Bits and pieces

 James Alder looks at the latest it is Sticks in "fragmented faith" and compares them with the findings of an earlier research project on Anglican belief. Despite its avowedly liberal origins, the results appear to be every bit as depressing

For as long as most of us can remember Professor Leslie Francis (University of Wales) has been fascinated by statistics and their implied messages for the ‘practical theology’ of the Church. His latest volume, Fragmented Faith, released two months ago, is self-credited with ‘exposing the fault lines in the Church of England.’ Those readers who have a sneaking suspicion already of what these might be should nevertheless read on.

Courageous experiment

Francis and his colleagues stop short of advocating the democratization of God but are clearly enthusiastic for statistical ammunition which can be presented as a consensus of the faithful and ‘may call the people of God on to new, deeper and richer theological insights that will radically disturb the views shaped by an earlier generation of Christian believers, church leaders and professional theologians.’ Lest the reader fail to understand this, we are given a hefty clue when the opening sentence informs us that ‘the Bishop of Oxford conducted a courageous experiment to test the strength of the bonds which maintain the consensus Anglicanus amid the creative diversities which comprise the Church of England.’ Clear enough?

The fascination of this report for readers of New Directions will be in comparing it with the huge, ground-breaking survey by Christian Research in 2002 (The Mind of Anglicans) which fascinated the media for much of the summer and was wildly attacked by liberal vested interest groups. The Mind of Anglicans 2002 (MOA) was based on some 4000 laity and c.1800 clergy correctly proportioned across age, gender, churchmanship and location. Fragmented Faith, by contrast, relies on the self-selecting returns of 5762 lay and c.1800 clerical readers of the Church Times. As the Church Times only prints c.30,000 copies these days (i.e. less than 4% of the adult CofE attendance) this is an impressive percentage return though not scientific.

Blind unbelief

The figures are nonetheless fascinating. Three per cent of clergy do not believe in God at all. This is approximately 300 priests, and roughly the membership of Don Cupitt’s famous Sea of Faith group or, as it was always known in our house, ‘The Pond of Doubt.’ Worse still 10% of clergy do not believe in God as a personal being, i.e. they are not Christians. (21% of laity similarly disqualify themselves.) Had Francis gone on to ask a credal question about the fatherhood of God, MOA indicates that clergy levels of doubt would have swiftly risen to lay levels, i.e. 20%.

Two fifths of the clergy do not believe in the Virgin Birth or Jesus’s miracles. Nearly one quarter are unable to affirm the Resurrection of Jesus! (MOA revealed almost identical levels of doubt about the incarnation – only 56% belief in Virgin Birth – and even greater doubt about the central fact of the faith – only 66% support for the Resurrection.) Predictably perhaps, Fragmented Faith reveals that a quarter of people do not believe in heaven, while a confident majority dismiss the reality of one of Jesus’s favourite themes – hell.

Underpinning this consumerist attitude to Christian theology is the fact that 90% of clergy and laity believe holy Scripture contains error, and three quarters of the clergy see the Bible as ‘culturally conditioned.’ This may explain why so many of them are busily ‘reconditioning’ it from the pulpit. It may not quite be the famous heretical American bishop’s quote, ‘We wrote the Bible so we can rewrite it,’ but it is not far off. So much for the Eternal Word, the Divine Wisdom.

Wimmin

On matters of immediate practical theology, Professor Francis’s work should cheer members of the orthodox constituency. Even among Church Times readers over 20% do not accept women priests and over 33% do not accept women bishops. Without any adjustment for the liberal bias of this sample, it would mean that a free province would immediately embrace the sacramental needs of 270,000 regularly practising Anglicans – an inconvenient thought for General Synod but a sobering reality for the Ecclesiastical Committee of Parliament to consider.

Professor Francis’s study claims to discover the fault lines in the CofE, but he is insufficiently ruthless in his enquiry. His statistics on Evangelicals and Catholics in the pulpit reveal a shocking level of disbelief among Catholics in fundamentals of Christology and the primacy of the Faith. They are surprisingly enthusiastic for women bishops (60%) and homosexual priests (44%). They compare poorly with their evo pastor neighbours. But Francis cannot be unaware that the faultline is not between Catholics and Evangelicals at all but between genuine Catholics and the liberals who rejoice in the misnomer Affirming Catholics.

MOA revealed definitively that Catholics and Evangelicals were very close on creed and ethics. Affirmers, by contrast, could, statistically, scarcely be said to belong to the same religion, unable as they were to muster anywhere near a majority for the Incarnation, the Resurrection or Salvation in Christ. Furthermore MOA revealed that women priests were hugely less believing than their male counterparts and, like the Affirmers, unconstrained by traditional Christian ethics. Francis suggests that he has the figures for a comparison of female clergy but no space to publish it. This is a pity.

Incoherence

Both surveys underline a degree of doctrinal incoherence and ethical disparity which cannot long cohere in England or in the wider Communion and which neutralizes effective evangelism. More concerning for the liberal hierarchy (and their finance committees) is the revelation that only a third of those polled are sure they will remain Anglican.

Three years ago MOA’s rigorous, extensive and highly professional report was met with the establishment froideur reserved for inconvenient truth. Professor Francis’s work, though from a much more restricted and less scientific sample, points firmly in the same direction. On the back of the report, Professor Andrew Walker (Theology, King’s, London) writes: ‘Fragmented Faith reveals a church with fault lines so deep that we are faced with a Communion which is not merely fissiparous but one likely to explode.’

Explosions cost lives. Ecclesiastical explosions cost souls. A new province and a Communion-wide realignment, with what remains of grace and affection, is a solution whose time has surely come.

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