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Establishing faith in the community

05 April 2013

The clergy need to work hard to regain the trust of the public, argues Lynda Barley


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 truth".

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 its clergy.

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, listening professional.

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 dream of.

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 Cathedral.

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