Bishops share views on food banks, safeguarding children, Ukraine and homosexuality
by Gavin Drake
As humanists react angrily to claims by the Prime Minister David Cameron that Britain is still a Christian nation, a survey reveals that Anglican bishops are split on the issue.
None of the bishops who responded to the survey said that they strongly agreed with the statement that “My nation (England, Wales Scotland, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland) is still a Christian nation”. Just under 45 per cent slightly agreed with the statement; and 39 per cent disagreed – 22.3 per cent slightly; 11.1 per cent mostly; and 5.6 per cent wholly. The remainder were undecided.
The results were mixed across the national divides, with no discernible regional swings.
The survey asked a range of questions on topics as diverse as the provision of food banks to the church’s views on homosexuality; and from the safeguarding of children to the situation in Ukraine.
On food banks, 74 per cent of the bishops agreed that “the increased use of food banks in the UK is mainly explained by welfare reform and benefit cuts.” 37 per cent slightly agreed with the statement; while 31.6 per cent strongly agreed. Just over five per cent wholly agreed. Just 16 per cent of the bishops disagreed with the statement – 10.5 per cent slightly; and just over five per cent mostly.
Conversely, 64 per cent of the bishops disagreed that the “increased use of food banks in the UK is mainly explained by their ever-growing numbers” – with just under a quarter completely disagreeing with the statement. Of the 29.5 per cent who agreed with the statement, just under 18 per cent slightly agreed; while just under 12 per cent mostly agreed.
Many food banks are run by churches and church-based volunteers; and 94 per cent of the bishops said that “the country would be worse off if the church and Christians withdrew from social action.” Three-fifths, completely agreed with that statement; and just under 17 per cent mainly agreed, and an equal number slightly agreed.
A fifth of bishops wholly agreed that “the church’s involvement in social care, action and provision gives its leaders a unique perspective when speaking out on issues related to welfare and poverty.” Almost 60 per cent mainly agreed with the statement and 16 per cent slightly agreed. No bishop disagreed; the remaining five per cent neither agreed or disagreed with the statement.
Asked whether they agreed that “the Russians were right to take control of the Crimean peninsula because it has always been considered to be part of Russia and it was what the people of Crimea wanted”; over 72 per cent of bishops said no. Almost 17 per cent wholly disagreed with the statement and just under 40 per cent mostly disagreed. A fifth of bishops were undecided while just five per cent slightly agreed with the statement.
Almost three-quarters of the bishops agreed that “the Russians knew that Western governments, NATO and the EU would not take any military action in response to their activities in Ukraine”; and 89 per cent agree that “financial sanctions, international travel bans and isolation from international groups and summits will have only limited impact on the Russian government.”
Almost half the bishops are undecided when asked if they agree that “Western government, NATO and the EU and acted appropriately in their response to Russian actions in Ukraine. Almost 28 per cent mainly agree with the statement; while 17 per cent disagree – two thirds of them slightly; and a third mostly.
Over 72 per cent agree with the statement that “Western governments, NATO and the EU should increase their sanctions on Russia in response to the situation in Ukraine; whatever the financial cost to themselves.”
Most of the bishops strongly oppose a military response by Western governments, NATO and the EU: a third say they are wholly opposed; while 40 per cent say they are mostly opposed. Only 11 per of the bishops say that they slightly agree with a military response.
Despite this, the bishops still see a role for NATO, with more than four fifths of the bishops disagreeing with the statement that “there is no longer a role for NATO in this post-Cold War era.” Almost a third completely disagree with the statement while just under 40 per cent mostly agree. A tenth of bishops are undecided; while just over five per cent slightly agree.
None of the Church of England bishops who responded to the survey agreed that their own pastoral statement on same-sex marriage, issued on 15th February this year, “got it right.” In the statement, the C of E House of Bishops say that priests should not enter same-sex marriages. It adopts a less rigid approach towards the laity; but says that clergy should not provide public blessings for same-sex marriages.
The C of E bishops were divided on the question – with exactly 50 per cent saying that the bishops should have adopted a slightly more conservative position; and the other half advocating a more liberal position – with half of those (25 per cent of the total) calling for a very liberal position.
The responses from the Church in Wales and Church of Ireland were also mixed; with forty per cent calling for a more conservative response (half of them, very conservative) and fifty per cent calling for a more liberal approach. Only ten per cent said that the C of E bishops had “got it right” in their approach.
The bishops say that the Anglican Communion will move more slowly than the wider Christian community in accepting homosexuality. Just 26.4 per cent of the bishops agreed that “it is inevitable that the Anglican Communion will adopt a more liberal attitude to homosexuality in the next five years”; while just under three-quarters agreed that the “wider Christian community” would do so.
