Climbing the Papal Mountain and Other News


Today’s post covers three news stories, two of which test public reactions to the religious landscape following, respectively, the resignation of the Pope and last month’s four cases of alleged religious discrimination appealed to the European courts.

Climbing the papal mountain

As Pope Benedict XVI prepares to leave office at the end of this month, following the announcement of his resignation, his successor will have a veritable mountain to climb, if he is to hold together the Roman Catholic Church and improve its image and influence with non-Catholics.

In a post-resignation poll only about one-fifth (22%) of adults in Britain now consider the Catholic Church to be a force for good in the world, 45% disagreeing (and thus implicitly saying it is a force for ill), and 32% undecided. If we assume that all professing Catholics reckon their Church to be a force for good, then the corollary is that not much more than one-tenth of the rest of the population does so.

Among all Britons, the number in agreement with the proposition never rises above 28% for any major demographic group (and that for the over-65s, Welsh, and Scots), while dissentients represent a majority of the 45-64s, in the South and North-East of England, and among supporters of several smaller political parties.

Comparison with surveys around the time of the papal visit to Scotland and England in September 2010 indicates that the public standing of the Church has taken a real battering during the final two and a half years of Benedict XVI’s pontificate.

The current 22% positive rating of the Catholic Church contrasts with 31-33% recorded by Opinion Research Business in identical questions about the Church as a force for good on 14-16 and 22-24 September 2010 and 9-11 September 2011; with 41% by Ipsos MORI on 20-26 August 2010; and 47% by Populus on 10-12 September 2010.

Some commentators have argued that modernization of the Catholic Church demands the appointment of the next Pope from the developing rather than the developed world, reflecting the fact that it is in the former that the Church is growing while in the latter it is in decline, notably losing the battle against secularism in Western Europe. The possibility of an African Pope is often mentioned in this context, with Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana the most cited name and, currently, a bookie’s favourite.

Britons, however, do not seem hugely enthusiastic about the prospect of the Church moving in this direction. Asked whether ‘it would be a positive step for the Catholic Church if they chose an African for their next Pope’, 33% agree, with 19% disagreeing, and 48% having no opinion (and probably no real interest in the matter either). The groups most in favour of an African Pope are the 25-34s (42%), Scots (41%), and Labour voters (43%). Most opposed are men (24%), residents of South-West England (28%), and UKIP supporters (26%).

Source: The two questions about the Roman Catholic Church were included in the online regular political survey by ComRes for The Independent on Sunday and Sunday Mirror on 13-14 February 2013, although it appears that, in the end, neither newspaper made use of these particular findings. The sample comprised 2,002 Britons aged 18 and over. Full data appear on pp. 89-96 of the tables at:

Wearing religious clothing and symbols at work

Public attitudes to the wearing of religious clothing and symbols in the workplace vary according to the clothing or symbol concerned and to the occupation of the person wearing it.

So finds new research commissioned in the wake of the four British cases of alleged faith discrimination recently adjudicated by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). In one of them, the ECHR found against the UK Government in the action brought by Nadia Eweida, who was sent home by her employer (British Airways) in 2006 for refusing to remove a chain necklace with a small silver Christian cross.

In the study, opinion was sought about the entitlement to wear three religious items (a chain necklace with a Christian cross, a Jewish kippah/skullcap, and an Islamic burka) in four professional situations: flight attendant, nurse, teacher, and accountant. The number believing that people in the UK should be allowed to wear the item under each circumstance is as follows: 





Flight attendant




















The table reveals greatest comfort with individuals wearing the Christian cross at work, albeit this is deemed somewhat less acceptable for a nurse than for the other three occupations. This caveat doubtless reflects recall of the case of Shirley Chaplin whose employers, Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital, had ordered the removal of her crucifix and chain on health and safety grounds. Chaplin had also appealed to the ECHR but, unlike Eweida, unsuccessfully. Opposition to a nurse wearing a cross peaked at 30% among the 18-24s and Liberal Democrat voters.

