The Mind of Anglicans Part III
The Cost of Conscience Survey
The story so far…
For the last two months this column has been given over to publishing the results of a huge and wide-ranging survey of Anglican beliefs. The information was gathered and analyzed by Christian Research, the leading organization in the field, from a completely representative group of clergy and laity in proportion to every aspect of persuasion of the Church of England. The response from 20% of the parish clergy of the Church of England and 76% of the representative laity make the survey's findings very reliable.
The findings published so far, in previous articles, can be briefly summarized 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
94% confident in their ministry
84% confident in the Ministry in the Church of England
81% confidently expect to remain Anglicans
Appointments – Bishop have been regularly , and one must assume deliberately, putting pro women bishop incumbents (25% & 40% respectively) in 'A' and 'B' resolution parishes which had voted not to have even women priests!
The Creed (What clergy believe )
The survey revealed that the beliefs of women clergy were consistently weaker than their male counterparts on every single item of the creed.
They are especially weak on Jesus. The Virgin birth receives only 33% confidence, Christ as the only way to salvation 39% and the bodily resurrection gains a bare majority conviction at 53% among women clergy.
These results revealed an astonishing divide. Having asked clergy to identify the churchmanship and affiliations to any groups, we were able to get a comprehensive picture of where the strengths and weaknesses lay. Unsurprisingly, liberal clergy had less credal confidence than their conservative brethren, but just how much less was truly shocking. While conservative Evangelicals and Catholics (Reform (Ref), Evangelical Alliance (EA) , Forward in Faith (FiF)) regularly posted 90% plus or high 80%s conviction, the liberal men (Affirming Catholicism (Af/Cath), Modern Churchpersons Union (MCPU)) compete with the feminist lobby group (WATCH) and the homosexual lobby (LGCM) with truly embarrassing figures.
None of the liberal groups were able to muster even 25% of their membership confident in the Virgin Birth or the uniqueness of Christ in salvation. The best of them managed a third with confidence in the bodily Resurrection.
While women priests were demonstrably less convinced of the central tenets of the Christian faith than their male counterparts overall, the figures did offer some small consolation to them if not the rest of the Church. If one separated the returns from the traditional male clergy and the male clergy in various liberal groupings, an interesting picture emerged. Women priests were hugely far behind orthodox male clergy in their credal convictions (gaps ranged from 20% to 60%). But… they were consistently above the liberal male clergy and the feminist and homosexual lobby groups who support them. As these groups have increasingly taken over, at every level, the positions of authority in the Church of England, this will continue to eat away at the Church's credibility.
We asked the analysts at Christian Research to give us the figures on credal conviction for those in favour of women bishops and those against. Again, significant gaps emerged on every belief but especially wide on the person of Christ. The analyst concluded that opponents of the novelty 'had a stronger belief system' than its supporters. Given the figures which he provided and we duly published, this is a sublime understatement.
The media response to this research and our publication has been amazing. Not only have most of the national daily papers and religious press given extensive coverage but radio channels as diverse as Radio 4 and Talk Sport, Radio 5 and BBC Northern Ireland have run interviews, phone-ins and news items. The publication of these articles on our web site has garnered phone calls from journalists from Belfast to Adelaide, from New England to Pretoria and enquiries continue to pour in on a daily basis. Their questioning has been incisive, we have provided the information and, almost without exception, their coverage has been fair. (Trying to recall specific statistics while dangling my legs over the harbour wall and trying to watch Fowey Regatta has provided an unusual twist to my annual holiday at home in Cornwall.)
There has, inevitably, been an amusing side to it all. One clergyman wrote to The Times imagining the Committee of Cost of Conscience sitting round and saying, you see, old boy, the girls simply aren't up to the job after all. The picture of working-class parish priests like Alan Rabjohns, Ronald Crane and I, all with highly competent, articulate and professional wives, affecting mock public school patois and 'patronizing the ladies' reduced us all to helpless laughter.
