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‘Nominals’ are the Church’s hidden strength

26 April 2013

A new survey supports the case for taking non-churchgoing Anglicans seriously, argues Linda Woodhead

THE Church of England's mission strategies and investment of energy assume that churches and churchgoers are its main resources. But a significant new survey offers a broader answer. It suggests that non-churchgoing Anglicans may be much more important to the Church and its future than the dismissive word "nominals" implies.

I designed a survey to support the current series of Westminster Faith Debates, and devised its questions with the assistance of YouGov Plc, which administered it. The fieldwork took place on 25-30 January this year in England, Scotland, and Wales, and the sample size was 4437. The figures have been weighted, and are representative of all British adults aged over the age of 18. It was completed by 1261 self-identified Anglicans; so it provides a firm basis on which to construct a reliable profile of Anglicans today.

The results suggest that people who identify themselves as Anglican ("Church of England" was not given as an option) make up one third of the adult population of Great Britain. Adherents of all the other religions and Christian denominations added together constitute the next third, and those who say that they have "no religion" are the final slice of the pie.

THE most obvious division within the Anglicans as a whole is between those who say that they participate in a church or Christian group, and those who say that they do not. This gives us robust categories of churchgoers and non-churchgoers, placing those who attend occasional events, such as a wedding or a carol service, on the non-churchgoing side of the line. This non-churchgoing constituency represents 83 per cent of Anglicans, which dwarfs the 17 per cent who go to church.

This might, however, not be bad news for the Church. It is easy to assume that the churchgoers are the "real Anglicans", and the non-churchgoers are backsliders whose diluted faith is one step away from atheism. The survey reveals something more interesting. Many of the "nominals" are more than purely nominal. Many believe and practise in similar ways to churchgoers - who are themselves not a homogenous group.

We find that there are in fact two different types of non-churchgoer, and two different types of churchgoer. I have labelled the four types and arranged them by size.

I use the term "Godfearer" to point to two distinguishing characteristics of this, the smallest group of Anglicans. First, they are very certain in their belief in God, and, second, they say that God is their main source of authority. Both characteristics make them distinctive among their fellow Anglicans.

Almost 90 per cent of Godfearers say that there is "definitely" a God, compared with just over half of the Churchgoing Mainstream group. They are more likely to read the Bible (about half) and pray regularly (more than three-quarters).

They are unique among Anglicans of all hues in taking their main authority and guidance from religious sources: God, scripture, and religious teachings. They are also the only group to take notice of religious leaders - although only four per cent of them say this.

The Godfearers are also distinct when it comes to their moral attitudes. As you would expect, the Non-churchgoing Doubters are the most permissive, and the Churchgoing Mainstream a little more conservative. But both are in reasonably close agreement with the majority of the population.

In contrast, the Godfearers have much more conservative views on many issues of personal morality, particularly sexuality. For example, 65 per cent of Godfearers are against allowing same-sex marriage, compared with 47 per cent of Churchgoing Believers, 43 per cent of Anglicans overall, and 34 per cent of the general population.

Interestingly, the survey shows that the attitudes of the Godfearers align more closely with conservative Baptists and conservative Muslims than with other Anglicans. Like these other groups, they are neo-Puritans who set their face against what they regard as the loose morals of majority society today.

TURNING to the Churchgoing Mainstream, we meet a significantly different kind of Anglican. They have much more in common with their fellow Anglican Non-churchgoing Believers than with Godfearers. The difference, apart from the fact that they participate in a Christian group or congregation, is that they are a little more religious on a number of measures, and a little more morally conservative.

More than 70 per cent call themselves spiritual, or religious, or both, equal numbers identifying with each term. Two-thirds say that they pray regularly, one third regularly visit sacred places, and one third read the Bible.

Like all other Anglicans except the Godfearers, the Churchgoing Mainstream say that they take their ultimate authority from their own reason, intuition, and judgement, and a few also mention family and friends. This does not mean that they do not consult the scriptures and other religious sources, but, at the end of the day, they make up their own minds - perhaps believing that God speaks through human life and conscience. None takes guidance from religious leaders, national or local.

CROSSING now from churchgoers to non-churchgoers, the survey finds that the Non-churchgoing Believers have a great deal in common with the Churchgoing Mainstream. Half describe themselves as "religious" or "spiritual", compared with less than a quarter of the general population. They all believe in God, although some prefer the word "Spirit".

Half say that they practise religious or spiritual activities regularly, about a quarter saying that they pray, and a quarter saying that they takes regular time to meditate or still the mind. These "nominals" are more than Anglican in name only: they believe, practise, and identify with Anglicanism.

