[toggle title_open="Close Me" title_closed="Open For Executive Summary" hide="yes" border="yes" style="default" excerpt_length="0" read_more_text="Read More" read_less_text="Read Less" include_excerpt_html="no"]The recent survey reporting the views of Church of England people on same-sex marriage needs to be read as descriptive not prescriptive and its description needs a wider context which acknowledges that the method used results in both the larger group (on which the published data almost exclusively focuses) and smaller group it identifies as Anglican (about 30% and 18% of the adult population respectively) being much larger than even Christmas worshippers in the CofE (about 4%). Its method also excludes some who are regular worshippers in the CofE but who don't identify primarily as Anglicans.
Similar surveys show that this sort of group is little different from those identifying as non-religious in how they make decisions about life. This leads to them having views on sexual ethics such as
- two-thirds of these Anglicans say they would not feel at all guilty about extra-marital sex
- a quarter of these Anglicans would not feel at all guilty (rising to over 1/3 when including those “not very guilty”) about committing adultery.
Having made these caveats, the article identifies eight areas where this and similar surveys help us understand changing attitudes to same-sex marriage. These include:
- the significant difference in support among non-religiously identified and religious people,
- the significant and growing number of supporters for same-sex marriage among those who identify with any Christian denomination. In many of these, as with self-identified Anglicans, there may be a simple majority believing it is right, but not yet usually an absolute majority ie more say "wrong" or "don't know" than say "right".
- the continued strong belief same-sex marriage is wrong among those who identify as "Orthodox Christian", "Pentecostal" or "Evangelical".
It concludes by arguing that Christian leaders need to be more confident - in church and society - about explaining the Christian understanding of marriage with which many people still identify.[/toggle]
Despite all our Shared Conversations, it remains largely a mystery as to what people in the Church of England really believe about same-sex marriage. Jayne Ozanne has just published a survey which claims to shed new light on this by identifying Anglicans in England and finding more of them believe same-sex marriage is right than believe it is wrong.
What can such a survey do?
It is of course important that any such findings are simply descriptive not prescriptive. Christians do not believe the voice of the people, even church people, is the voice of God. Scripture is full of examples where God was at work through his apostles and prophets and indeed his Messiah to correct the majority viewpoint among his people. But good description is also immensely valuable in Christian discernment.
The primary challenge here is identifying “Anglicans in England” and the survey offers two answers – a larger one and a subset of that. There are major questions about each group.
Finding English Anglicans - I: Who is included?
In relation to the larger group on which almost all the published data focuses, there are questions about inclusion and exclusion. Although we are not told the exact question asked, past You Gov polling suggests it was something like – “Do you regard yourself as belonging to any particular religion, and if so, to which of these do you belong?”. In answering this people either distance themselves totally – “No, I do not regard myself as belonging to any particular religion” – or (unless they “prefer not to say”) need to align with one in a list (or opt for “other”). The group whose views Jayne Ozanne’s survey reports amount to 29.2% of English adults saying “Yes, I regard myself as religious and as belonging to CofE/Anglican/Episcopal”. Given that less than 2% attend a CofE church most weeks and just over 4% at Christmas this is a very high figure. It is worth thinking how big a fringe would need to be included in your local parish church for it to encompass nearly 30% of the parish population.
Finding English Anglicans I: Who is excluded?
Despite this emphasis on inclusion there is also an interesting exclusion. As far as I can see almost all past You Gov surveys have a maximum of 8 Christian denominations and 5 other religions people can identify with. This survey adds 3 more Christian sub-categories: Orthodox Christian, Pentecostal and Evangelical not on offer in 2013. This, also found in a December 2015 survey for Lancaster University, further complicates matters especially in terms of measuring change between the two surveys. While the other options are simply denominations, all 3 of these – particularly “Orthodox Christian” and “Evangelical” - are also common non-denominational labels. Someone calling themselves a “Baptist Methodist” is slightly odd whereas “Evangelical Anglican” is a common designation. Faced with the usual list I could only be “Anglican” but if I could choose “Orthodox Christian” or “Evangelical” might well opt for one of those. If I did then I – an ordained Anglican – would not be in this sample.
Finding English Anglicans I: What do they believe about how they behave?
If this new survey asked wider questions about belief or behaviour they have not been published. However, previous YouGov polls in 2013 identified a similar proportion of self-identified Anglicans and so this group is likely to be similar in outlook. When asked what they rely on most for guidance in life these Anglicans are little different from those who say they have no religion. For example, the 2013 survey Jayne Ozanne highlights shows
- Over half rely most on their own reason, intuition or feelings.
- Just 4% chose “God or ‘higher power”, 3% said “The tradition and teachings of my religion” and only 1% said “A Scripture or holy book eg Bible” as what they most relied on for guidance.
It is therefore perhaps not surprising that among this body of Anglicans another 2013 survey found
- a third were not at all guilty about using pornography
- two-thirds not at all guilty about sex before marriage or civil partnership and
- a quarter not at all guilty (rising to over 1/3 when including those “not very guilty”) if they had sex outside marriage or civil partnership ie committed adultery.
