OPINION polls often confirm what we already know; but sometimes
their results can challenge our preconceptions. In February, a
regular national survey hit the headlines, as it revealed
ever-lower levels of public trust in politicians. Beneath this top
story, however, was a parallel result that is of greater concern to
the Church; this went largely unreported.
Since the 1980s, Ipsos MORI has run regular surveys monitoring
the trust that people in Britain have in the institutions and
public figures that serve their communities. The professions that
they cover reflect concerns of the day. Bankers, for example, have
only recently been included, at the expense of professors, but the
core question has remained consistent. People have been asked
whether they would trust individual professions "to tell the
In the past, the clergy have been included in these surveys
among the most trustworthy figures in society, alongside doctors
and teachers. Scientists and judges have, in recent years, grown in
trustworthiness, but, over the past ten years, levels of trust in
the clergy have dropped steadily. They are now in second place, in
the company of TV newsreaders, the police, and the ordinary person
in the street.
Between six and seven in ten people expressed trust in these
professionals, while more than eight in ten continued to trust
doctors, teachers, scientists, and judges. When the survey started
in 1983, trust in the clergy was at its highest level - 85 per
cent. It is now at an all-time low of 66 per cent.
The survey is carried out by phone, and the results are adjusted
to reflect the profile of the British population in terms of
demographics, income, lifestyle, and other recognised social
indicators. In this sense, it is a representative sample, and is
accurate within about three per cent.
For the Church, this picture is evolving. The government Census
in 2011 placed the level of Christian allegiance in Britain at six
in ten, compared with seven in ten just after the turn of the
millennium. There is potential synergy here with the reported
levels of trust in the clergy. If this is the case, the wider
community has been distanced not only from the Christian faith, but
also from many of its representatives.
PUBLIC trust in the clergy could be said to rely on various
personalities and experiences, and may be related to the level of
trust in the institution of the Church, but is also distinct from
it. Over recent years, British institutions have taken a bashing,
but, while we are losing faith in them, we remain heartened that
most individual professionals retain their reliability.
But in 2008, a survey (again by Ipsos MORI) into institutional
trust placed the Church of England third, after the BBC and the
NHS, and ahead of the military, the Government, media, and large
businesses: 36 per cent of those questioned expressed trust in the
Church, which was almost the same as the 37 per cent polled in a
similar survey in 2000. It seems that confidence in the Church
decreased some years ahead of the more recent decline in trust in
The Audit Commission has helpfully explored the factors involved
in declining trends in confidence in institutions, by identifying
key influences in levels of trust. They included transparency and
honesty, leadership and bureaucracy, and expectations and
confidence, together with a listening ear.
The experience of the national Church Wedding Project is that a
listening vicar and a welcoming church are vital to building levels
of trust. The project's research discovered that couples
approaching the church for a wedding value the clerical collar, and
even grow in their appreciation of it. It seems that, as these
younger adults get to know their vicar, and feel listened to, their
respect of his or her contribution increases. Grooms, in
particular, expressed gratitude for the guidance of an independent,
IN THE Church, we know that the part played by the clergy is
changing. We may reminisce fondly about a local full-time priest,
exercising, as George Herbert famously did, a personal ministry
among all his parishioners, but the nation is responding warmly to
the growing number of chaplains and self-supporting (or
non-stipendiary) clergy (SSMs). School, hospital, and prison
chaplains and ministers in secular employment all recount unique
pastoral opportunities that many stipendiary parish clergy can only
The Revd Dr Theresa Morgan's research findings among SSMs, and
the various initiatives that she reports (
Comment, 1 February), have encouraged the Church to utilise the
outward-facing aspects of these ministers.
In many respects, the Church's finances are not very different
from those of charitable agencies, and its work is similar to much
social provision that is increasingly relying on volunteers. The
growing number of SSMs offers a committed and diverse professional
volunteer force that we should use more creatively to reach out
beyond the provision of Sunday services.
At least one diocese has the ambition of licensing one SSM to
each parish. Where this has worked well, the benefits of utilising
the public ministry of a priest who is resident in the community -
and perhaps also in full-time secular employment - has encouraged
the whole church community to work more closely together to share
the love of God in the neighbourhood.
School and hospital chaplains frequently express frustration
that their ministry is not connected with local churches, but, if
deaneries and parishes could consider a more connected way forward
for ministry, it could reshape the face of the parish church to be
more intimately respected in local life.
The key to all this is for the Church to support more creatively
those public representatives already living and working in our
neighbourhoods, who have proved themselves to be effective
ambassadors for Christ. Building trust in the clergy, wherever they
minister, is essential. The polls show that trust is slipping away,
and we cannot afford to ignore this.
The Revd Lynda Barley is Canon Pastor of Truro