Subscribers to this month’s edition of New Directions not only get an article by Rowan Williams (considerably more nuanced than the soundbite versions that some national papers took up), they also get Robbie Low and Francis Gardom’s analysis of the research undertaken by Peter Brierley for Cost of Conscience last year. Brierley runs a pretty reputable outfit at Christian Research so it was no surprise when the media picked up on the selective release of statistics by Cost of Conscience last year that appeared to show low levels of assent among liberal Christians to the major doctrinal tenets of the Christian faith. The thesis of Cost of Conscience as presented in the newly released booklet is that those who they would categorise as “liberal” Christians have not only abandoned traditional patterns of worship and gender relationships but are now gently tiptoeing away from the creeds themselves.
We still don’t have the full range of answers to all the questions put by Christian Research. So the first caveat must be that those selected for publication maybe the ones which most strongly agree with the conclusion that Cost of Conscience are trying to direct us towards. But what of what we do have? Well, at the risk of being drummed out of the magic circle, let me show you how the trick is done. Those surveyed were asked to score their assent or dissent from a range of credal statements according to five categories. The first two are plain enough “definitely don’t believe” and “not sure I believe this”. It then gets more tricky. The remaining three categories are “mostly believe”, “believe but not sure I understand” and finally “believe without question”. Cost of Conscience (though probably not Dr Brierley) then makes the bold assertion that we can discount as inadequate all responses apart from “believe without question”. Only this response we’re told “implies a confidence to teach and preach the faith”.
At its most charitable, this must be seen as a deliberate attempt not to understand the way the non-conservative mind works. Not only is there the natural reluctance among many of us, given a range of replies to a question, to tick the boxes at the extreme ends, there is also a strong underlying principle many of us have that questioning is a basic part of belief. Few of us would want to accept the parody of our views that to question means not having sufficient certainty in order to preach and teach the faith. Indeed, we would press strongly the claim that it is precisely through our continuing search and struggle and engagement with the tradition that we gain the depth of faith essential if we are to preach the Good News and pastor the people of God. Cost of Conscience would, I’m sure, have me down as a liberal but I could actually affirm all of the doctrines on which they quizzed their respondents but to believe without question seems tantamount to a dereliction of my responsibility.
There are few sermons I can remember from over a quarter of a century ago but I know I will never forget Basil Hume preaching one night in Great St Mary’s Church Cambridge. At the time I was a young man struggling with his emerging sense of vocation. To hear this great Christian leader speaking of the central role his own doubts played in his faith was inspirational. On those grounds the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster himself clearly failed the Cost of Conscience test of orthodox belief. It didn’t seem to make his preaching any less powerful.
There’s a serious debate to be had about how the Church of England holds together its neo-conservative wing and the mainstream beliefs and experiences of most active church members. Honest research has a part to play in that and Dr Brierley and his team have a pretty honourable record down the years at providing it. What Cost of Conscience have released, however, is not the raw data which could have some value, but a processed, manipulated and twisted version of them sufficient to make even the most hardened government spin doctor blush. We have here not an analysis but a parody of the beliefs and integrity of the great majority of those clergy it is my privilege as a bishop to work with in the cause of the Gospel. A distortion beyond recognition that I would be failing in my pastoral responsibility for them not to defend them against.
On this reading, whilst the “Cost” is a matter of commercial confidence between Dr Brierley and those who commissioned him, we may conclude that the “Conscience” went west some time ago.