What Church of England members think

Two articles in the Church Times by Linda Woodhead are now available to non-subscribers.

The first item was referenced in this earlier TA article: Profile of Anglicans. The full text is now available to all here: ‘Nominals’ are the Church’s hidden strength.

THE Church of England’s mission strategies and investment of energy assume that churches and churchgoers are its main resources. But a significant new survey offers a broader answer. It suggests that non-churchgoing Anglicans may be much more important to the Church and its future than the dismissive word “nominals” implies…

…The results suggest that people who identify themselves as Anglican (“Church of England” was not given as an option) make up one third of the adult population of Great Britain. Adherents of all the other religions and Christian denominations added together constitute the next third, and those who say that they have “no religion” are the final slice of the pie.

THE most obvious division within the Anglicans as a whole is between those who say that they participate in a church or Christian group, and those who say that they do not. This gives us robust categories of churchgoers and non-churchgoers, placing those who attend occasional events, such as a wedding or a carol service, on the non-churchgoing side of the line. This non-churchgoing constituency represents 83 per cent of Anglicans, which dwarfs the 17 per cent who go to church.

This might, however, not be bad news for the Church. It is easy to assume that the churchgoers are the “real Anglicans”, and the non-churchgoers are backsliders whose diluted faith is one step away from atheism. The survey reveals something more interesting. Many of the “nominals” are more than purely nominal. Many believe and practise in similar ways to churchgoers – who are themselves not a homogenous group…

More recently, last month, the second article appeared, titled: A gap is growing within the Church. The second article concludes as follows:

…OVERALL, then, if we put together the results of both surveys, a general portrait of Anglicans emerges. They tend to be tough-minded rather than tender-hearted, and they place high value on individual responsibility. They think that people should stand on their own two feet, and be free to make their own mistakes. They believe that less should be spent on welfare, and that the current system needs reform. They value tradition and a common national culture, which they feel to be under threat.

When asked what they value about the Church of England, their favoured response is: “It is integral to English culture,” although churchgoers are slightly more likely to say “it brings people closer to God.”

They look back to a past that they imagine to have been less selfish, better disciplined, and bound by common values – but they have nevertheless embraced changes that have made society fairer to women and gay people.

In short, Anglicans have a good deal in common with the Government. They are in line with The Guardian on personal issues, but the Telegraph or even the Mail on wider social and economic matters.

The gap between this set of values, and those supported by the Church, especially as it is represented by bishops and archbishops, the General Synod, church policy, and official statements – hence what is reported in the media – is wide. In a striking inversion, official church teaching is welfarist-paternalist on social and economic issues, and authoritarian-paternalist on personal ethics. It is the mirror image of majority Anglican opinion.

There is also a values gap between the Church and wider society – a gap that widens as you go down the age range. Young people tend to be centrist in their socio-political views, and highly liberal and egalitarian in their views on personal morality. We already knew that disaffiliation from the Church of England has increased with every generation, but our polling points to an important reason for this.

When asked whether they think the Church of England is a negative or positive force in society today, 60 per cent of under-25s say “neither”, or “don’t know”; and 21 per cent say “negative”. When the “negatives” are asked their reasons, the answer they greatly favour is: “The Church of England is too prejudiced – it discriminates against women and gay people.”

It is foolish for any Church to think that in order to survive it has to follow public opinion, or even the opinion of its own members, affiliates, and sympathisers. But when it is significantly out of step with all of these, questions need to be asked.

The questions are more pressing for a body that wants to remain a national Church with wide social influence rather than a counter-cultural sect. My own suspicion is that church leaders are not being wilfully oppositional. They simply do not have the historic mindset, organisational structures, or investment in research that would enable them to maintain responsive contact even with their own grassroots.

The full dataset for the second survey (PDF, 9 Mb) can be found here. BRIN has a discussion of this here: Secularization Restated and Other News.

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stephen Morgan
stephen Morgan

I like Linda Woodhead, but I’m not sure the C of E can any longer be described as ‘a national Church with wide social influence.’ And ‘a counter-cultural sect?’ Don’t make me larf! We don’t really believe women are equal to men and we don’t like gay people – that is the message young people are apparently getting from the C of E hierarchy. Ms Woodhead is probably right, that is not what it is like on the ground, but that is the message that goes out loud and clear in the media. Like her, I do not think church… Read more »

Erika Baker
Erika Baker

I’m glad you said (and quite a few of us older people) in brackets.
Because I gave a talk on marriage equality last week in a big church with an audience of an average age of about 65. I was expecting a lot of hostility and I had prepared for a difficult conversation.
I was surprised that there was not one dissenting voice. If anything, there was bemusement about why the church clung to the position it is clinging to and a real sense of “can we not just get this done with once and for all and move on please?!”

Concerned Anglican
Concerned Anglican

The problem is that the public persona of the Church is now so negative. It’s assumed almost automatically to be against pretty well everything and to have lost its cutting edge vis a vis social concern. In short as far as many (particularly younger) people are concerned it’s a pretty unpleasant and reactionary organisation. The sweet irony is that, as Erika points out, the reality in the parishes may be far more accepting and dare I say it ‘Christian’. However, you have to go in through the door first to experience that … in the meantime the all pervading negative… Read more »


So after much research, Linda Woodhead has found out that the Church of England is the Tory Party at prayer…


“In a striking inversion, official church teaching is welfarist-paternalist on social and economic issues, and authoritarian-paternalist on personal ethics. It is the mirror image of majority Anglican opinion.” This divide can’t be healthy. JMO, but it seems to me to be the *prophetic* role of church-teaching (leadership), to be a thorn-in-side of those “Telegraph or even the Mail on wider social and economic matters”. To overturn the moneychangers’ tables, as it were. Instead, the hierarchs are playing prophet (scold, really) in the members’ *bedrooms*! :-0 In short, neither hierarchy nor laity has got it all right, or all wrong. But… Read more »

Richard Ashby
Richard Ashby

In support of the above (although it is only a very small snapshot) the three comments from young people which turned up on my Facebook page about the participants in last night’s television programme ‘On benefits and proud’ are vitriolic. (I didn’t see the programme so can’t comment).