Indeed, even the last type of non-churchgoing Anglican, the Doubters, are more than purely nominal. They identify themselves as Anglican, of course. Only 15 per cent are outright atheists. Most are agnostic or unsure about God - more than one third say that there is "probably not a God", and about half say that they simply "don't know".

More than one fifth say that they practise some sort of religious or spiritual activity in private. Like other Anglicans, they say that their highest authority is their own reason or intuition. But, when it comes to church matters, they tend to be relatively indifferent.

WITH this profile of the four main types of contemporary Anglican in mind, we can return to the question who counts as a "real Anglican". There is a recent tendency, both within and the Church and in the media, to represent the Godfearers as the most real. This is a mistake.

It is not just that this group is very small, but that it is unrepresentative of Anglicans today and Anglicanism in the past. In historical and ecclesiastical terms, the Church of England has care for every soul in England, and demonstrates the latitude that this implies.

It has traditionally tried to gather everyone into the family of God rather than call out only rigorists to separate them from corruption. It is a Church of the nation rather than a congregation of saints. If you follow this logic into our contem- porary, multifaith, and partially secular society, it surely means that everyone who identifies themselves as Anglican makes up the Church.

The conclusion that both churchgoing and non-churchgoing Anglicans are "real" is even stronger when you take into account the enormous social changes that have taken place since the 1980s, brought about by enhanced mobility, communications, and migration.

Christians now might participate daily in an online prayer group with members from around the world, take part in annual festivals or retreats, make pilgrimages to sacred places, and worship occasionally in a variety of cathedrals and churches.

Another enormous change has to do with vastly expanded access to knowledge and a greatly expanded class of "cultural professionals". This has undermined the monopoly on truth that clergy shared with dons until very recently.

We live in a culture in which we are encouraged to search for ourselves, make up our own minds, and take responsibility for our choices. Religion is not exempted. Sitting in a pew being preached at is no longer a normal thing to do.

IRONICALLY, however, at the same time as these developments have been unfolding, the Church of England has been retrenching, or even moving in the opposite direction. To me at least, it seems to have abandoned its sense of itself as a lay Church governed by monarch and Parliament, and responsible to the people, and has become both more clerical and more congregationally based. This is bound up with a dismissal of "nominal" Anglicans.

One consequence is that it is hard for lay people, particularly non-churchgoers, to be taken seriously. Despite their prominence at all levels of society, they are not encouraged to think of themselves as real Anglicans. They do not become spokespeople for their Church, or play an active part in its governance.

There is an interesting comparison here with the Roman Catholic Church in Britain, in which laypeople have been becoming ever more important, as the number of clergy declines.

YET the survey suggests that the "nominals" can easily be as important to the Church as the churchgoers. They may not want to join a congregation, but this does not mean that they are necessarily less Christian, or less Anglican. Many are loyal to the Church, grateful for its place in society, and committed to its welfare.

They try to live good, godly lives, according to Anglican values of dignity, decency, kindness, modesty, and care for others. They read and pray. Some are "golden-rule Christians", who believe that faith should be shown in love for neighbour. Others say that spirituality can be cultivated without going to church.

It would surely be a positive move for the Church to consider: first, that such Anglicans have something important to offer; and, second, that they might even have valuable contributions to make to strategy and decision-making. They could share power. But this would require a radical shift of perspective, in which it was accepted that there is an integrity in this form of Anglicanism, which does not depend on churchgoing.

The potential benefits to all parties of taking non-churchgoing Anglicans seriously are huge. Take influence and expertise: it extends from politics to banking to theology to change-management. The Church needs this help. Or take money: rather than depending on income from the squeezed 17 per cent of churchgoers, it would make sense to ask something of the 83 per cent of non-churchgoers. Only a small amount from so many could make a huge difference.

This can take place at a local as much as a national level. Initiatives are more likely to be effective when they represent some sort of direct action, with tangible results. In one example I heard of recently, a vicar asked non-churchgoers to contribute regularly to specific educational projects in the parish, with great success.

It should not be a case of either-or. The C of E needs both its churchgoers and non-churchgoers. They can support and influence one another. The survey suggests that the majority of Anglicans are not "merely" nominal. They believe, they practise, and - because they still identify themselves as Anglican, even though there is no longer any social pressure to do so - they belong. There is every reason to take them more seriously.

With thanks to the Revd Professor Bernard Silverman for invaluable help with analysis of the statistics.

Linda Woodhead is the Director of the AHRC/ESRC Religion and Society Programme. She is Professor of the Sociology of Religion at Lancaster University.


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