The Church of England has hit the media headlines again during the past week or so over its continuing internal divisions about the issues of women’s ministry and homosexual clergy. The general public’s reactions to all this have been explored by YouGov in an online survey of 2,227 adult Britons aged 18 and over on 11-12 July. Details can be found at:
The big debates at the recent General Synod (the Church’s governing body), meeting in York, have been around how to move towards appointing women bishops without alienating traditionalists who do not recognize the authority of a female episcopate. Eventually, Synod did resolve to adopt draft legislation which (subject to further consideration by Synod in 2012 and to Parliamentary approval) would pave the way for women to become bishops on an equal footing with men by 2014.
Were it to be left to the public, 63% would allow the appointment of women bishops and only 10% would not. The remaining 27% express no opinion. Support for female bishops is more prevalent among women than men (67% versus 59%) and among Labour and Liberal Democrat voters (70% and 73% respectively) than Conservatives (58%). Opposition is greatest from Conservatives (15%) and those aged 60 and over (17%).
Another row has been about the leak (said to emanate from within the Crown Nominations Commission) that Jeffrey John, the openly gay but celibate Dean of St Albans, had been considered but subsequently rejected as a candidate for the vacant see of Southwark. This amounts to a second rebuttal for John since, in 2003, he was forced to withdraw his acceptance as Bishop of Reading, following a bitter feud over his appointment and homosexuality.
Asked whether the Church of England should permit gay bishops, public opinion is more divided than on the issue of women bishops, with 39% in favour, 27% opposed and 34% undecided. Among Conservatives and the 60+ age cohort there is actually a net opposition of 5% and 15% respectively. Only among adults aged 25-39 is an absolute majority (52%) supportive.
These reservations about gay bishops may seem surprising, given that British Social Attitudes Survey data point to much greater tolerance of homosexuality in general during the past three decades. In 2008 only 34% thought that homosexual sex was always or almost always wrong, ranging from 19% for the unreligious to 50% for the most religious.