The Mind of Anglicans

Robbie Low analyses a recent important survey of opinion

Over the last few years there have been an unusual number of surveys conducted on the current state of the Church of England. Some have been serious academic surveys, some journalistic and some conducted by lobby groups in order to further their own particular cause. They have ranged from a single question 'focus group' style to the positively encyclopaedic, requiring, respectively, anything from a snapshot emotional response to the setting aside of several hours and a great deal of careful thought. All of these researches had yielded valuable information of varying importance and reliability and orthodox Anglicans, and their fellow Anglicans, have watched with understandable interest as the various results have been published. Indeed, orthodox Anglicans will probably have watched with more interest than most as their very existence as Anglicans must necessarily hinge on what sort of Church we belong to and whether it is reclaimable for Catholic faith and order. Given the enormous pastoral consequence for our people, the breadth, inclusivity and reliability of such information is critical.


Of the surveys done thus far, that of Dr Leslie Francis is the most academic and thorough. The possible criticism of Francis’ work is that the very scope of its demands will have inevitably reduced its likely respondents. The substantial booklet concerned, with its extraordinary variety of options, defeated me and I am sure I was not alone. It was rather like having to retake all your O-levels on one day – by multiple choice.

The Church Times embarked on a less substantial but none the less wide-ranging survey and produced some interesting material as well. The difficulty with that material is that it was gathered from readers of the Church Times, a necessarily self-selecting band who presumably buy it because they warm to its stance as the house paper of the liberal establishment.

A survey commissioned by the women's caucus, widely trumpeted by Christina Rees, claimed more than 80 per cent of people in favour of women bishops. This grabbed the headlines but, despite frequent requests and challenges, the supporting evidence and demographic basis was never published or made available for critical analysis.

Researching Christians

It was against this background and the urgent need for accurate information that Cost of Conscience contacted the leading experts in the field, Christian Research, and arranged a meeting with the boss and statistical expert, Dr Peter Brierley. CR, as readers of this column a column will know, has been at the forefront of serious statistical research in the world church for many years now and is recognized as a very reliable outfit. At the conclusion of two meetings, one exploratory and one for detailed planning, Cost of Conscience commissioned Christian Research to conduct a survey into 'The Mind of Anglicans'. We wanted the broadest spread possible, North/South, large and small parishes, urban/suburban/rural, male/female, clergy/laity, across the age groups, marital status and churchmanship exactly according to the known proportions in the Cof E. Using CR's exceptional database we asked them to bring as completely a representative picture as possible of the current state of play. In short, we wanted the truth. As an earnest of that, the entire selection and sampling was left to CR. In the event, when the results were in, it became clear that Brierley's sampling was uncannily representative of all the known balances and division and within the CofE

Only one minor aberration became apparent in the final analysis. ‘Affirming Catholics’ were disproportionately represented in the Catholic respondents. Their presence in the sample was equivalent to more than double their actual membership! The possible reasons for this will be looked at later. Nevertheless, no weighting was applied to correct this imbalance on two grounds: Firstly, the figures are the figures, and CoC wanted no grounds for claims of statistical jiggery-pokery Secondly, they represent, therefore, on some key issues, a more than worst-case scenario and, although things may be significantly better, a harsher reality was preferred to a benign fantasy.

Startling Response

That being said it was a remarkable exercise, not least for its response rate. Of the 3,500 plus priests asked, 46% responded! (Those who deal with clergy will appreciate that this is in the realm of the miraculous!) The lay response was an astonishing 76%! Both of these figures are exceptional. Many wrote in to give additional information. Not a few complimented it as the best survey they had seen. A small number refused to complete it as it was 'obviously from a group of evangelicals'! It was difficult to know whether to be amused or saddened.

I dwell on the credentials of this report because it is important for you to know that it does not favour 'us' or ' them', or anyone in between. It is the unvarnished facts – kosher. In this issue and next month's I am going to look at some of the answers to key questions and their implications for the Church of England in general and orthodox Anglicans in particular.

Rochester and all that

Perhaps the most significant immediate item on the Church of England synodical agenda is the Rochester report on women bishops. It is expected that Bishop Michael Nazir- Ali will be making a presentation to General Synod in York as we go to press. The response of the Church of England to the reality of women bishops will be critical on several fronts. First of all, it will give a steer to the Methodist conversations and plans for unity. Although it is privately admitted that the Methodists are 'desperate' for unity in the hope of avoiding demise, it is unthinkable that they would accept a deal that does not recognize female leadership and its possibility of the highest level. At the other end of the spectrum are the orthodox Anglicans for whom the acceptance of women bishops would transform impaired communion into effective excommunication. This would apply to the few remaining Catholic bishops and one or two conservative Evangelical bishops who would find themselves out of communion with their episcopal colleagues and the Archbishop of their Province. Between these two extremes lie considerable numbers of Evangelical clergy and parishes who uphold the Doctrine of Headship in varying degrees. Some argue that ordination is de facto Headship and therefore reject women priests as unscriptural. Others would be content to have a woman curate but not a woman rector, never mind a woman bishop. Over 1,000 parishes have formally signed up for those positions by voting for Resolutions A and B. How many more would do so if the question was put is one of the great unknowns.

