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A gap is growing within the Church

20 September 2013

Anglicans congregations are generally more morally liberal than their leaders, says Linda Woodhead


Out of sympathy: a protester outside Parliament in July, after MPs approved same-sex marriage

Out of sympathy: a protester outside Parliament in July, after MPs approved same-sex marriage

THERE is an old theory that the churches that do best in modern societies are those that are strictest in their moral demands. The idea that clergy are more liberal than laity, and that the mismatch leads to decline, was popularised by the American author Dean Kelley in his book Why Conservative Churches are Growing (1972).

Recent research on Anglicans suggests that there is indeed a gap between official and popular opinion in the Church of England (Comment, 26 April), but that it is not the one that Kelley would have predicted.

The research was carried out for the Westminster Faith Debates by YouGov in January and June this year. Two nationally representative surveys were each completed by more than 4000 people. The first concentrated on ethics and personal life, the second on ethics and public life. Among each of the samples there were more than 1000 people who identified themselves as Anglican.

These surveys differ from previous opinion polls on religion because of the number and variety of questions about faith. The questions were shaped by my experience of researching the Churches and other forms of religion, and they asked not only about believing and belonging, but about identity, images of the divine, religious influences, spiritual activities, religious authority, and group participation.

The results have been analysed with the assistance of the statistician the Revd Professor Bernard Silverman. More information is available on the Westminster Faith Debates website  (www.religionandsociety.org.uk/faith_debates).

On the basis of the first survey, I reported that Anglicans make up one third of the population of the UK, and that 83 per cent of them are so-called "nominals", who rarely attend church, but identify with the Church of England.

The majority of them believe in God, and a sizeable proportion pray and take part in other spiritual activities. They are a little more liberal on issues of personal morality than most churchgoers, but both are more liberal than the eight per cent of Anglicans I referred to as "God-fearers," or what Kelley would call "strict" (not all of whom go to church).

I also reported that on some issues of personal morality, official church policy is closer to the eight per cent of God-fearers than the 92 per cent of other Anglicans. Now that both surveys are complete, it is possible to investigate Anglican values more fully, and to profile attitudes to social ethics as well as personal morality.

Beginning with the latter, the first Westminster Faith Debates survey shows how wide the "values gap" is between majority Anglican opinion and official church teaching. The issue of same-sex marriage provides a good illustration.

In early June, the Archbishop of Canterbury, speaking in the House of Lords, claimed that the "majority of faith groups are very strongly against" the proposed legislation. Our survey suggests that Anglicans are in fact in favour, by a slim margin.

It is less surprising to find a gap between church policy and Anglican views on women. We know from earlier surveys that popular Anglican opinion has long been more favourable towards gender equality than the Church. In the Now! Religion Survey 1979, for example, only 12 per cent of Anglicans were found to be opposed to women clergy. Our first survey this year found that only 11 per cent of Anglicans in general, and 16 per cent of churchgoing Anglicans currently support their Church's policies on women.

The largest and most surprising of all the values gaps is on euthanasia, to which the Church is officially opposed. When asked the question: "Do you think British law should be kept as it is, or should it be changed so that people with incurable diseases have the right to ask close friends or relatives to help them to commit suicide, without those friends' or relatives' risking prosecution?" almost three-quarters of all Anglicans say "Yes" - which is even higher than the population as a whole (among churchgoing Anglicans, 59 per cent say yes).

WHY are so many Anglicans, both churchgoing and non-churchgoing, out of step with their Church on personal ethics? Rather than being unprincipled, it is clear from our first survey that their disagreement stems from commitment to different principles from the ones that sway church leaders.

Two principled differences stand out as particularly important: liberalism, and fairness. "Liberalism" not in the sense that "anything goes", but in the sense that, when it comes to how to live their own lives, individuals should be free to decide for themselves.

Commitment to liberalism is at play when four-fifths of the Anglicans who support a change in the law on euthanasia agree that "an individual has the right to choose when and how to die." And fairness is at play when the same proportion of those in favour of allowing same-sex marriage give as their reason: "People should be treated equally, whatever their sexual orientation."

In contrast, official church teaching is faithful to two different principles. First, not individual liberty, but authoritarianism, paternalism, or communitarianism - i.e. the idea that true liberty involves the surrender of individual choice to higher authority, whether God, Church, society or some combination of these.

Second, not simple fairness, but a greater emphasis on "difference," or even straightforward inequality, such that roles and privileges should differ in line with factors such as gender and sexuality (this, for example, is the basis of the case against same-sex marriage made by Lord Williams, when he was Archbishop, and by Archbishop Welby).

