ALMOST half (49.2 per cent) of the C of E clergy respondents to a new poll would officiate at same-sex weddings if they were permitted to do so, and 59 per cent would bless gay relationships. Almost two-thirds said that the Church should no longer teach that sex belonged only in marriage.
The findings of the survey, conducted by The Times, were published on Wednesday. A total of 5000 priests — selected at random from among those with English addresses in Crockford’s Clerical Directory — were approached, and responses were received from 1185 of them. This included retired clergy. The sample represents about six per cent of the serving clergy, who number about 20,000. The response rate varied according to the question asked; respondents could leave questions unanswered; and there appeared to be no checks on who completed the survey.
The poll was carried out in August, six months after the General Synod voted to welcome the Bishops’ proposals to provide prayers for use with same-sex couples — accompanied by clarification that their use would not contradict the Church’s current teaching on marriage (News, 10 February 2023).
More than half of the respondents (53.4 per cent) said that the Church should allow priests to officiate at same-sex weddings, while 49.2 per cent said that they would personally do so. More than one third (36.5 per cent) said that this should not be permitted, and 41 per cent would personally not do so. Almost two-thirds (63.3 per cent) said that the Church should allow gay priests to enter into same-sex civil marriages.
The Living in Love and Faith process did not include polling — a decision criticised by some. A 2014 survey completed by 1509 C of E clergy, commissioned by Professor Linda Woodhead, found that 51 per cent thought that same-sex marriage was “wrong” (News, 21 October 2014). Further surveys among those who identify as Anglican have also been conducted in recent years (News, 6 March 2020).
The Times asked about teaching set out in Resolution 1.10 of the 1998 Lambeth Conference that “homosexual practice is incompatible with scripture”. About one quarter (27.3 per cent) supported an end to any requirement for celibacy for gay people, while 37.2 per cent supported this “only for those in committed relationships such as marriage or civil partnership”. Fewer than one third (29.7 per cent) said that the teaching should be maintained unchanged.
A total of 21.6 per cent said that the Church should no longer teach that sex belonged only in marriage, while 41 per cent said that it should “accept sex between unmarried people, but only for couples in committed relationships”. The Archbishop of Canterbury recently suggested that the Church should be “unapologetic” about its teaching on sexual morality (News, 16 June).
The poll asked clergy about their expectations for the Church. Two-thirds of respondents (66.7 per cent) said that it was most likely that church attendance would continue to fall over the next ten years, and just 10.5 per cent expected growth. Almost one third — 31.9 per cent — agreed with the statement that “the Church of England could face extinction if decline continues,” but 56.6 per cent agreed that “even if decline continues, the Church of England will never go extinct.” Clergy were not asked about the prospects of their own congregations.
The results were gathered against a backdrop of sustained numerical decline dating back decades. Average weekly attendance fell by seven per cent in the three years from October 2016 to 2019 and by 29 per cent between 2019 and 2021 during the Covid pandemic (News, 9 December 2022). A recently published report suggests that Covid “compressed ten years of ‘inevitable’ decline into three” (News, 7 April 2023).
Last year, a mathematician suggested that the Church of England faced extinction within 40 years (News, 27 May 2022). The sociologist Professor David Voas has reported that “the major factor underlying numerical change is that people never start attending in the first place” (News, 17 January 2014). Decline in recent years has been almost twice as pronounced among children (News, 20 October 2022).
Half the clergy polled (49.6 per cent) said that bishops were doing a good job of leading the Church, while 42.5 per cent suggested that they were doing a bad job.
Asked about their own workload, 40.5 per cent of the respondents told The Times that they felt “over-worked or over-stretched”, and 32.7 per cent said that their workload or other pressures in their ministry had led them to “seriously consider quitting the priesthood in the past five years”.
Asked about the cost of living, among priests of working age, 16.4 per cent said they were finding it fairly or very difficult to get by. Church House, Westminster, is conducting its own ten-year study, Living Ministry, exploring clergy well-being, and this has raised questions about “appropriate levels of demand and sacrifice” (News, 15 September 2017)
Clergy were also asked about provision for traditionalists and conservative Evangelicals under the House of Bishops’ Declaration. A total of 62.9 per cent agreed that: “This system should be phased out, after which parishes will no longer be able to advertise for male-only priests or decline to accept the ministry of a female bishop.” In July, the Bishop of Dover, the Rt Revd Rose Hudson-Wilkin, suggested that “the women-bishops thing ain’t working” (News, 14 July 2023), although a 2021 report by the Implementation and Dialogue Group suggested that the settlement had “broadly worked” (News, 2 July 2021).
The Times also asked: “If there is a statue or memorial on church property dedicated to an individual who owned slaves or profited from the slave trade, what is the best course of action in your view?” The most popular response — 67.2 per cent — was that “it should be left in place, but with information added to explain the links to slavery.”