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Here's what the public really thought of Bishop Michael Curry's sermon

Rev Peter Ould takes a deep dive into Theos' research and discovers some surprising findings 

Theos, the think tank that explores the place of religion in British society, has commissioned some research to explore the attitude of the British public to that sermon from Bishop Michael Curry at the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.

Charlotte Hobson from the Theos team has done a good job of outlining the key features of the research, conducted by ComRes. The findings include the statistics that only 12% thought the sermon improved their understanding of Christianity.

Approval of aspects of the sermon seemed to increase the more often a respondent went to church and there was also a more positive sentiment the younger the participant in the survey was. Hobson also draws out the intriguing fact that behind the massive media approval of the sermon, the general public were rather more ambivalent:

"Bishop Curry’s sermon generated widespread media attention as an unexpected and entertaining – both in the reactions of guests and in its charismatic tone – segment within a globally anticipated, historically significant ceremony. It would be naïve to imagine, therefore, that it would thereby effect any widespread, long–term change with regards to public opinions concerning religious belief and practice. A single 14–minute sermon does not a revival make. Our poll confirms this in revealing generally high levels of ambivalence and uncertainty, and a positive correlation between existing religiosity and positive attitude to the sermon."

I have to admit to suppressing a laugh when I read the section on whether the respondent would be more likely to attend church if sermons were like the one preached in St George’s Chapel to an audience of millions (16% said they would). The number of times I’ve done funerals as a parish priest and a local resident has said to me “I’d come to church more often if they were like you” and I’ve bitten my lip rather than responding, “That’s the third time you’ve said that to me this year, but you clearly don’t actually believe that because I never see you on a Sunday”.

Going deeper

If you want to know more about how the public responded to the sermon, you can read Theos' research here. As a statistician I've taken a closer look at the demographic questions ComRes asked. I think the results make for fascinating reading. 

As you might expect, weekly church attenders were more likely to be ABC1s (upper middle class), but when you look at the DEs (working class / non working) they were more likely to never cross the lych-gate threshold. This fits in with the caricature we often see of a middle class church that struggles to reach out beyond the sylvan and Saab suburbs of fame, and the research also indicated that regular church attenders tended to have higher incomes.

But again, the proverbial devil is in the detail. The rate of weekly church attendance goes from 10% among ABs (middle classes) down to almost 6% for C2DEs (lower middle class, working class), but the differences for those who go at least once a year (perhaps to funerals or weddings) are negligible. So while committed pew sitting is still more likely to be a middle class activity, religious adherence remains the same across the social divides.

Are regular church goers deluded simpletons who put faith above facts? Well weekly attenders were three times more likely than non attenders to have a post graduate degree, and even those who attended occasionally had a statistically significant higher probability of at least a bachelor’s degree when compared to non attenders. 

Regular church attenders were a staggering four times more likely to be BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) than non attenders and those who occasionally attended were twice as likely. We know from previous research that there are higher levels of religious identity among immigrant communities, but this observation was still quite impressive. Of even more interest was that some kind of attendance in the past year among BAME respondents was highly correlated with identification as “Christian”, indicating that among these communities the religious moniker people adopt is more than just a label. Whereas the figures for irregular attendance for white people indicated a third of those who called themselves “Christian”, in the BAME community it was almost identical.

Regular attenders were more likely to have children than none attenders, but this went up even further when looking at occasional attenders who were twice as likely to have children of school age. That’s an awful lot of Christingles to account for and I wonder whether this has less to do with nativity plays and school attendance and more to do with how having children raises in parents all kinds of existential questions.

One surprising insight was that the distribution of family formats (marriage, cohabitation, single etc) was pretty much the same between non attenders and occasional attenders. As expected regular attenders were more likely to be married, but once all forms of relationship were taken into account there was little difference between the three groups. How much of that is linked to people who are married feeling more comfortable in church (and vice versa) and how much to do with church attendance and marriage both being correlated with personal stability is up for grabs, but it does present a picture of a church whose regular pew sitters don’t quite fit with the social profile of the surrounding culture, even those in the culture who occasionally turn up for a wedding or baptism.

So what to make of all this?

Two observations seem particularly pertinent. The first is that church attenders in the UK have a particular demographic profile that is different from the overall population and those in it who call themselves “Christian” but aren’t part of a worshipping community.

This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, but it’s interesting in 2018 to see that evangelism in our communities can be as much a cross-cultural mission as going overseas. The people who are not part of our churches have some particular differences to those who are and the challenge remains whether a growing church will become demographically more like the community it grows into or whether people change when they join their local worshipping community.

The second observation is subtle and incidental, but I think more profound. By going to the effort of stratifying by regularity of church attendance, ComRes have demonstrated that it’s simply not enough to ask people their religious affiliation or whether they might ever have attended a service.

In this survey almost half of those who called themselves Christian never went to church and it’s clear that the label itself is not any indication of being part of a church community and having an active and vibrant faith. This is a real challenge to some in the Church who agitate for change on social issues (for example blessing same-sex relationships), make great efforts to tell us “what Anglicans think” but claim it’s too hard to actually qualify these Anglicans by their actual religious observance. ComRes have demonstrated very clearly that it is possible to ask just one more question (how often do you go to church) to open up clear differences between those who are active members, those on the fringe and those who use a religious label but have no engagement with that faith beyond the name.

Which brings us full circle to Bishop Curry’s sermon. The difference in response to it from regular church goers compared to occasional church goers, let alone those who simply call themselves “Christian” demonstrates this exact point. Weekly attenders were twice as likely as nominal Christians to recognise how Bishop Curry’s sermon touched on points of doctrine and praxis than those on the fringes, indicating that those who worship regularly have different theological understanding than those who don’t.

That seems intuitive since listening to sermons, singing hymnody and reading liturgy all reinforces doctrine, but it does mean that we have to take very seriously the idea that simply calling oneself “Christian” can tell you a lot about someone’s faith. I would hope to see any future research on the opinions of “Christians” recognise this and look for similar stratifications that ComRes have performed in order to tease out these subtleties.

The Revd Peter Ould is a Church of England priest, a consultant statistician and a Primary School Governor. He has been writing and broadcasting on issues of Christianity, sex and gender for almost two decades. He writes here in his personal capacity.

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