Cleft Stick

Orthodox Catholics, of course, are in a difficult position on this. By definition, they argue, you cannot have women priests and not women bishops. To do so would be to reduce catholic order to simple misogyny. The original legislation to admit women to the priesthood and not the episcopate was dishonest. It was done on the cynical calculation, not of what was right, but rather what was achievable. For the orthodox, who maintain that in ordaining women the Church of England has pretended to an authority it does not possess, here is the problem. Orthodox may not support a proposition (women priests/bishops) which is contrary to the Word of God and the consistent teaching of the Church but, while voting against, cannot deny that those who have accepted women priests must have women bishops whether they like it or not. It follows that the Catholic responses to this question in the survey are more complicated than they appear at first. All that being said, let us begin to look at the results.

In depth research

The previous much-hyped survey by Christina Rees claimed over 80 per cent of the Church of England in favour of women bishops. We wanted to know:

a) if this were indeed the case

b) which parts of the Church were most enthusiastic and which least.

(Was there, for example, a simple correlation between the apparent 20 per cent objectors and a 20 per cent of the Church known statistically to be Anglo-Catholic?)

Four options were put to our clerical respondents:

1) I am looking forward to having our own female bishop.

2) There shouldn't be any female bishops.

3) Female bishops can preach but not officiate or stay in a province which doesn't have female bishops.

4) Accepting that female bishops are part of the Anglican Communion, they should stay in their own province.

The enthusiasts (Option 1) registered 51%

The implacable opposition (Option 2) was 25%

The two NIMBY (‘not-in-my-backyard’) options shared the remaining 24% almost equally.

Half and Half

These figures reveal a Church that is almost exactly divided on the issue. The support is significant, but much lower than had been claimed. The determined opposition is higher than previously estimated. What must alarm the proponents, and the bishops who must press the red or green light, is the quarter of the Church which has reluctantly tolerated a decade of other people's experimentation, but remains apparently unconvinced. It is easy for a parish and priest to behave as if women priests didn't exist without ever signalling opposition and incurring the wrath of the diocesan. It is impossible for them to ignore a woman bishop.

The breakdown of the figures into clergy churchmanship is also revealing. The Anglo-Catholics have 26% in favour and the Catholics in 39% in favour! Although this may seem surprising these figures correlate almost exactly to the number of ‘Affirming Catholics’ who were polled for these self defining constituencies. Remember they are more than doubly represented here. It is also worth noting that many of the women priests polled (again in direct proportion to their numbers in the church) would, perhaps to our astonishment, define themselves as Catholics or even Anglo-Catholics. The majorities against of 74% and 61% respectively are, for the opponents then, a more than worst-case scenario in their own constituencies. ( If ‘Aff/Cath’ votes were adjusted for their true proportionality in the church the hostile majorities in the catholic constituencies would rise to approximately 85% and 76% respectively).

State of the Parties

More worrying for the Church of England hierarchy is the situation in the Evangelical constituencies. Long advertised as the spiritually and financial strong heart of the Church of England, it is divided right down the middle with a half the clergy (53 %) either adamantly opposed (31 %) or taking a view of Provincial, and therefore parochial, exclusion (22 %). Those branding themselves 'Low Church' are also equally divided (48 % in favour). Only the 'Broad Church' (61%) and 'the Liberals' (72 %) came up with anything like convincing majorities, though still well short of previous claims.

The question was further refined by asking for a timetable for women bishops in the Church of England. The four options offered were:

1) As soon as possible

2) Within the next 10 years

3) When all other churches agree

4) Never

These figures are, initially, a little more encouraging for the proponents with 27 % wanting them urgently and a further 32 % accepting they would come within the next decade. The opposition (41 %) consists of the 'Impossibilists' (23%) – namely, even if the Pope and the Ecumenical Patriarch agreed, it is still a contrary to the Word of God. The remaining 18% will only agree to women bishops when 'all other churches agree'. This, if you like, is the Catholic answer and, as many of the bishops most enthusiastic for the innovation privately acknowledge the Great Communions will not and cannot agree to it, this, effectively, is saying 'Never'.