Two women commentators, whose name I sadly did not catch, were on a Radio 5 afternoon phone-in. When asked why women priests believed less, they were very forthcoming. They advised that women are more intuitive, more spiritual, in other words less hidebound by the word of God. They had been 'at it' for a shorter time and therefore were probably younger and more modern. They had less time for this old-fashioned doctrine stuff and were more into building communities. The show's host, not a noted churchgoer, reflected that they might be happier running community centres.
One liberal clergyman who spoke to me thought we had been a bit unfair to people in his position. While he couldn't believe in the actual virginity of Mary or the divine parenthood of the Father, he could have agreed, apparently, with Mary's theological virginity. I asked him what his reaction would be if his teenage daughter came home from an all-night party and told him cheerfully, ' Don't worry, dad, I'm not an actual virgin anymore, but I'm still a theological one!'
At each stage of our analysis and publication we have tried to respond to direct questions from the press and our readers. Our initial intention was to publish one article outlining the results of the survey on the Church's preparedness (or lack of it) for women bishops and its likely consequences. We were then asked if a full credal analysis showed up any significant differences according to gender, churchmanship or support for women's ordination/consecration. This we have provided and the information is of major consequence to any debate on the constitutional and an ecumenical future of the Church of England, its direction and leadership.
At our last press conference we were asked by two national journalists if the survey had any significant findings on the moral outlook of Anglican clergy and, if it did, was it in any way related to their credal responses.
This article will look at the mind of Anglicans on some significant current moral questions.
Marriage is in crisis. England has the highest divorce rate in Europe. Recently the bishops and General Synod have passed the entire burden of marriage discipline on to the parish priests who are expected to exercise private judgment in each case. Our survey was undertaken before this shocking retreat from episcopal responsibility. We had, however, included several questions about clergy attitude to divorce in their own ranks. The questions centred on clerical divorce and remarriage for two reasons.
1) Permission for divorcees to be ordained is a relatively recent innovation. It was hurried through Synod pre-1992 when it was realized how many divorced women wanted to be ordained. Therefore this response could show us how much the Church of England had moved from the traditionalist position of fifteen years ago towards the American position where 'serial monogamy' is endemic in the clergy and episcopate.
2) It would give us an idea of the clergy's real views. Most of us have noticed how quick some clergy are to see themselves and their family as a 'special case'. (I remember an 'Evangelical' bishop who disapproved of the canon who blessed second marriages in the side chapel of the cathedral. When the bishop's own daughter brought home a divorcee, the offending canon was invited to do the full monty for them in the nave! Of course this 'special case' did not change policy but the bishop was happy and the accommodating canon is now a dean.)
Overall the clergy, three-quarters of them now agreed that it is acceptable for divorced people to be ordained to the priesthood.
(The laity are more conservative but still return a majority in favour, 59%)
If the divorced candidate has remarried and, without knowing the history of these relationships, still 67 per cent of clergy are happy for him/her to be ordained. (Laity again the lower at 55%).
Over half the clergy (52%) are happy for their bishop to be a remarried divorcee! (Laity 39%)
Female clergy are c.15% more enthusiastic for these changes than their male counterparts but this cannot disguise how dramatically the divorce culture has impinged upon the whole clerical body.
The most conservative groups here, Reform (Ref) and the Prayer Book Society (PBS) post 42% and 44% support respectively for the ordination of divorcees. Then comes Forward in Faith at 50%, Evangelical Alliance (EA) at 70%, Affirming Catholicism (Af/Cath) 90%, Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement (LGCM) 93% and Modern Churchpersons Union (MCPU) 98%.
Those in favour of women's ordination/consecration are 90% in favour of ordaining divorcees. Those opposed to women bishops and priests register 49% support for divorced clergy.
Pastoral understanding for a divorcee begins to separate out more if they remarry. Less than one-third of traditionalists think a divorced priest should remarry, 85% of the modernizers think it's OK. Less than 20% of traditionalists could accept a divorced and remarried bishop (still an astoundingly high figure) while 75% of modernizers would approve such an appointment. (Sitting in the middle of these reactions is the Evangelical Alliance. Only a quarter of its priests are opposed to the ordination of divorced and remarried candidates and only 45% against a divorced and remarried bishop.
