Edward Dowler offers some advice for resisting the ‘hyper-statistical mindset’ of our times

During the course of my ministry, one of the things that I have been privileged to do is to be a school governor on two separate occasions. From 1996 to 2000, when I was serving at St Mary’s Somers Town in this deanery, I was a governor of our church primary school, St Mary and St Pancras. And then, after a ten-year gap in 2010, when I returned to the Diocese of London, I became governor of our church primary school in my then parish in Enfield, and Chair of Governors of a secondary school in the deanery: Bishop Stopford’s School, named after a former Bishop of London. When I resumed my governor role after that ten-year gap, I noticed a very profound difference had occurred. In my first phase as a governor, when the Head teacher was giving his or her report about the activities of the school, we would receive a narrative of how the pupils were doing in their work, what trips they had gone on, the school teams’ success or otherwise at football matches and so on. However, after that ten-year gap, all this had changed. It was disorienting to find that the Head’s report had now become a barrage of statistical data about progress and attainment benchmarked against the national average. Even the tests for the pupils at the end of each half term were described as ‘data collection’. At one point when we were coming up for the dreaded Ofsted inspection, I was amazed when Ofsted declared that they would no longer try to assess the quality of teaching in our school, as long as the statistical data looked positive.  

I found the statistical data very impressive in some respects: everything important could now be measured in a variety of ingenious ways. How good it would have been if they’d had those methods when I was at school; perhaps someone might have noticed that I’d made no progress in physics over three years and in consequence would go on to secure a glorious fail of my O Level.  Now you can put a number on every aspect of a child’s time at school, get a handle on it, measure it, know if things are going the way they should be. However, there was also something that I found profoundly disturbing about this innovation: it was as if the life and colour and vitality of the school, and the individuality of the children themselves had somehow faded away and been replaced by a set of statistics. I think it is interesting that the way GCSEs will now be graded is no longer on a scale of letters from A to E but a scale of numbers from 9 at the top to zero, so that it will become even easier to calculate and calibrate and compare results and outcomes.

I recently came across a piece of writing by somebody who I think will go down as one of the truly prophetic figures of our age: Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. It is in a book that he wrote in 1979, entitled The God of Jesus Christ. Drawing in part on his experience of growing up in Germany in the 1930s, Benedict writes powerfully in his opening chapter about systems that depersonalize people and turn everything that is important about them into a statistic. The Revelation of John speaks of the adversary of God as the ‘beast’. This beast, the power opposed to God, has no name, but a number. The seer tells us: ‘Its number is six hundred and sixty-six’ Rev.13.18. It is a number and it makes men numbers. We who lived through the terror of the concentration camps know what that means. The terror of that world is rooted in the fact that it obliterates men’s faces. It obliterates their history. It makes man a number, an exchangeable cog in a big machine. He is function – nothing more.

Some of you, like me, may be fans of the musical Les Miserables where we encounter something similar. Close to the beginning of the film, the hero, Jean Valjean, has an exchange with his jailer Javert, who is releasing him from prison on parole after nineteen years for stealing a loaf of bread. To Javert, Jean Valjean is ‘prisoner 24601’ and he always will be. Exasperated with this, and now anticipating his freedom, he tells the officer, ‘My name is Jean Valjean’. As Pope Benedict says, those who have run concentration camps and

other dehumanizing institutions have always known what it is to reduce human beings simply to a number.

With extraordinary foresight in 1979, Benedict foresaw the way in which this perennial tendency of tyrannical regimes and individuals to reduce everything and everyone to numbers and statistics would become turbo-charged in the digital age. A little example of this has been, as I’ve said, in the world of education, but it runs from the smallest primary school right through society to the very top, as we see in the phenomenon of so-called big data, in which enormous sets of patterns, trends and interactions are collected, usually with the objective of gaining control or making money. More and more, the thought seems to grow in our society that every piece of knowledge worth knowing can be expressed in the form of a number. The role of management in a school, a medical practice, a company or whatever is then to put pressure on individual men and women to drive those numbers up or down – depending on what is desired.  

