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Lies, damned lies, and the gathering of data

19 December 2014

We should be wary of an overemphasis on statistics at the expense of faithfulness to the gospel, writes Edward Dowler

Now it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. (Luke 2.1)

THE Gospel reading for midnight mass gives us a Christmas parable about the sinister aspects of collecting data. The Emperor Augustus, who initiates the census, was hailed in the Roman world as "chief priest", "saviour", "Son of God", and "bringer of peace", but Luke's infancy narrative clearly, if subtly, contrasts the overweening, bureaucratic type of power represented by Caesar with that of Jesus Christ, born in a manger in Bethlehem. Moreover, even in Luke's Gospel there is a clear connection between collecting data and wielding economic power. In the ancient world, the purpose of taxation was not to raise money which could then be redistributed for beneficial purposes, but rather to extract tribute from subservient people.

More than 2000 years later, data collection is again supreme. In 21st-century Britain, children's educational progress and attainment are assessed by a hyper-statistical approach which, for all the rhetoric about "inclusion", presages a reductive view of the human person.

It implies that each child is not so much a unique and God-imaging reality, to be cherished and respected for his or her own sake, but rather as a set of performance data and, ultimately, a cog in the economic wheel.

Similarly, in the Church of England in recent years, we have seen an increasing number of projects that adopt a data-driven approach. A prominent example has been the British Religion in Numbers project associated with Professor Linda Woodhead, and her surveys on the part played by religion in public life, recently featured in the Church Times (Comment, 31 October).

Equally high-profile has been the report From Anecdote to Evidence, based on the findings from the Church Growth Research Programme.

In my own diocese, the success of our current diocesan initiative is to be assessed by a succession of "key metrics", such as the numbers of "ambassadors for Christ" and new worshipping communities that the diocese can produce.

Elsewhere, two bishops, clearly rattled by the statistics, have commented on the need for radical change. One of them has apparently suggested that the appropriate response to declining numbers in his parish churches might be a reduction in the number of times they celebrate the eucharist.

THE Church of England should surely be very wary of colluding with the prevailing managerialist delusion of contemporary Western society: that any important information can be expressed in a set of numbers; and, concomitant to this, that pressure can then be put on individual men and women to drive those numbers upwards. Statistical data may tell us how people behave, how they perform, and what their opinions are at a particular moment; but, for all their promise of focus and precision, statistics offer, at best, an extremely blunt instrument for analysing the very subtle things that should be our particular concern.

These include the mysterious workings of the human heart, the depth and reality of our contemplation of God, and the unseen workings of grace in the lives of individuals and communities.

Moreover, reliance on statistical data tends towards quick fixes, often dressed up as strategies, initiatives, and interventions. What is actually needed may be precisely the opposite: a slower-burning and more painstaking engagement with the scriptures, the Christian tradition, and the reality of life in Christ.

For example, while a reduction in the number of occasions on which the eucharist is celebrated may be the obvious solution, if the data tells us that fewer people are attending, it may not actually be the best solution. Perhaps we should rather try to deepen the way in which it is celebrated, or help people (including ourselves) to enter into it with a new heart and a new spirit. We might even want to increase the number of celebrations - as the Wesleys did, before their own revival of the Church.

THERE are particular dangers for clergy in the hyper-statistical approach, when the focus of our work changes from doing, faithfully and joyfully, those things that we are called to do, and becomes instead meeting targets, data, and outcomes. Such a focus tends to foster a nervous competitiveness between fellow workers in the vineyard.

It may also breed an insidious form of clericalism, as we come to view members of our congregations not as fellow pilgrims and members of the body of Christ, but as customers, or statistics on a spreadsheet.

Data collection is usually linked to economics, and it is all too easy for the Church unwittingly to default to the ways of the capitalist economy rather than witness to the Gospel's more hopeful account of what it means to be a human person.

THE Gospels present Jesus as a lover of anecdotes - however much we may wish he had adopted a more evidence-based praxis. The parable of the sower (Mark 4.3-9) appears to advocate the most hopelessly- targeted mission strategy imaginable. Careless of projected outcomes, a sower cheerfully and liberally scatters seed around the place, even in areas where it is highly unlikely ever to grow.

And yet grow it does: thirty-, sixty-, and a hundred-fold.

The Revd Dr Edward Dowler is Vicar of St John and St Luke, Clay Hill, in the diocese of London, and Director of Continuing Ministerial Education in the Edmonton Episcopal Area.

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