It is abundantly clear from these figures that the Church has been radically affected by the divorce culture in which it lives and, bereft of any coherent doctrine of marriage, is drifting with the tide. Given the extraordinary range of opinions across the groupings it is impossible not to have a sneaking sympathy with the Bishop of Winchester in his doomed attempt to make a 'one size fits all' marriage/divorce policy. However it further underlines the chaos that awaits the Church with no discernible doctrine or policy as hapless second timers present themselves for matrimony only to discover that it is a matter of parochial pot luck.
With old people and terminally ill people being kept alive much longer, the eugenics lobby – now disguised as 'mercy killers' – have been busy in recent years. It has long been assumed that this is an atheist or agnostic preserve but we wanted to know if there was any support for it in the Church of England. We asked simply if some form of euthanasia should be made legal.
Two thirds of the clergy remain opposed to euthanasia. Less than half the laity are! Overall, modernizing clergy were 56% opposed to euthanasia while traditionalist clergy were 82% opposed (EA, PBS, FiF in the low 80s, Ref at 97%). A small number gave no opinion (5–7%) but this still leaves around 10% of traditionalist clergy in favour of some form of euthanasia!
When we turn to the liberals we see the, by now, a familiar shift. Only 56% of Af/Caths oppose euthanasia, 43% of MCPU affiliates, 51% WATCH and 38% LGCM!
Except for Reform even the traditionalists show an average 10% wedge in favour of a practice contrary to Christian teaching. In the liberal groupings this disobedience hovers around the 50% mark.
When a priest is called to our bedside, in the years to come, to administer the last rites, we shall not be in a position to choose carefully. It is alarming to realize that a significant and growing proportion of our priests may no longer be our allies in fending off the utilitarians and eugenicists who will hover around with less interest in a holy death than the efficient use of hospital space.
The erosion of the sanctity of life in Western society has gone hand in hand with the legalization and consequent social acceptability of abortion. The defence of the unborn child has, for the most part in the West, depended upon the unswerving commitment of the Roman Catholic Church. There has been a small and determined band of the other Catholics and Evangelicals who have fought alongside their Roman brethren, but from our hierarchy there has been, almost without exception, a deafening silence. (Recent statements from Rowan Williams suggest this may be about to change.) Certainly when the editor of this magazine was on General Synod she was appalled to find that she was the only woman called to speak against abortion. In a similar vein I was warned, by one of the bishops I've had to endure, that my outspoken support for LIFE could 'pigeon-hole' me as 'a single issue priest' and 'impede my career’!
The survey proposed the statement that 'Abortion should not be carried out unless the mother's life is at risk' and asked for agreement or dissent.
Overall clergy support was 66%. In gender terms male clergy registered only one quarter dissenting from the statement. Women clergy mustered 47% agreement. Though such a low figure is shocking in Christian terms, it has to be remembered that the driving force of women's ordination, secular feminism, holds as self evident truth a woman's right to control her fertility by, if necessary, abortion on demand. The almost 50/50 split in women clergy reveals, perhaps, the tensions between these two irreconcilable belief systems.
Again, in the various groupings and affiliations, the same yawning chasm appears. The traditionalists provide massive support for the right of the unborn (EA 88%, FiF 91%, Ref 93%) while the liberals cannot even match the women priests score (Af/Caths 46%, LGCM 28%, MCPU 29%, WATCH 39%).
Uncertainty about or dismissal of the sanctity of life has never been a hallmark of Catholic teaching. It is, historically, one of the most predictable signs of a rejection of the doctrine of creation and a return to paganism.
With the annual abortion rate continuing to head towards 180,000 and no sign of a reduction in illegitimacy or single parenting, the state has responded to the continuing crisis by even wider availability of controversial contraception. The 'morning after' pill is now freely available in shops (mainly chemists but Tesco and Sainsbury's have done trial sales). It is an abortifacient, that is, it destroys the conceptus.