I would like to be able to say that this hyper-statistical mind-set is alien to the Church but sadly I am not so certain that it is. I remember one occasion when I was a priest in this diocese and caught sight of a paper that had been produced for senior staff members and contained a series of so-called ‘key metrics’: statistical information about the number of ‘ambassadors for Christ’, ‘new worshipping communities’ and so on that would determine the success or otherwise of the latest diocesan initiative. Similarly, some of you may have come across the work of Professor Linda Woodhead, an academic at Lancaster University. She has undertaken an enormous research programme entitled British Religion in Numbers in which she has measured what she sees as the real truths about religious belief and observance in this country – the truths that can be summed up in statistical data – and then, on the basis of these she has proceeded to make all sorts of statements about what the Church should believe and how its life should be ordered. Again, the very name of a recent church report From Anecdote to Evidence suggests that we should move away from story-telling, towards a more hard-headed statistical concentration on those features of church life that statistical evidence appears to teach us are associated with growth. One wonders what Jesus, whose favoured way of teaching was in fact the anecdote – the parable – would make of this development, and Pope Benedict’s words warn us that all of these efforts, no doubt often pursued with good intentions, are none the less marked with the number of the beast.

Although in the western world we are now all caught up in this to a terrifying extent, there is an alternative.  Here is how Benedict expresses it:

‘The beast is a number, and it makes men numbers.  But God has a name, and God calls us by our name. He is a Person, and he seeks the person.  He has a face, and he seeks our face. He has a heart, and he seeks our heart. For him, we are not some function in a ‘world machinery’.  On the contrary, it is precisely those who have no function that are his own.i’ Benedict’s vision gives us a renewed vision for what it means to be a parish church: to create a community where human persons are not just numbers.  Some of us, depending on whether or not we were celebrating Corpus Christi, will have heard in Sunday’s gospel about Jesus calling the twelve disciples.  Actually, that number is important because in ancient Israel there were twelve tribes and so Jesus’s action was symbolic: he was creating a new Israel. But St Matthew’s gospel moves us very quickly from consideration of the number of the disciples towards telling us who these people were whom the Lord called: ‘These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax-collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Zealot, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him’ Matt 10.2. Christ calls his disciples by name and it is one of the defining aspects of his ministry how often he used people’s names: ‘you are Peter and on this rock, I will build my church’ Matt. 16.18; ‘come forth Lazarus’ John 11.41; ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?’ John 21.15.  In the garden, the risen Christ calls Mary Magdalene by her name: ‘Jesus said to her “Mary”. She turned and said to him in Hebrew ‘Rabbouni’ which means teacher’ John 20.16.  And so, on the road to Damascus, he called the greatest persecutor of the Church, who was to become its greatest evangelist by his name, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ Acts 9.4

I’d like to suggest two priorities for local parishes to resist the pervasive hyper-statistical mindset.

The first is rather simple: that we make it a priority to know each other by name. We are not interchangeable cogs in a big machine but human persons, made in the image of God and redeemed by Christ. Parish churches can be incredibly good at this, or they can be somewhat deficient. Let’s make it a priority, if we don’t already, to get to know one another’s names, for the Bible teaches that this is how God knows us: ‘But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine’ Isa. 43.1.

Secondly, let’s double down on those things that cannot be measured and, because they cannot be measured, are at the heart of the Christian life. These are things like the depth of the sacramental life, the opportunities for friendship with Jesus in prayer and contemplation, the study of the Scriptures and reflection on the beauty of holiness; care for the lonely and the marginalized. You can’t put a number on any of these things; indeed, they may never be seen except by God and one or two individuals, but it is precisely this fact that makes them so important.

The beast is a number, and it makes men numbers. But God has a name, and God calls us by our name. He is a Person, and he seeks the person.  He has a face, and he seeks our face. He has a heart, and he seeks our heart. For him, we are not some function in a ‘world machinery’. On the contrary, it is precisely those who have no function that are his own.  

The Ven Dr Edward Dowler is Archdeacon of Hastings. This article formed part of a sermon preached at St Alban’s Holborn for their Patronal Festival on 20th June 2017