Attitudes of Lay Anglicans

to Current Controversies

Editorial by Paul Badham

from Modern Believing, Vol 51:2 - Apr 2010

Unlike the moral controversies which surrounded the 'permissive legislation' of the 1960's and 70's, discussions within Anglicanism on women Bishops and gay clergy has largely taken place at Episcopal or even Primatial level without input from lay experts or consultation with the laity. In particular the views of the ordinary person in the pew have not been sought out. This issue contains two articles which seek to redress this and to find out what Anglican laity think. The first article focuses on Britain. The second goes global.

For many years Professor Leslie Francis has pioneered empirical theology centering on finding out what people think and how they behave. In our first article he and three of his associates, led for this research project by Dr. Mandy Robbins, looked at the extent of 'homonegativity' in a typical Anglican congregation. They found that a majority of ordinary churchgoers do not have a negative view of homosexuality. Only 32% thought that sex between two men was wrong while the 'homopositive' statement that God intended some people to be homosexual was endorsed by 35%. These figures for Churchgoers are not out of line with those for the population at large. Surveys of social attitudes between 1983 and 2000 reveal that the proportion of the general public who believe that sexual relations between two adults of the same sex are always wrong fell from around 50% to 37% during that period and may be supposed to have fallen further since then because of the known correlation between homonegativity and advancing age.

What this does indicate is that the 'liberal' view now established by law and enforced throughout society as 'politically correct' remains opposed by around one third of both the general public and ordinary Churchgoers. What perhaps is more disturbing from the point of view of a liberal Churchperson is that greater negativity is associated with more regular Church attendance. This finding is supported by the earlier survey of 7000 Church Times readers which found that 56% of that group thought homosexual practice to be wrong. Given that 70% of Church Times readers are either ordained or hold some lay office within the Church this suggests that the more involved people become in the life of the Church the more likely they are to have negative views. This supposition would be further supported by the finding reported by David Voas and Rodney Ling in the January 2010 edition of British Social Attitudes that 50% of those who describe themselves as 'religious' believe homosexuality to be 'always or almost always wrong' compared with only 19% of those who describe themselves as 'non-religious'.[1] Given that there is now an overwhelming scientific, medical and political consensus that a civilized society should accept that for some people homosexuality is a natural state, it is a serious matter that the Church's leadership appears to be ranged against this consensus, and to support the negative stance which continues to characterise around a third of both the general populace and the ordinary Churchgoer.

Lay Confidence in the Anglican Communion

Dr. Nicholas Henderson, a former General Secretary of the Modern Churchpeople's Union and for several years 'Bishop-elect' of the Diocese of Lake Malawi studied the importance of the laity within Anglicanism for his Ph.D. This related article explores Lay perceptions of Anglican identity through an extensive survey conducted in Brazil, England, Japan, Uganda and the United States. The article sought to find out how strong lay attachment to being 'Anglican' really is today and how that is related to current controversies over women's ministry and homosexuality.

Dr. Henderson found a strong affirmation of Anglican denominational identity, (Brazil 65%, England 70%, Japan 64%, Uganda 79% and the United States 81%). It is clear that the laity value the shared history and ethos that characterises our communion. He also found that across the five countries surveyed most lay people 'approved' or 'strongly approved' of the ordination of women as priests, generally by a substantial margin. (Brazil 85%, England 82%, Japan 69%, Uganda 54%, the United States 94%).

Where consensus broke down was on the issue of ordaining homosexuals (whether celibate or practicing) to the priesthood. Only in the USA was there a clear majority in favour and even there by only 51%. In Uganda (where homosexual practice is a hanging offence) 70% 'strongly disapproved'. Other countries were less hostile, but in every country surveyed it was clear that there is still some way to go before a majority of the laity would be willing to accept of clergy homosexual relationships.

The good news however is that in none of the countries surveyed did the laity see this single issue as justifying schism. There was broad acceptance of the desirability of continuing with existing Anglican structures and 'seeking consensus through dialogue' is the overwhelmingly preferred way in which we should continue to wrestle with this issue. It is noteworthy that commitment to an Anglican (or 'Episcopal') identity is at its strongest in Uganda and the USA where differences of view were at their most apparent.