For years now, teenagers have had access to free contraception (condoms and pills on request) without parental knowledge and massive and unremitting sexual 'education'. This has notably failed to halt the tide of immortality, irresponsibility or illegitimacy – just as educational and religious traditionalists predicted. We wanted to know where our clergy stood on this difficult moral issue. Should the supply of pills and condoms go on unchecked or was it time to proclaim a better way?
Only one third of male clergy and one-quarter of female clergy wanted to end the free condom approach to sexual education. The 'morning after' pill was objected to by only half the men and 40% of the women clergy.
Of the traditionalist groups only Reform had a majority against a free condoms (64%) but all of the traditionalist groups managed to muster over 60% objection to the 'morning after' pill.
Of the liberal groupings Af/Caths had the highest objection to abortifacient at 30% followed by WATCH 24%, MCPU 16% and LGCM at 15%. Again, Af/Caths’ objection to free condoms for teenagers topped the liberal poll at 22% with WATCH at 13%, LGCM 11% and MCPU 11%.
Since the Church of England long ago abandoned any coherent doctrinal teaching on contraception, or indeed on sexual relations generally, it is, perhaps, not surprising that large swathes of the clergy have simply accepted the secular imperative in this matter.
Finally we asked two questions on homosexuality. The first was simply whether practising homosexuals should be ordained as priests.
Overall about one-third of clergy thought they should be (31%). Lay support was much lower at 19%.
However in gender break down only 29% male clergy agreed with homosexual priests while 48% of female clergy did. The familiar divide appeared across the various groupings. Only 4% of Evangelical clergy agreed with practising homosexual clergy while 18% of Forward in Faith priests accepted them.
When we move to the liberal clergy the figures go into reverse. Only 20% of Af/Caths, 25% WATCH and 8% MCPU disagree with practising homosexual clergy. The LGCM support was surprisingly low at 96%.
We also asked whether clergy believed Section 28 should be repealed.
This is a subject with which the Tory Party are currently entertaining the country in their embarrassing bid for the Holy Grail of ‘inclusivity’.
Section 28 was passed by a Tory Government to prevent the promotion of homosexuality in schools. It was in response to very unsavoury ‘educational’ materials employed in some of the more avant-garde urban boroughs at the time.
Here 62% of clergy did not want any repeal and, interestingly, while women clergy score fractionally below men in their opposition, it was well within the margin of error.
However, as usual, the supporters of women priests are more liberal than their protégés. While EA posts 8% and Reform 4% and FiF 28% for repeal of Section 28, Af/Caths record 56% for abolition, WATCH 60%, MCPU 74% and LGCM 89%.
The repeal of Section 28, with all parties moving in that direction in the House of Commons, seems likely. The promotion of homosexual practice as equal to heterosexual and utterly normative will be enshrined in educational policy. For some Anglicans that will clearly be intolerable. For others, just as clearly, it is long overdue.
When this survey was commissioned the overriding purpose was pastoral. Priests and people of traditional Christian beliefs needed to know, among other things –
1) Were they simply a tiny and irritating minority in a Church which overwhelmingly saw its future as a rubber stamp for liberal secular views?
Or were they a much larger group whose credal and moral beliefs had been deliberately excluded from the seats of authority?
2) What were the strengths and weaknesses of the modern CofE?
3)Was the pressure for the further feminization of the church (women bishops, neutered bibles and liturgy etc) irresistible?
4) Was the CofE any longer a biblical church, a place where we could confidently bring up our children and grandchildren, encourage young men into the priesthood, know our sacraments to be valid, expect the last rites from a priest who assuredly believed in the Resurrection? In short, were we any longer able to claim to be part of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church?
It is the earnest hope of the Editorial Board that the publication of these articles will have mapped out some of the landscape and made things clearer for our bishops, priests and people alike.
We also hope that the research will inform the debate that must take place at the beginning of the new Archepiscopate. Whither the Church of England?
(We are all most grateful to Dr Peter Brierley and the staff of Christian Research for the tireless, thorough and professional work they have put in.
The statistics published in these articles come directly from their utterly impartial research. The opinions expressed in these articles are entirely my own.)
Robbie Low is the vicar of St Peter's Bushey Heath in the diocese of St Alban's
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