Desire for decision

The 59/41 is, however, slightly more complicated than that and, on analysis, less favourable to the proponents of women in the episcopate. Across the columns of churchmanship there is anywhere between 3% and 11% more respondents who say that women bishops should be appointed now or within 10 years than those who claim to be looking forward to them. Why should this be? Given that this is the case even in the columns of the most doughty opponents, Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals, it may betoken an increasingly pragmatic desire for settlement. Those who joined for the Gospel do not want to spend their lives and ministries in a debilitating civil war, the object of unremitting establishment persecution. A settlement, allowing the liberalizers to go their way, with a Provincial settlement for traditional believers is, to them, desirable sooner rather than later. The hope for more eirenic and settled outcome than the much ignored and abused Act of Synod has failed to deliver, should not deceive the liberalizers about the depth of opposition. Even making a small allowance to these figures for ' perverse' voting (that is, wanting a compounding of error to speed up a final resolution) the male clergy would evenly divide, leaving the women clergy to re-establish a small and unconvincing majority.

These results, drawn from the widest and most representative trawl, stand in spectacular contrast to previous assertions about the mind of the Church of England. Even with the acknowledged bias to the liberal vote, they fail to deliver anything like the conclusion required by the Establishment and the women’s caucus. Either the original claims were wildly wrong or there has been a seismic shift in opinion in the last eighteen months. Ten years on from the great vote the Church could scarcely be more divided on the next step. Even bishops who are most convinced of the rightness of that decision may not be in any mood for a re-run of the spectacular blood-letting and hostility that has bedevilled Anglican relations since. On these figures Nazir-Ali’s job is moving from the difficult to the impossible.

Lay response

I have concentrated on the clergy returns because, in reality, these are the people who will have most to do with the new bishops and who will look to her, rightly or wrongly, as supervisor and employer in an increasingly managerial Church. The returns from the laity will make happier reading for women priests. (Again, similar caveats apply as correspondingly disproportionate returns will come from the laity of ‘Affirming Catholic’ clergy. In reality ‘Aff/Cath’ lay membership is tiny).

Overall, these give a 64 per cent approval. This is not yet a two-thirds majority. More worrying for the proponents is that majority is achieved mainly in the declining liberal churches. The catholic and evangelical laity are pretty evenly divided and these, by and large, represent the static or growing parts of the church. But even in the liberal churches there is a bedrock 30% rejection! Furthermore, the laity have not had to debate the matter for over a decade. Many were not invited to then. Most priests have not preached or taught about it for fear of opening old wounds. In the meanwhile episcopal supporters have never missed a trick in supporting the feminist cause in word or, more usually, in appointment, while the conservative bishops, by and large, might as well have joined the Cistercian order. Why should laity think it wrong if no one in authority has told them so? This may change in either direction once the debate starts in earnest, a debate which must, of necessity, encompass a review of the effects of the last decade on the Church.

Finally, on the women bishops responses, we asked Dr Brierley to run a further analysis of the figures based on whether the parishes of the respondents had passed either or both resolutions (A + B).

And here a curious fact emerged. In Resolution A parishes over a quarter of incumbents were ' looking forward to our own female bishop'.

In Resolution B parishes nearly 40% of the incumbents were pro women bishops!

Episcopal Targeting

Our survey revealed that almost 80 per cent of incumbents had come to their present post after 1992 and that 50 per cent had done less than five years there. What these facts tell us is that bishops have quite deliberately targeted A + B parishes in a way they could not target C parishes who were protected by the Flying Bishops. By the persistent appointment of leaders unsympathetic to the declared doctrinal stance of A+B parishes there has been a deliberate effort to undermine opposition to the liberalizing policies of the diocesan. We have known this from an unending flood of anecdotal evidence from priests, people, Flying Bishops and sympathetic Archdeacons, but here we have the figures to illustrate how pervasive and deliberate that incursion has become. The 'Open Process of Reception' turned out to be little more than a smokescreen for ruthlessness and insincerity. These figures reveal precisely why Brierley's splendid database has thrown up the double representation of ‘Affirming Catholics’. Previously impeccable Catholic parishes (and from these figures a large number of Evangelical parishes too) have been persuaded to accept the bishop's candidate who, to quote a phrase, 'does not necessarily share the views of the parish, but will respect them.’ Pause for hollow laughter.

In spite of all this, opposition remains firm and substantial, way above what was previously supposed or advertised by enthusiastic bishops or the women's caucus. In the light of the evidence now to hand a new Archbishop of Canterbury would be wise to seek to broker a final settlement that may yet allow a divided Church to live in relative peace and get on with its job. It remains to be seen whether the new incumbent at Lambeth can do the arithmetic.

Robbie Low is Vicar of St Peter’s, Bushey Heath, in the Diocese of St Alban’s and a member of the committee of Cost of Conscience.

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