Of course, not all Anglicans are liberal and egalitarian on personal moral issues, only the majority. There is also the moral minority, the "God-fearers" mentioned above, who agree with current church teaching in opposing both same-sex marriage and a change in the law on euthanasia. The "God-fearers" also differ from the majority of Anglicans in saying that they take their guidance chiefly from God or religious teachings. In that they differ from the two-thirds of Anglicans as a whole who say that they are guided chiefly by their own reason, judgement, or intuition. (Only two per cent of Anglicans of any hue say that they take any guidance from local or national religious leaders.)

WHAT this first survey suggests, therefore, is that when it comes to personal morality, most Anglicans are much more liberal and egalitarian than official church teaching - which is the opposite of what the Kelley thesis predicts. But when it comes to the second survey on social ethics, we find that the situation is reversed: the values gap remains, but this time Anglicans turn out to be not more liberal, but more conservative than their Church.

"Conservative" here is shorthand for a more complex set of attitudes. There is indeed some correlation between being Anglican and voting Conservative, and it is higher among churchgoers than non-churchgoers. But in our analysis we left aside party-political affiliations and voting behaviour because we were more interested in exploring underlying ethical attitudes, which we accessed by way of 40 questions about political, ethical, and social values.

By amalgamating the answers, we were able to construct a "social welfare v. free-market" scale of social attitudes. At the "left" end are those who believe that state and society have an overriding duty to support those in need. At the "right" end are those who think that state and society should be shaped around individual freedom, initiative, and responsibility.

Older people are more likely to identify as Anglicans than younger people, and also to be more "conservative". But even when you correct for age, more Anglicans fall at the "free market" than the "social welfare" end of the scale - and they are more "free market" than the population as a whole.

For example, just under half of all Anglicans, whether churchgoing or not, think that Margaret Thatcher did more good for Britain than Tony Blair, compared with 38 per cent of the general population (16 per cent of Anglicans think that Mr Blair did more good, compared with 18 per cent of the general population). And nearly 70 per cent of Anglicans believe that the welfare system has created a culture of dependency, which is almost ten percentage points more than the general population.

We also created a "Little England v. cosmopolitan" scale, and found that Anglicans tended to fall on the "Little England" side of the line, fewer being pro-EU than the general population, and more Anglicans in general (60 per cent) and churchgoers (51 per cent) agreeing that it was "better to live in Britain when more people shared a common culture" (compared with just under half of the general population).

Anglicans are also more likely to have rather pessimistic views of British society, and to think that "things are getting worse."

OVERALL, then, if we put together the results of both surveys, a general portrait of Anglicans emerges. They tend to be tough-minded rather than tender-hearted, and they place high value on individual responsibility. They think that people should stand on their own two feet, and be free to make their own mistakes. They believe that less should be spent on welfare, and that the current system needs reform. They value tradition and a common national culture, which they feel to be under threat.

When asked what they value about the Church of England, their favoured response is: "It is integral to English culture," although churchgoers are slightly more likely to say "it brings people closer to God."

They look back to a past that they imagine to have been less selfish, better disciplined, and bound by common values - but they have nevertheless embraced changes that have made society fairer to women and gay people.

In short, Anglicans have a good deal in common with the Government. They are in line with The Guardian on personal issues, but the Telegraph or even the Mail on wider social and economic matters.

The gap between this set of values, and those supported by the Church, especially as it is represented by bishops and archbishops, the General Synod, church policy, and official statements - hence what is reported in the media - is wide. In a striking inversion, official church teaching is welfarist-paternalist on social and economic issues, and authoritarian-paternalist on personal ethics. It is the mirror image of majority Anglican opinion.

There is also a values gap between the Church and wider society - a gap that widens as you go down the age range. Young people tend to be centrist in their socio-political views, and highly liberal and egalitarian in their views on personal morality. We already knew that disaffiliation from the Church of England has increased with every generation, but our polling points to an important reason for this.

When asked whether they think the Church of England is a negative or positive force in society today, 60 per cent of under-25s say "neither", or "don't know"; and 21 per cent say "negative". When the "negatives" are asked their reasons, the answer they greatly favour is: "The Church of England is too prejudiced - it discriminates against women and gay people."

It is foolish for any Church to think that in order to survive it has to follow public opinion, or even the opinion of its own members, affiliates, and sympathisers. But when it is significantly out of step with all of these, questions need to be asked.

The questions are more pressing for a body that wants to remain a national Church with wide social influence rather than a counter-cultural sect. My own suspicion is that church leaders are not being wilfully oppositional. They simply do not have the historic mindset, organisational structures, or investment in research that would enable them to maintain responsive contact even with their own grassroots.

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