“BENIGN indifference” is the commonest attitude that the general public has towards the Church of England, the Church’s national lead on evangelism and witness suggests in a new book published this month. The Church is “simply not associated with spiritual experience at all”.
The Revd Dr Stephen Hance reports, in Seeing Ourselves as Others See Us: Perceptions of the Church of England (Grove, 2021), that “very many people in our society today have no particular sense or feeling about the Church one way or the other. . . Most people don’t think about us at all.”
His research, which contributed to the shaping of the Vision and Strategy initiative (News, 26 November 2020), draws on three strands: a review of media coverage of the C of E from March 2019 to May 2020 (only six per cent of which was deemed to be negative); research conducted in the past five years, including ComRes polling and research commissioned from Britain Thinks (not currently in the public domain); and five round-table discussions held in May and June this year with a mixture of Anglican and non-Anglican participants.
The minority of the population who do think about the C of E hold a “largely positive” view, Dr Hance reports. In fact, those who did not identify as Anglicans were more likely to have a positive view than those that did. “Active Anglicans are often better at explaining what is wrong with the Church than what is right with it,” he writes.
“Without losing the ability to be reflective and self-critical, we could get better at appreciating our strengths. This is not about curtailing comment or criticism, but of reminding ourselves of what we value about the Church, and trying to make our criticisms less public, following the recent C of E Digital Charter.”
A section exploring positive views refers to appreciation of “the unthreatening nature of Anglicanism”, and a sense that the C of E is a “force for unity, an institution for the non-believer as much as for the believer”. The most positive feedback was prompted by the Church’s social action, which, Dr Hance, argues, “gives authority or authenticity to our message and our faith”.
He goes on to caution, however, that “it was frequently commented that the Church seems very embarrassed to talk about God. . . Some feel that bishops are more confident talking about social issues than they are matters of doctrine or theology. At a local level, others note that those who run, for example, the foodbank don’t seem very interested or confident in articulating a Christian motivation for doing it, or using the contacts such ministry opens up for evangelism. . .
A key finding of the research is that “the local trumps the national”: for most people, how they feel about the Church is largely shaped by their own experience, or that of friends and family. Comments about the national Church and its leadership were generally positive, but Dr Hance notes that some discerned, particularly through episcopal interventions, “a left-leaning perspective, and the assumption of a consensus around that perspective, which does not exist — inside the Church or outside it”.
Several criticised the comments on the Dominic Cummings affair, “not because they necessarily disagreed, but because they felt Cummings was an easy target for a kind of leftish self-righteousness” (News, 22 May 2020).
Dr Hance warns that levels of trust in the Church are lower among younger people. and that “the experience of LGBTQ+ people is particularly mentioned by under-30s, and many who self-identify as such say that they have been hurt by the Church.” The Church’s record on racial justice is also seen as “less-than-stellar by many Millennials”. Younger Christians have a “diminishing sense of denominational loyalty”, and may go on to join different churches, posing an “existential threat to the Church of England”, he writes.
Among the recommendations set out by Dr Hance — who has led the campaign to “motivate the million” (News, 8 July 2019) — is that every church should run “a regular programme to equip everyone to be good witnesses”, and that “every would-be ordained or licensed leader should have experience of fruitful evangelism.”
Dr Hance also suggests that every church should “seek regular feedback from a wide range of local people, and especially from non-churchgoers who have had contact through life events”, and that the Church has a “new digital fringe to reach”, requiring “a significant ‘pivot’ on the church’s part to develop good practice in serving, evangelising and integrating online worshippers”.
The book includes a “mission map” produced by the national director for evangelism and discipleship, Canon Dave Male, drawing on the Office for National Statistics and British Social Attitudes (BSA) research, which divides the population into six groups: core Anglicans (200,000); regular Anglican worshippers (1.14 million); cultural fringe — those who attend occasionally (ten million); indifferent (11 million); dismissive (23 million); and other faiths (five million).
Dr Hance notes that the “cultural fringe” is the fastest declining: the BSA survey suggests that the number who identify as Anglican has fallen from 18.4 million to 6.6 million in the past 30 years.
Read comment from Dr Hance here
Listen to an interview with Dr Hance on the Church Times Podcast.