A member of the Archbishops' Council has heavily criticised a survey by the Times newspaper into Church of England clergy attitudes. It claimed that less than half of clergy believe churches will still be holding a regular Sunday service in ten years' time, and over 50 per cent would support being allowed to marry same-sex couples.
Rev Dr Ian Paul says that's not an accurate representation of how most members of the Church of England think, as only 1,200 priests responded to the questions.
He tells Premier he complained to the paper, before the results were published, because he thought the questions were poorly worded and an example of traditional Christian views being targeted in an increasingly secular media and society:
“Out of 5000 invitations by email, they had 1200 responses and they drew their conclusions from that. So basically, these are the opinions of a self-selecting group of clergy who answered the questions and the questions themselves were worded really badly. When I got it, I wrote immediately to the Times Correspondent and I pointed out the errors of fact, introducing the questions, the poor wording.... I mean, if you get a shot-gun and you wave it around and shoot at random, you’re bound to hit the target at least once." Premier has approached Kaya Burgess to ask for details of the methodology used for the survey.
Dr Ian Paul says: “The Times makes the mistake of thinking that the Church of England represents the whole church. It doesn't. They think that the Church of England is declining. Yes, it is. But the church IN England isn't. The churches that are growing... are all ones who hold on to the historic teaching of marriage. Maybe we could learn something from that.
“Here’s the thing – why would a secular writer, in a secular newspaper, in a secular country feel that they can tell Christians what to believe?" This is an example of our incredibly intolerant 'tolerance'. It's a paradox: tolerance which says 'we will tolerate you as long as you toe the line that we dictate' is not a happy formula for any country, or any culture or any faith.
“I think the Church of England is in a real mess, because for many years, despite the fact that clergy stand up and make a public vow... those responsible for training and ordaining the clergy simply don't hold them to account.
"We are unable to say anything coherent to our culture as a church." Dr Paul continued, "because within the clergy, we don't agree on anything. We even have bishops who disagree with the doctrine of the church."
"Somebody once said ‘A house divided against itself cannot stand’, and unless we see some big changes in the church - unless we actually say we're going to take the doctrine of the Church seriously - I do think we're fatally wounded."
In his view the survey itself is an indication of a growing distance between church and society: “I think that this Times article is yet another signal that we are now living in a culture which is highly antagonistic to the Christian faith. We're moving very rapidly into an era where, on some key issues in culture, to be a Christian is going to be to be unpopular, and that those who put their heads above the parapet and say things in the public domain are going to be targets. But then when has being a disciple of Jesus ever been any different? This is just truth and reality. But we need to recognise that God is doing great things.
"God is bringing people of faith, God is growing his church. But we are going to have to be very clear: that involves being courageous and distinctive people.”
In a blog for unherd.com, Rev Giles Fraser, commentator and vicar of St Anne's Kew in South London also said the leadership of the Church of England should be bolder in its approach if it wants to survive:
"A nervous church leadership doesn’t like the ebb to happen on their watch. And so, spooked by these dismal stories of decline, they seek a very secular model of success. But the more we run around like headless chickens, the more desperate, and less attractive we look. Inevitably, the job becomes impossible and the workers in the vineyard become drained of motivation. As The Times reveals, a third of clergy have considered quitting in the past five years. This, then, is what’s new about the Church of England’s current death spiral.
"The Church authority must stop being so pathetically needy and quit chasing around after congregations as if they justify what it is that we do. We have something life-changing and wonderful to offer. More precious than gold. We have to stop selling it cheap just for a temporary moment of appreciation."