Religious Experience among Japanese Students

The third article explores the extent of religious experience and belief among Japanese students. I express it in these terms because what is being studied would normally be described in that way by researchers looking at comparable phenomena here. However there are serious difficulties in using such concepts in Japan and hence the original title of this article, which I have kept as a subtitle, is 'Searching for Kami Sama: liminal experiences of some Japanese students.' What the research shows is that if one asks directly about religion or God the most frequent response will be an expression of uncertainty as to how to respond.Thus almost most two thirds describe their attitude to religion as neutral or unknown, and over 40% are uncertain whether or not they believe in God or in a purpose or pattern to the Universe. However when asked instead about whether they have ever had any of a range of experiences of a kind we would normally categorise as 'religious' all students chose to respond to some of the experiential questions and the vast majority responded to all twelve of them. Of even greater significance is the fact that over 76% of the students responded positively to one or more of the experiences outlined.

What this suggests is in line with other research encouraged by the Alister Hardy Religious Experience Research Centre in Britain, China, Turkey and India.[2] In all cases it seems that while affirmations of belief and religious identity are strongly linked to specific cultures and world-views, the experiential aspects of religion appear to be common across the human race as an important aspect of our evolutionary heritage.

Making Use of Modern Media

In its past the Church has been in the forefront of new modes of communication. Christians were the first people to use the codex, (or book format) as opposed to papyrus rolls. This immeasurably improved access to Biblical texts. All the most famous examples of codices from the second to the fourth century were Christian volumes. The codex format was not widely used by any other group until the fourth century. In the fifteenth century Johann Gutenberg invented printing and his 'Mazarin' Bible of 1455 was probably the first printed book. The Reformation could not ever have swept so quickly across Northern Europe without the extensive use of printing and in the first century of printing most books were religious. With radio the priorities of Lord Reith and the enthusiasm of the staff in St. Martin's in the Fields ensured that religious broadcasting could take its place in the new media. How now should the Church react to the new media opportunities offered to it by the latest technologies? That is the question which Colin McAlister seeks to explore in the article on 'The Church and Modern Media'.

His central message is that the Church must seek carefully and prayerfully to use the new media but be alert to its dangers. In main stream broadcasting 'preaching' is not allowed except in the context of a broadcast service, but this does not exclude the many opportunities for rational and objective coverage of religious themes. On the digital channels dogmatic presentations are only too common and bring Christianity into disrepute. The internet offers immense opportunities for strategic presentation of information about the faith. However before any of these outlets can be beneficially used we need to be reflective about what we really want to communicate.

Colin McAlister is also concerned about, how we are presented by others. One difficulty thoughtful Christians face is that an expression of a sensible opinion is not 'news' nor is it potentially 'entertaining' in the way that the expression of dogmatic views about the role of women, other religions, homosexuality and abortion might be. The general public may not espouse such views but there is an entertainment value in watching, and this can reinforce jaundiced views about the church in society. McAlister believes the Church be aware of new developments and use them sensible to reach out to the world.

Can Christian Theology work within the categories of Modern Physics?

Tim Belben's article is an attempt to show how the cosmological theories of Stephen Hawkings might be compatible with a Christian understanding of reality. He believes that to do this we need to remind ourselves of the classic Christian understanding of God and of God's relation to the world as understood by St. Thomas Aquinas and the other great thinkers of the medieval period. This particularly relates to the nature of time in relation to eternity, the nature of freewill in relation to providence and the Holy Spirit in relation to divine and human will. He carefully expounds Aquinas' position on these issues and argues that this gives us a framework of understanding with which we can approach the findings of the new physics.

A response to Jeyan Anketell's article on the atonement

The final article in this issue is a response to an article which appeared in the October edition and I am glad to encourage debate in this way. Brenda Watson's central point is that she believes that awareness of the gravity of sin requires us to continue to make use of sacrificial language. Horrendous evils like the holocaust are simply too immense to be forgiven and can only be laid at the foot of the cross. She believes that Peter Abelard's approach can help us here, for while he was critical of Anselm theory of substitution atonement he continued to look to the cross as the inspiration for the change to our lives that true repentance requires.


  1. Church Times 18th December 2009. [back]
  2. Xinzhong Yao and Paul Badham, Religious Experience in Contemporary China, UWP 2007, Jonathan Robinson, Religious Experience in Tamilnadu South India, Modern Believing April 2009, Cafer Yaran, Religious Experience in Contemporary Turkey (forthcoming). [back]

Revd Prof Paul Badham is Emeritus Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Wales, Trinity Saint David (Lampeter Campus) and a Modern Church Vice-president.