When asked the same question of their own church (C of E, C i W, C of I), almost 60 per cent agreed that the adoption of a more liberal attitude to homosexuality in the next five years was inevitable.
Almost 60 per cent agreed that “it is right that the wider Christian community should adopt a more liberal attitude to homosexuality” – ten per cent completely agreeing; almost a third mostly agreeing; and almost 16 per cent slightly agreeing. In contrast, just over five per cent completely disagreed; while almost 16 per cent strongly disagreed.
Over 84 per cent of the bishops agreed that “lengthy continued debate about homosexuality will damage the church” – with more than a quarter of the bishops completely agreeing with the statement. Despite this, more than 63 per cent of the bishops agreed that such debate was “essential.”
The Church of England bishops have begun a two-year process of “facilitated conversations” on homosexuality following the report of a working group chaired by Sir Joseph Pilling last year.
The subject will also be under discussion in small groups by members of the Church in Wales Governing Body at their meeting in Llandudno this week. Unlike the main Governing Body business, each group will meet in private. Note-takers will prepare feedback for the Bench of Bishops’ meeting in June “with a view to reporting back to the next Governing Body meeting in September.”
There has been significant lobbying and campaigning by both liberal and conservative church pressure groups on the issue. Just under three-quarters of the bishops agree that “the tactics and language used by some pro-gay and anti-homosexual campaign groups is counter-productive”. More than one fifth completely agree with the statement; while 37 per cent strongly agree.
The vast majority of bishops say that their “diocese has adequate steps in place to ensure children are safeguarded” – with just under a third completely agreeing and more than 60 per cent strongly agreeing.
Over half completely agree that their “diocese has a clear policy to respond to child abuse allegations” with forty per cent strongly agreeing. Worryingly, one bishop disagreed with this statement.
All the bishops agreed that if they “became aware of an allegation that a priest may have abused a child [they] would not hesitate to report the matter to the police or social services, even if the person who gave [them] the information asked [the bishop] to treat it as confidential.” Over 83 per cent completely agreed with the statement; while the rest “strongly agreed”.
Similarly, 82.4 per cent of the bishops completely agreed that they would not hesitate to report a priest who admitted abusing a child to the police or social services. That figure fell to 73 per cent if the admission came in the context of the sacrament of confession. But in both cases, the remaining bishops strongly agreed that they would refer the matter to the police. One bishop who completed the survey said that reporting the matter to the police would be required as part of the penance.
Over 72 per cent of the bishops agreed with the statement that “media coverage in the past few years about the church’s handling of child abuse cases has been fair” but most (almost 40 per cent) only slightly agreed. Almost 28 per cent strongly agreed and only six per cent completely agreed.
The bishops were split on whether they agreed with the statement that “criticism of the church’s historic handling of child abuse allegations unfairly ignores the cultural norms and expectations of years gone by”, with 47 per cent agreeing and another 47 per cent disagreeing. But of those who agreed with the statement, over 85 per cent only slightly agreed; while for those who disagreed; 75 per cent strongly disagreed and almost 13 per cent completely disagreed.
The bishops were almost united on the statement that “the church’s past handling of child abuse cases has severely damaged its reputation and harmed its ability to evangelise non-Christians.” A third of the bishops who responded to the survey completely agreed with that statement; while half strongly agreed. None of the bishops disagreed with the statement; but just over 10 per cent were undecided.
The survey was carried out by post between 21st March and 4th April. For most questions, the bishops were presented with a statement and asked to indicate whether they agreed or disagreed on a scale from nought to 10. A nought indicated that the bishop completely disagreed with the statement; a 10 indicated that they completely agreed; and a five indicated that they neither agreed nor disagreed.
In calculating the results, this survey as adopted the methodology that a 1 or 2 indicated strong disagreement with a 3 or 4 slight disagreement. A 6 or 7 indicated slight agreement while an 8 or 9 indicated strong agreement.
Every diocesan bishop (or bishop-commissary in the case of a vacancy) in England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland was invited to take part.
None of the seven bishops in the Episcopal Church of Scotland responded to the survey; the results therefore represent the views of a little-under 38 per cent of the remaining bishops from the Church of England, Church in Wales and Church of Ireland.
At the time the survey was undertaken, there were 44 diocesan bishops (or bishops-commissary) in the Church of England; 11 in the Church of Ireland and six in the Church in Wales. The survey was conducted anonymously and, in light of the number of bishops in the Church of Ireland and Church in Wales, regionalised results are not being made available to protect the anonymity of the survey respondents.