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The British Social Attitudes survey, and church attitudes to poverty

by
19 December 2011

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From the Revd Dr Mark Clavier

Sir, — Hindsight now permits us to see that many Victorian missionaries were at least as adept at preaching their own peculiar culture as they were the gospel that fired their souls. Likewise, today many who engage in preaching the gospel do so in a manner that promotes unthinkingly their own culture perhaps even more than the gospel; in this case, that shared culture is consumerism.

One has only to think of the widespread marketing and packaging of “church”, the promotion of DIY liturgies, and the assumption that worship is a stand-alone event that appeals to particular societal niches (like a concert or a poetry reading) to begin to get a sense of how much consumerism is influencing the Church.

Perhaps a reason why only one in five people identifies himself or herself with the Church of England (News, 16 December) is that people have encountered little in us that they cannot find better packaged and performed elsewhere.

One of the many troubling reflections that arise from the British Social Attitudes survey is that these same people who identify them­selves as having “no religion” have been baptised and catechised into a consumer world that shapes their mind-set and expectations far more powerfully and pervasively than any religion, thanks to the omnipresence of advertising and the media.

What we too often miss is that children not raised and formed within a worshipping community do not become some form of neutral, secular subject, but rather people who in their lives and beliefs preach consumerism with all the fervency and dedication of a zealot. And we now know that consumerism is far more destructive of both society and the world than any overt paganism that the Church has confronted.

In the Early Church, individuals converted both to Christianity and away from paganism. Until the Church of England begins to take seriously those elements of our society from which we are converting people, we will continue simply to be one of among many spiritual ex­pressions of late modernity.

Children and families need less to be shown the Christian faith than to be brought into it through the language, practice, and corporate life of the Church; this can be done properly only if they share in that life with those mature in faith and rooted in something deeper than the here-and-now. Historical amnesia is a key indicator of a consumerist mentality often fully present in worship aimed at children and families.

Despite repeated attempts to recreate the wheel, be more acceptable to a changing society, and sit more loosely to our received traditions, the Church of England continues its decline. Perhaps it is time for us to consider the essential humanity that runs underneath vari­ous cultural expressions, and again speak to the deeper needs, struggles, and joys that remain, by and large, the same as they have ever been.

Only when we learn to speak to people at that level will they perhaps begin to be receptive to a gospel of faith, hope, and love which is ultimately far more fulfilling than anything consumerism has to offer.

MARK CLAVIER
The Rectory, Fir Lane
Steeple Aston OX25 4SF

From the Revd Steve Bishop

Sir, —It was interesting to read that Tim Bissett, the Chief Executive of the Church Urban Fund (CUF) (News, 16 December), suggests that simply because there was a seeming difference of opinion between the clergy and the laity in two separate surveys about poverty, it must be a result of the “clear need for churches to be better informed about the impact of poverty in this country”.

This comment seems to imply that the Church, i.e. the laity, and not just the clergy, has a lesser understanding of the issues of poverty and social injustice. Surely the laity are the people who are subject to the issues of poverty and social injustice being asked about. I fail to understand how Mr Bissett can accept that the clergy know what they are talking about but the laity do not, simply because the findings of one of the two surveys — the one not com­missioned by the CUF — do not support his or CUF’s position.

How the views of the 100 clergy surveyed by the CUF can be deemed by Mr Bissett to be more informed and valuable than the 3000 laity surveyed by the National Centre for Social Research is rather insulting to those 3000. While I appreciate that a number of the clergy would consider themselves to be poor, that is no­thing like the poverty and struggles that many ordinary people in the pew or street contend with on a daily basis.

It would be useful to know how, if indeed at all, the questions between the two sets of researchers differed so as to ascertain if there was a level playing field in their approach, or if one or other of the surveys was geared to present a certain outcome.

STEVE BISHOP (NSM)
117 Mitchley Avenue
Sanderstead
Surrey CR2 9HP

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