Written and delivered by Adrian Worsfold to
the Kingston upon Hull Deanery Synod meeting at
St. Pauls Church, Bridlington Avenue, Hull
March 19th 1987
I should introduce myself as to why I am here talking now. Firstly I am an assistant to Peter Forster concerning the survey of Longhill Estate. Secondly I am doing a Ph.D thesis about the changing nature of division within mainstream Christianity. Thirdly I was an Anglican and although now a Unitarian I was still recently invited to take part in a rural parish audit within the North Holderness Deanery. And tonight I am going to briefly mention a few points about parish audits and connect that to my work and my experience of surveying Longhill. The Bishop of Hull asked me to speak here and also to help in the direction of parish audits should they be carried out.
Parish audits need to be thought out as to how they are going to be done and secondly to what end will they serve. In the short time I have tonight I can only briefly touch on these matters. I will examine the questionnaire as a possible contribution and then relate parish Audits to the division between communal and associational religion.
Some of you might consider that a questionnaire of some sort could be a useful instrument of getting to know the aspects of the local area: basic attitudes, religious beliefs, and the use made of local facilities by people within a defined area. This is indeed what we aimed for in the Longhill questionnaire. So I will tackle this now.
A questionnaire is alot of hard work and goes on for quite a period. The Longhill questionnaire goes back to late 1985 with its initial planning. First there was the pilot questionnaire and its returns came in during February 1986. We then planned to survey 500 people but the difficulty with human resources meant we later had to cut that figure to 400. For a time it was touch and go whether we would get a high enough percentage of completed replies. The sort of questionnaire that might suit a parish audit would have to be much smaller but whatever size it has to be said that there are problems with them.
The point is that they are not the completely objective instrument of information gathering that they might appear. A questionnaire can give the strong impression of accuracy, particularly because it presents its findings using mathematical procedures in neat tables. This need not be the case.
Firstly, there is the construction of questions. The Steering Committee for the Longhill questionnaire consisted of the parish priest, a university deaconess connected with the parish, the professional sociologist and myself as a postgraduate sociology student. Each of us had our own ideas about what kind of questions should be asked. The result was a mixture of those ideas. First the priest produced an initial questionnaire considered as far too 'internally Anglican' with its assumptions that do not extend beyond Anglican walls. However, this showed what the church wanted to find out. The deaconess connected the Longhill church to the university via the Anglican chaplaincy. The professional sociologist included insights relating to other questionnaires as contained within the relevant literature. My own approach was to combine within questions mainstream Christian beliefs and practices with religious beliefs and practices in the outside world. This would allow the church to compare its beliefs with those of the locality. Now everyone had a hand in all the questions and that meant compromises being made across the board. That the main questionnaire moves from subject to subject and back again is in part due to this process. A questionnaire is not a neutral scientific document: rather it is a dialogue between the question setters and the respondents.
Secondly there is the selection procedure by which particular respondents are chosen. We used a controlled but random sample spread using the then existing Electoral Register. Being inevitably out of date it reduced the number of full replies that we achieved. And it goes without saying that had a different method been chosen different beliefs would have emerged individually. A small questionnaire for a parish audit would be subject to potentially a large margin of error.
Thirdly the use made of manpower can actually affect the replies that come in. There was only a small amount of help from sociology students. We had insufficient numbers from the S.C.M. side of student Christianity, and because this was a questionnaire and not an evangelical exercise we were not prepared to ask the Christian Union side. So we had to rely on help from churches around the area. Now many of these have gone through a period of charismatic renewal so it was important to stress that this was a questionnaire and not an evangelical exercise. For example, even if asked our surveyors were not allowed to return to a house for mission purposes. The point is that Longhill is a place of potential gossip and we wanted reliable answers from everyone, including those even hostile to the Church. The answers to any surveying carried out within a parish audit could well be affected by the manpower arrangements.
Altogether therefore a questionnaire for a parish audit is unlikely to be scientific and if it was large it would have the same physical problems that we had in Longhill. I would recommend that great care is taken when attempting to find a method to discover what local people think about their area.
