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This page last updated 11 April 2005  

An essay for Anglicans Online

On a recent survey in the Church of England

by Jamie McMahon
March, 2005

An article appeared in The Times on 5 March 2005 discussing a new church survey, with the following headline: "Liberal and weak clergy blamed for empty pews". Although the article itself did not give any sources for this survey Thinking Anglicans had it linked: Church Survey. The report is called "Let the People Speak" and claims to be "the results of an independent ecumenical investigation examining the reasons why church going is declining in Britain and Ireland and the solutions people offer to reverse the decline." According to the Introduction, 14,000 responses were received from across Britain and Ireland in answer to the following questions:

  1. If you attend church regularly, what are the main things which encourage you to attend? If your attendance is merely out of a 'sense of duty', what could be changed so as to make it more appealing?
  2. If you used to be a churchgoer, but now only attend infrequently or not at all, what were the main things which led to this? What could be changed in order for you to attend again regularly?
  3. If you have never been a churchgoer, what could be done to encourage you to begin?
  4. The traditional custom of 'clergy visiting' has steadily declined in spite of the maxim 'a house going minister makes a church going people'. Do you think the demise of this customary visiting role is significant?

Having been asked about the Times article by a few friends, I decided to have a look at the report for myself, and see what I thought of its conclusions. (Text in quotation marks is taken from the report.)

General Observations:

"Although people from every age range responded, 70% were over 40 years of age ... Of those who indicated, 75% attended church at least once a month, of these 31% attended weekly. 20% stated that they had stopped attending church altogether."

From these two points alone it is clear that the vast majority of people who responded to the survey were in the two older generations, and were still attending church fairly regularly. This is fine given that a goal of the report was to let the 'people in the pews' speak about the church, but it should be noted that this means that only a minority of responses can be said to address the concerns of those outside of the church or those who have left the church, despite the claim of the report to let those people speak as well.

Chapter 1 - The Need for Apologetics:

"People want churches to emphasise the many reasons why believing in God and Christianity makes sense and to challenge a doubting society ... increasing disbelief is a significant reason why church attendance is declining."

I would agree that this is definitely a good thing, and that there is certainly a hunger amongst many people to learn and better understand the basics of the Christian faith. However, from the responses quoted in this chapter and the websites mentioned as resources, it is clear that the kind of information that people felt was lacking in Christian education was particularly evangelical in character. It seemed strange that there were not any responses recorded for any other understanding of the Christian message.

Chapter 2 - The Desire for Holiness:

"People want churches to give clear teaching on the nature of God's holiness and the implications this has for individuals and our two nations."

Again, I think this is a good thing, but the report seems to describe only one particular understanding of the holiness of God. This involved a strong emphasis on the cross (many respondents said that they were influenced by Mel Gibson's film 'The Passion of the Christ'), and a general uneasiness at the rise of 'immoral' behavior in society such as "premarital sex, cohabitation, illegitimacy, abortion, divorce and depression." These behaviors were taken as necessarily morally wrong with no explanation, and there was no mention of the Incarnation as a mark of God's holiness and interaction with the world.

The report went on to say that at the beginning of the 20th century, crime was at a low at the same time that churchgoing was at a high and so concluded that "it was not people's fear of arrest which kept them from breaking the law, but their inner morality and fear of God." This seems like a bit of pseudo-statistical analysis to me, especially as the report does not choose to provide references to the statistical data that it mentions in support of this idea.

There was also an emphasis on the ordination of homosexual clergy, with 205 people in favor of it and about 8,000 against it. That second number is actually a guess on my part because the report, without providing any actual numbers, simply states that "out of 10,400 responses approximately 85% of those who referred to the morality of God and the implications it had for us, specifically mentioned this issue."

Chapter 3 - Worship:

"People want churches to give priority to the ministy of worship, satisfying all the various aspects worship involves."

I agree with much of the first part of this, specifically about how the emphasis on 'trendy' worship has served no useful purpose in the life of the church, and how traditional and contemporary forms of worship and music should be able to find some common ground at the expense of neither one nor the other. However, the strong emphasis on the sermon with no mention whatsoever of the Eucharist does make me wonder exactly what kind of worship was being discussed.

Chapter 4 - The Attraction of 'Visionary and Prophetic' Churches/Teaching:

"Many respondents want churches to respond to the needs of this frightened generation by adopting a 'visionary and prophetic role'."

First of all, this chapter, although given equal weight to the other sections of the report, was actually only mentioned by 23% of respondents, and the majority of those were not members of mainline denominations or non-churchgoers. The responses describe the perfectly normal emphasis in the so-called 'free churches' on an understanding that Biblical prophecies are not mythological, but that they represent the truth of what God is going to do in the world, and they see the recent world events as evidence that the End Times are near at hand. However, these beliefs are not generally shared by most people in mainline churches, and it was surprising to see them carry so much weight in the report.

Chapter 5 - Requests for More Home Visiting and Greater Pastoral Care:

"People want clergy to give greater priority to home visiting and pastoral care, in order to reflect God's love and concern for the individual."

I would actually agree with most of what this section had to say, including the suggestions for allowing lay people more of a role in the 'physical' side of running a parish so that the clergy can concentrate on the 'spiritual' side of things. The only thing to take issue with would be the fact that the fourth question in the original survey that led to these responses was not particularly open-ended, unlike the first three, and so gave a lot of weight to one particular issue that the authors of the survey clearly wanted to

Chapter 6 - Other Related Subjects:

The only thing that I have to say here is though the report states that "thousands of respondents asked for churches to listen to those who held 'traditional beliefs and traditional moral values' and accept them," it chooses not to say if any respondents held the opposite viewpoint.

My conclusion:

Although the goal of the report was to 'let the people speak', it seems clear to me that its authors only let certain kinds of responses be heard, in spite of the claim from the report that "91% of the responses [expressed] the same opinions" on what was causing the decline in church going. In addition, since the report mainly consisted of quotations from responses to the questions posed in the survey, it would be difficult to claim any kind of statistical relevance to the data collected. There was also very little description of the members of the "Ecumenical Research Committee," the group that organized the effort, beyond the statement that it was "composed of 15 individuals providing a range of skills in statistical analysis, market research, publicity and media management." The claim of the Forward by Lord Bromley that the report "shows that the vast majority of people in Britain and Ireland are still morally conservative" seems to me to indicate that he only read the report itself and its narrow conclusions. I would be very interested to see what the rest of those who took the survey had to say.

Jamie McMahon is a graduate student at Jesus College, Cambridge University and a member of the Standing Commission on Episcopal Church Communications (USA). You can read more about -- and by -- him by visiting his blog: