This week General Synod members received a report sent to them from the Church Society, taking issue with the most recent documents from LLF.
It was only a matter of time. It has been obvious, since the point at which the LLF process included a course survey, that the questionnaires and other responses from those who did that course were not going to be simple to interpret. Obvious, not just because not all of those who decided to ‘take the course’ would bother with the questionnaire, but also because that questionnaire was explicitly not asking about what participants thought should happen next, concentrating instead on how they found the course itself. The analysis of the data was never going to come up with ‘the mind of the Church of England’; so, to the Church Society’s (rhetorical) question, “are we really supposed to carry out doctrinal change by SurveyMonkey?”, I’d reply, “Obviously not and that was never the intention”.
Initially, I wasn’t particularly impressed by the questionnaire and explained why here. But I’ve now read the official analysis of the responses (Listening with Love and Faith) and I think that the researchers (whose professionalism is wrongly questioned by the Church Society) have used the material from respondents as well as they could have done. They’ve produced an accurate impression of the range of views currently being expressed, and given a clear overall picture of a church in which people agree that the current situation needs to change.
In this piece, I am going to continue giving direct quotations from the Church Society document in italics, grouping together some points made more than once, and then I’ll respond to them in turn. I’m not going to address the very small numbers filling in the questionnaire or taking part in focus groups; those doing the official analysis have already made clear that they are reflecting the range of views out there rather than trying to make numerical points. Using their experience of questionnaires and response rates, they have made a case for those apparently small numbers of submissions turning out to be a good result.
First, the Church Society challenges whether those who responded represent ‘real’ Church of England people. “There were no questions concerning church attendance or faith so it is not possible to measure what percentage of respondents attend the Church of England (or any other church) or identify as Christians. This makes it difficult to gauge to what extent this represents the view of the Church of England” and, from the conclusions, “There was no attempt to ensure that respondents were members of the Church of England.” Since we don’t have “members’, that is an odd comment, and furthermore the intention of the survey was never to discover ‘the’ view of the Church of England. As it’s a C of E course, and as you were asked to name your diocese when you filled in the questionnaire, it seems likely that respondents identified as C of E. Maybe some Local Ecumenical Partnerships did the course too? Or someone turned up with a spouse who goes to another church? I suspect the Church Society doesn’t know the answer to these questions either.
Second, while attacking the results as unrepresentative, the Church Society seems to conflate the Church of England with England; and church attenders, with the wider population. For example, “Respondents were older than the national average as can be seen from the chart above. 83.3% of the respondents were over 45 as opposed to 53.5% of the population as a whole. 40.4% of those responding were 65 or older and only 1.6% were under 25 (around 100 people).”
And “if you live amongst the most affluent 10% of England you were over seven times more likely to take part in the survey than if you live amongst the poorest 10%. This really should give the Church of England pause: why are we mainly listening to the well off? Why were there no black or Asian participants in the Focus Groups?”
“poorer and non-white voices were not heard”
“Amongst the respondents there was a bias towards more affluent people”.
Yet this was never intended to be an analysis of the views of the nation, so it isn’t relevant to compare the respondents with the “population as a whole”. Rather, the survey is aimed at producing a reflection of the different views held in the Church of England, and those demographics sound very much like they really are representative of the Church of England: largely white, largely middle-class, pretty old. The Church Society analysis actually goes on to admit this:“This, of course, reflects the reality that congregations in the Church of England are older than the national average.” And whiter, and more affluent…
Similar points are made about people’s level of comfort with text and with discussion groups, and about issues with access to IT:
“Arguably the nature of the resources and the course itself privileged those who were comfortable with long text-based documents and discussion groups. Moreover, to engage with the online resources, online focus groups and the survey itself required good IT access.”
Again, yes, to some extent. But, on being comfortable with text, the LLF process fully acknowledged that the materials are ‘wordy’ and I guess that’s precisely why that process encouraged artistic and creative responses. Mind you, from the selection of these responses displayed at the York General Synod some of them demonstrate access to facilities and materials which may be further out of reach for some people. The member of General Synod who circulated the Church Society report, Ros Clarke, associate director of the Church Society, is herself an accomplished crafter, whose kneeler with the words “Christ is better than sex” was featured in the official LLF analysis of responses (p.63); the pattern is published here. So she’s well aware that text wasn’t the only way of responding.
And then – since this is LLF we’re talking about – there’s sex. I have been trying to make sense of the figures being used for the proportion of the population who would call themselves ‘heterosexual’, but I’m not doing well on this. Both the LLF report and the Church Society report reference the government figures for 2020, which state that “The proportion of the UK population aged 16 years and over identifying as heterosexual or straight was 93.6% in 2020”. Yet at one point the Church Society has “Nationally, 96.1% of the population self-identifies as heterosexual and yet 89.4% of whose who took part in the survey so identify” and at another offers “it is clear that the respondents to LLF differ greatly from the population as a whole. Nationally 96.1% of those who identified their sexuality were heterosexual, as opposed to 84.5% of those who did so in the LLF survey. This either suggests that 15% of the church is LGBTQ+, almost four times the national average, or that LGBTQ+ people were more likely to participate in the survey than non-LGBTQ+ people. Given the importance of this process, and the understandable desire for those who feel strongly about this matter to have their voice heard, the latter is more likely.”
Whatever figures we are using, the message the Church Society wants to give seems to be that the questionnaire was filled in by an inordinate number of people who aren’t straight: “Amongst the respondents there was a bias towards more affluent people with a very high representation of those identifying as LGBTQ+.” So not just gay people, but well-off gay people? “This especial attention to the voices of the LGBTQ+ community echoes the high level of LGBTQ+ engagement in the online survey”.
I don’t find the figures “very high” and I don’t think they’re at all surprising. As for that “especial attention”, as the comments made by participants are not attributed in the ‘Gay middle-aged man from a northern diocese” style, but are entirely unattributed, how can the reader of the LLF reports know whether they are hearing an LGBTQ+ voice or a straight married person’s voice? Simple answer: they can’t. And, goodness, all these gay people who “feel strongly about this matter”… well, people with all sorts of views ‘feel strongly’, but for those who can’t marry in their church or whose vocations are not accepted because they have married someone of the same sex it’s about rather more than ‘feelings’.
If you really want to know how people responded to the course, I suggest going back to the original reports on the LLF site; you’ll find a richer, more interesting and more accurate picture of people’s experiences there.
update, 26 October: the LLF team have now published the responses from the organisations who carried out the analysis of the questionnaires, and they are well worth reading. You can see those from both Brendan Research and Church Army’s Research Unit here: LLF Response to Church Society Analysis.
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Sounds like the CS are clutching at straws . . .