In the light of these wider features of self-identified Anglicans, it is less shocking that the bishops are out of step with this constituency on same-sex marriage and perhaps the biggest surprise is having over a third (37%) in the new survey believe same-sex marriage is wrong and less than half (only 45%) thinking it right.
Finding English Anglicans II - Where do these Anglicans belong?
Turning to where these Anglicans belong, we are able to identify the survey’s second narrower group of Anglicans whose view it reports as also (more marginally) in favour of same-sex marriage. A third of this original group of Anglicans say they are not involved with any religious group or gathering. About 5% are affiliated with other Christian groups and about 2.5% actually belong to non-Christian faiths. Thus the original group of Anglicans has been reduced by almost 40%. No objective measure is offered of what counts as being involved and so it is not a surprise that this is still a high figure – about 18% of English adults.
Finding English Anglicans II - Who is not included?
It is also important to recognise that this remains a sub-group of the larger group. It therefore excludes all those who had other original identifications but then said that “Anglican/CofE” best described the group they were involved with or whose services they attended. All those (many of them committed) CofE worshippers who say “But I’m really Catholic/Baptist/Evangelical” are therefore probably not included.
In short, even this smaller group includes an overwhelming majority (at least 3/4) whose commitment does not extend to attending a CofE service every Christmas while excluding a number (perhaps a significant number) of people who are actively involved and regularly attend services in their CofE parish but do not identify as Anglican.
What do we know about attitudes to same-sex marriage?
So what can we learn from the survey? It is clear that great caution is needed but, set alongside other surveys, the following appear to be true:
- Over 50% of British society probably approve of same-sex marriage and this is particularly strong among those who reject any identification with religion.
- In contrast, there is not an absolute majority in favour of same-sex marriage among those who identify, even very loosely, as Christians (in almost every denomination) or with most other major faiths.
- Even in this survey with the very large group being identified as Anglican (on either method), more “CofE” believe same-sex marriage is wrong or don’t know than believe it is right. The reported lead of “pro-same-sex marriage” over “same-sex marriage is wrong” although new compared to similar past studies and perhaps significant is still small.
- Every Christian denomination has a significant grouping, often a simple majority, of those who identify with it in some sense and who believe same-sex marriage is right.
- It would appear that over the last 2-3 years the general movement in religious groups, as among non-believers, is towards more of those who identify with them believing that same-sex marriage is right. The exact extent of this is difficult to ascertain though as there are 3 more Christian groups (strongly conservative ones) in the 2016 survey who were not in the 2013 survey.
- In wider society, and probably in most faith groups, support for same-sex marriage is higher among women and among younger people.
- The claim that bishops take a different view could therefore be due, as Jayne Ozanne claims, to the fact they tend to be men over 55. However, given similarly self-identified Anglicans look to their own reason, intuition and feelings rather than to God, Scripture or tradition in making decisions it is not unreasonable that bishops should be different in methodology and perhaps therefore reach different conclusions on justifiable grounds.
- While there remains a lack of clarity about the 3 new categories included in this survey (Orthodox Christian, Pentecostal, Evangelical) the results are particularly stark in relation to same-sex marriage with much smaller numbers thinking same-sex marriage is right and over three times more “evangelicals” believing it is wrong than believing it is right. This raises interesting questions for those such as Accepting Evangelicals who argue for same-sex marriage to be accepted as an orthodox, evangelical belief.
What lessons are there for Anglican leaders?
The poll, despite its limits and weaknesses, was lapped up by the media who also told the narrative attached to it by Jayne Ozanne. As on other occasions recently, no bishops were heard offering an alternative perspective. And yet the poll shows many Christians – even with very weak allegiance – believe same-sex marriage is wrong or are unsure. The question is whether Christian leaders will – in their churches and in the public square – take this real opportunity to explain why Christians and most human cultures down through the ages have been right to identify and privilege as unique the way of life which unites a man and a woman in an exclusive sexual union intended to be lifelong. If they do they will help those whose instincts remain cautious about this new definition of marriage to understand and remain committed to a Christian vision. They may also persuade those who have changed their views that there remain good reasons which should be respected to believe same-sex marriage is wrong. If they don’t it is possible that the current support for traditional marriage will be further eroded and those who hold it ridiculed and treated as discriminatory or even extremist by society as a whole.
Andrew Goddard has been on the Leadership Team of Fulcrum since its launch in 2003. He is currently a Senior Research Fellow of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics based in Cambridge (where he was previously Associate Director). He has taught Christian Ethics at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford and Trinity College, Bristol and is also an Adjunct Professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California. He is a canon at Winchester Cathedral and Assistant Minister at St James the Less, Pimlico where his wife, Lis, is Vicar. He is author of a number of books, most recently Rowan Williams: His Legacy (Lion, 2013) and co-editor with Andrew Atherstone of Good Disagreeement? Grace and Truth in a Divided Church (Lion, 2015).