Another drawback with questionnaires, large or small, is that they are clumsy ways of discovering religious belief and even practice. A better method is always a qualitative survey of a small number of people. Naturally in the Longhill situation where we were interested to find the beliefs of an area we had no real alternative. But the problem with a mass questionnaire is that the phrases used in questions mean different things to different people and aggregating statistics loses the meaning of specific individual answers. To try and rectify this cross tabulations are used. And this is the specific exercise which has been taking place.
The Longhill questionnaire did not show anything of significance in terms of religious belief that was not known before from other studies. And as I understand it Faith in the City itself does not ask about religious belief in the community. So to survey religious belief in the community would be an unwanted and repetitive exercise. However I would suggest that when addressing the matter of religion within the churches some way should be found which constitutes a qualitative survey of belief and practice.
The parish audit is intended to find out about an area, to find out about the local resources and to plan for relating those church resources to the locality. In a way not dissimilar to the Tiller Report, Faith in the City sees advantages in using the deanery level of administration in helping to share church resources. This is a bit like farms setting up and using cooperatives to assist in their activity. My small experience of the North Holderness deanery audit also told me that audits help to tell committed churchgoers that this thing called the deanery exists and as such it also suggested that purely internal objectives can take precedence over external objectives such as those of Faith in the City.
Faith in the City says that the purpose of the audit is to help the church look outwards. I would suggest that they can become inverted such is the pressure today concerning the development of associational religion. I would like to pursue this point by analogy and referring back again to Longhill.
The questionnaire and its findings about belief fits into the analytical work carried out by The Network for the Study of Implicit Religion established by the Anglican priest Edward Bailey. It and he illustrates the gap that now exists between the world of the churches and the world of ordinary popular belief. Although at first sight popular belief seems to be somewhat orthodox (given some inconsistency and a range of superstitions), in fact the salvation faith of orthodoxy is turned by ordinary people into a faith of the round of life useful at life's moments of significance. Edward Bailey, who did a Ph.D on the subject, draws parallels between the structure of the popular faith and that of Hinduism (for example the Christ of popular belief is like the cultural Krishna of Hinduism), and both popular Christianity and Hinduism can absorb superstitions, humanism or whatever element, and popular faith in Britain is found within the family and based around the occasional practice of the rites of passage.
Now my own thesis is about what the mainstream is doing in the climate of most of the population actively ignoring its institutions. Today the divisions between Methodism, Anglicanism etc. are less important: now the divisions are within these institutions between the various liberals, the conversionists and the various traditionalists. These new divisions are upheld by the lack of agreement about how to tackle the religious culture of the environment. The conversionists are actively opposed to the surrounding religious culture - they wish to convert it; the traditionalists are defensively opposed to the cultural environment - they wish to preserve purity of faith; and the liberals are neutral, favourable and even wish to be in advance of environmental changes. This lack of agreement about how to tackle the religious culture is underpinning the new division within mainstream Christianity, but, furthermore, with the exception of some rural and specialised sector liberals, the effect is to create and sustain the movement towards associational church religion.
I see such a contrast between church and locality in Longhill. There the local church is Catholic charismatic, that is it represents one of the newer divisions of mainstream Christianity. It is in style not the communal religion of the traditional parish church but more the associational religion of the specialised group. There is a great divide between its kind of faith and that of the people in the locality. To my mind it presents a dilemma of policy there (and anywhere else), but this is a matter I will not pursue here.
The same problem can appear within the exercise of parish audits. Although the Church of England often sees itself as relating to the wider population, it is nevertheless in a transition of becoming internally concerned with itself. The parish Audit can become simply a way of planning resources for decline, again a bit like the Tiller Report was. What you do is find out the resources of the parishes and then use the deanery level to share things out with greater efficiency. Nothing needs to involve the outside world but this would be a denial of the aims of Faith in the City. I would suggest that special concentration is needed so that parish audits do not simply become internal exercises within the administration of the Church of England.
So I conclude with the point that parish audits need to be thought out as to how they are going to be done and secondly to what end will they serve.