A recent poll by the national newspaper has suggested that a majority of Anglican clergy are in favour of same-sex marriage. But the methodology, and the presentation of its findings, seem far from robust says Dr Ian Paul
There have been a fair few headlines over recent days about a poll conducted by The Times on the views of Church of England clergy. A range of conclusions have been drawn, including that clergy no longer see Britain as a Christian country; that the majority think the Church should conduct same-sex marriages, and that decline in church attendance is unlikely to be reversed in the next ten years.
The overall picture is one of a group who are demoralised, pessimistic and lacking in vision for a vibrant Church which stands in contrast to the culture of our age.
But perhaps all is not what it seems! The Times survey consisted of an email sent to approximately 5,000 clergy, selected ”at random” from Crockford’s Clerical Directory (which holds the names of all clergy in the CofE). They got responses from around 1,400. Out of this, for some unexplained reason, they selected 1,185, and based their claims on the answers of this group.
There are multiple problems with this kind of approach. For a start, there is no guarantee that the 5,000 selected are representative of clergy as a whole. Statistically this is possible, but professional polling companies are much more careful to ensure that a subgroup is representative of the larger group according to all the important measures - in this case, whether participants are male or female, full time or part time, working or retired, in parish ministry or some other role - and so on. The Times does not appear to have done any of these checks (I’ve asked them for more detail on this, but received no reply).
The poll was mischievously constructed to exaggerate issues that are difficult
Worse than that, the group who responded were entirely self-selecting. What would make some clergy reply and others not? There is a good chance that those leading large, growing churches would just not have time. In fact, of the 1,185 whose results were used, only 769 were actually of working age, the others having retired. So there is another skewing of the sample. And, in all kinds of surveys, those with some kind of axe to grind are always more likely to respond in order to make their voice heard.
For all these reasons, the claims that The Times repeatedly makes, such as “56 per cent of clergy at the frontline believe X” are entirely without foundation. Such views can only be extrapolated when careful checks have been made - and The Times appears to have singularly avoided doing this.
One of the most striking claims, given current debate in the Church, is that “a majority of priests want the Church to conduct same-sex weddings for the first time and formally drop its centuries-old opposition to premarital and gay sex, in a historic shift that campaigners hope will lead to a change in teaching.”
The paper says this based on the answers given by this self-selecting group, of which 53.4 per cent agreed to the statement that the law should be changed to allow the Church to marry same-sex couples. That is only ‘just’ a majority of this self-selecting group. But the context in which this is reported is fascinating.
Only 1,000 out of the current 20,000 active clergy would be willing to conduct same-sex weddings
First, the article notes that “the church teaches that only weddings between a man and a woman are permitted in church and that sex is only permissible within heterosexual marriages.” All clergy take vows at their ordination that they believe and will expound the doctrine of the Church, and model it in their own lives for others to follow. It seems as though more than half the group who responded are no longer doing what they publicly promised to do.
The article also notes that a previous survey was undertaken in 2014. If you want to see how a poll should be done, you can look at the results here. The sample is chosen carefully, and the analysis has been made public, so you can see the different views amongst the different groups.
Blessings and prayers
But in the case of this research, both the context provided in the article and the survey are in error. It claims that: “Bishops have, however, said they will allow priests to ‘bless’ gay couples and are under pressure to go further and permit same-sex weddings.”
At the General Synod debate in February, bishops were at pains to say that any proposed prayers would not indicate a blessing of relationships, and the one thing that was clear in the motion passed was that the Church’s doctrine of marriage, as a life-long exclusive union between one man and one woman, would remained unchanged. Any prayers that are proposed must neither change this doctrine nor ‘be indicative’ of such change.
Even with that proviso, the motion to continue exploration of such prayers only just scraped through the House of Laity, by 52 per cent to 48. And when the Campaign for Equal Marriage, which is campaigning for a change to the Church’s doctrine, invited clergy to sign a statement saying that, if doctrine was changed, they would be willing to conduct same-sex weddings, only 1,000 out of the current 20,000 active clergy signed up.
All this points to a much greater sense of ambivalence than The Times claims from its survey. So we might ask why it was conducted, and why it was done in this way. Canon Emeritus Angela Tilby tweeted her view: “I think the poll was mischievously constructed, to expose and exaggerate issues that are difficult for the Church.”
And The Times Leader column made the agenda clear: “In supporting these views Anglican priests are doing no more than mirroring those of the general population; more than half of Britons believe the Church of England should marry same-sex couples. The world has moved on and left the General Synod behind. If it is to avoid irrelevance the church would be wise to embrace the liberal instincts of its clergy and the country.”
Perhaps the purpose of the poll was, in fact, to show that the Church needed to ‘get with the times’ to avoid its demise. The problem with this proposal is that every Western church which has changed its doctrine of marriage has declined even faster. In Britain, the churches which are growing and attracting young people are, in fact, those upholding the historic view of marriage.
And for the CofE, there is a bigger issue. It believes in its doctrine of marriage, according to its own canon law (Canon B30) because it is “according to the teaching of our Lord”. The Times claims that the Church should follow the results of a poorly conducted opinion poll rather than the teaching of Jesus.
I hope they will understand if we decline.
Both Premier and Dr Ian Paul have approached Kaya Burgess to ask for details of the methodology used for the survey