had time to get used to the idea. The overwhelming majority, 82.3%, believe that those opposed to the ordination of women are faithful Anglicans who should not be forced out the Church of England. 44.4% felt opponents ought to be allowed to remain despite being unable to accept women bishops as a matter of conscience. Meanwhile, 30.7% believed that they should be enabled to stay by means of provision which meets their conscience or even having the right to veto the introduction of women bishops (7.2%).
The overwhelming majority appear to recognize and respect that there are those – often members of their own family and close friends – who are unable in conscience to accept the ministry of women bishops or priests. Nevertheless in their answer to Question 11, 71% felt that the Church of England should follow the example of other Anglican provinces that have consecrated women as bishops. It would not diminish their role, felt 71.9%, if the Church of England decided not to proceed with the consecration of women.
It was perhaps surprising that 81.9% did not see the consecration of women as bishops as being detrimental to the quest for Christian unity. There appears to be a general distaste for Christians having to resort to secular courts to settle matters (Question 16) since it portrays the church in a negative light (67.2% support).
On questions of personal moral discipline (Questions 12 and 13), respondents felt it was acceptable for those who were divorced to be ordained to the priesthood (88.9% were not opposed) even if they subsequently remarried (84.5% were not opposed). There was slightly less support for those in this position who might be consecrated as bishops. 78.8% felt it was acceptable for those who were divorced to be consecrated as bishops (Question 13) and 75.9% if they had subsequently remarried.
As to those in civil partnerships 55.9% did not support those individuals being ordained as priests and 61.0% would not support them being consecrated as bishops. 63.3% did not support practising homosexuals being ordained as priests and 67.1% would not support them being consecrated as bishops.
There were slightly fewer responses to questions about the Anglican covenant, although over 1,000 answered, possibly because fewer are conversant with the issues. 57.8% of respondents disagreed that provinces within the Anglican Communion should be free to pursue whatever agendas they please. Rather, they should be accountable to each other if the Communion is to survive (80.1%). 76.4% disagreed with the notion that the Anglican Communion [was] pointless and that member churches should go their own way. Interestingly when it comes to innovation 59.7% of respondents felt that the Church of England should side with the conservative churches of Africa rather than the liberal churches of North America.
Judging from the response to Question 15, 92.8% of respondents felt that it was important that bishops were faithful to biblical teaching and some support the view that every bishop should have a minimum of 10 years parochial experience (68.5%). Clearly there is widespread support for bishops responding to social issues (94.2%) and, therefore, a justifiable presence in the House of Lords (78.8%).
Looking into the mind of the Church of England through the lens of this survey has been truly revealing. The unexpected depth of commitment of the majority of respondents, together with their conviction in professing the creedal statements of the Church, has been deeply moving.
The majority of respondents held conservative, orthodox views in sharp contrast to the image portrayed of the Church of England in the media. Isolated and embattled as traditionalists feel, it is cheering to learn of the extent of popular sympathy for our cause and the rejection of the notion that we should be cast adrift for our deeply held orthodox beliefs. ND