The Jewish article of clothing, the kippah, is deemed slightly less acceptable than the Christian symbol, with a mean score ten points lower. Some may find a slight hint of anti-Semitism here. However, a majority of adults still support its wearing in all four contexts, even by nurses where disagreement is greatest (30% overall, and rather more among the over-60s and Conservative voters).

But the burka worn by female Muslims finds no real favour at all, even when worn by an accountant, who is presumably less likely to come into regular contact with the public than a flight attendant, nurse, or teacher. Of course, the fact that the burka is so much larger and more ‘intrusive’ than the other two items (respondents were reminded that it covers the body and face) may well have influenced thinking.

Nevertheless, a plurality (47%) do endorse an accountant wearing a burka, whereas for the other three occupations opposition ranges from 67% to 72%. The over-60s are especially hostile, from 81% to a burka worn by a flight attendant to 86% when worn by a nurse, and a majority (51%) even arguing an accountant should not be allowed to wear it.   

Public hostility to the burka has been evidenced in numerous other opinion polls during recent years, as already noted by BRIN. The garment is clearly widely seen as ‘un-British’ and as a manifestation of Muslim reluctance to integrate into mainstream society. Therefore, attitudes to the burka are inextricably bound up with views of Islam, about which there continue to be many reservations relative to Judaism and, still more, to Christianity which is still implicitly regarded as defining Britain’s heritage and culture. 

The research is an interesting example of how principles of religious equality and liberty, to which most Britons would doubtless say they are committed, can be qualified when translated into real-life situations which are the cause of controversy and annoyance.

Source: Three online surveys undertaken among Britons aged 18 and over by YouGov for the YouGov-Cambridge think-tank: on 29-30 January 2013 (n = 1,939, on attitudes to the cross); 3-4 February 2013 (n = 1,712, on attitudes to the kippah); and on 30-31 January 2013 (n = 1,914, on attitudes to the burka). The results are discussed in a YouGov-Cambrdige blog post of 20 February 2013 at:

The detailed data tables are located at:

Anglican church-led social action

Four-fifths (82%) of parishes in the Church of England have provided informal support to people in their community who have requested help, and 54% run organized activities to address at least one local social need. The latter figure ranges from 39% of churches whose congregation numbers fewer than 50 people to 94% where it exceeds 250; and from 80% in parishes based on council estates to 47% in the most rural areas. More than one social need is being formally met in 29% of parishes. Activities most commonly offered are: support with school work (69%), care for the elderly (54%), and parent and toddler groups (51%). Food banks are managed by 28% of parishes, although this is now likely to be an underestimate.

Community problems being tackled, formally or informally, by more than two-thirds of parishes comprise lack of self-esteem/hope, homelessness, mental health, and family breakdown/poor parenting. At the other end of the spectrum, more than one-half of parishes admit to doing very little or nothing to alleviate poor housing, benefit dependency, unemployment, unhealthy lifestyles, low education, crime/anti-social behaviour, or low income. While working relationships with schools are active and very close in three-quarters of parishes, the same is true of less than one-fifth in the case of the police, poverty charities, councils, local businesses, and social services.

Source: Online sample survey of Anglican incumbents undertaken by the Church Urban Fund (CUF) on behalf of the Church of England in December 2011. Of the 2,960 clergy invited to participate, 865 or 30% did so. There was an under-representation of rural parishes and small churches in the responses. Key findings are summarized in Bethany Eckley, The Church in Action: A National Survey of Church-Led Social Action, newly published and available at:

It should be noted that this is actually the third report to have been issued by CUF on this survey. The first was Growing Church Through Social Action: A National Survey of Church-Based Action to Tackle Poverty, prepared by Benita Hewitt of Christian Research Consultancy, the agency which undertook the fieldwork; and the second a four-page summary of it, Growing Church Through Social Action. As their titles imply, their focus was especially on the church growth aspects of the research. These earlier reports have already been discussed on BRIN at:



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