Researching the Church of England

Demelza JonesSarah-Jane Page

This symposium, funded by CCISC and organised by Aston University Sociology and Policy’s Dr Demelza Jones and Dr Sarah-Jane Page, bought together over 40 academics, members of clergy, and other relevant practitioners, to discuss research relating to the Church of England. As well as showcasing the varied work of members of CCISC’s Religion and Belief cluster, the event also marked the award earlier this year of an honorary degree to the Rt Revd David Urquhart, Bishop of Birmingham. Although the Bishop was unfortunately unable to attend the event, he sent the following words of welcome:

I am very pleased to know that this symposium is taking place, and delighted that it is marking my honorary degree from Aston University. The Church of England is facing significant challenges and opportunities both nationally and locally that call us to ask probing questions about our ecclesiology, identity, and praxis. Conversation between the academy and church offers opportunities to enrich that discourse, and I hope your timely symposium will be fruitful both for the participants, and for the wider church. I wish you a wonderful day of reflection and dialogue.

The event commenced with an engaging keynote presentation by the Revd Dr Susanna Snyder (University of Roehampton), who has been conducting research on the relationship between the arts and refugee experiences – particularly when this work is conceived or displayed in religious settings. Susanna’s work challenges the idea that the arts are elitist, with art in this context having the power to shock and engage. Her data was based on participation and interviews, with Susanna displaying images of art installations within Anglican spaces. The poignant image of a dingy clinging at an angle to a church ceiling, demonstrating the precariousness of sea crossings, became even more moving for visitors when finding out the actual boat had been used by refugees. Directly underneath the boat, in the nave of the church, was a nativity scene, interspersed with life jackets. This was just one example among many of the ways worshippers and visitors accessing these spaces contemplated and engaged with these art installations. As Susanna noted towards the end of her keynote, this raises important questions regarding the effect of the arts, and how long-lasting the impact is.

We then split into two parallel sessions: one session was primarily concerned with issues of gender and sexuality. Dr Sarah-Jane Page examined the experiences of clergy mothers within the Church of England, noting the types of negativity encountered at different stages of their mothering, taking the audience through how the potentially pregnant body is situated, moving on to consider the pregnant body itself, and experiences as a mother. Various discriminations are common at all stages, with clergy mothers being invoked in terms of disrupting the rational organisation, with their bodies being very visible and subject to scrutiny. She utilised powerful quotes from the clergy mothers she had interviewed to convey the types of discrimination encountered, including women whose church posts had disappeared once they had had a baby. She also highlighted that clergy mothers had to challenge dominant perceptions that they would not be as hardworking as a male priest with children, or a single priest, with motherhood often being considered a constraint rather than an asset. George Amakor, a PhD student at Aston University, then went on to discuss his research on the Church’s response to unmarried mothers in Nigeria. Although he has data from numerous churches, in this presentation he focused specifically on how the Anglican Church managed these issues. He noted that sex education was very much lacking in his research context, with the Church contributing to this lack of conversation. Clergy were often reluctant, or even unwilling, to recommend contraception, with abstinence being considered the best option. However, if a young woman did become pregnant, the levels of stigma were very high. Whilst church officials did not see themselves as stigmatising these young women, and felt they offered them support, the laity disagreed, and saw church processes as contributing to the levels of stigmatisation encountered.

The second of our parallel sessions featured talks from Aston PhD student Céline Benoit, and Dr Demelza Jones. The first of these talks concerned Church of England schools, and Céline described a current climate in which faith schools (the vast majority of which in the UK are Christian) are criticised as divisive. Drawing on her fieldwork in primary schools in the West Midlands, she argued that a characterisation of faith schools as ‘divisive’ and non-denominational schools as ‘inclusive’ is overly simplistic given that Church of England schools tend to adopt as multi-faith an approach to Religious Education (RE), as non-denominational schools do, and as non-denominational schools are all legally required to teach a predominantly Christian RE syllabus. As such, a thorough and constructive discussion of religion in education should not focus solely on faith-based schools, but also on RE and collective worship in non-denominational schools. Next, Dr Demelza Jones spoke about research she conducted in collaboration with Canon Dr Andrew Smith (Director of Interfaith Relations for the Bishop of Birmingham) into the use of Anglican church spaces in Birmingham by migrant or minority ethnic congregations; drawing on a survey of all clergy in the Birmingham Diocese followed by interviews with a sample of clergy whose churches ‘host’ these congregations. The talk highlighted the diversity of ethnicities, languages and transnational linkages across these congregations, going on to focus on relationships between ‘mainstream’ Anglican clergy and the congregations and congregation leaders who share their space, and the opportunities and challenges posed by these encounters across intra-faith difference in a (super)diverse urban diocese.

The Rt Revd Dr Nigel Peyton, Bishop of Brechin, delivered our second keynote presentation, where he discussed his research based on interviews with Church of England parish clergy. He noted how the Church was situated within broader culture, with many retaining an interest in clergy lives, demonstrated through popular TV shows such as Rev (which is apparently far more realistic than The Vicar of Dibley!). Nigel critiqued the notion that the church is doomed – this has been a longstanding narrative, yet the Church endures. He also noted how clergy themselves are often considered to be not coping – yet very few clergy quit. He considered the reasons that clergy stay in the church despite the structural impediments, through the themes of obedience, sacrifice and intimacy. He noted how clergy were conducting their lives under surveillance, utilising Foucault to note that ‘God sees’. Meanwhile, clergy are sacrificial. This is a vocation rather than a job. But this can entail problems, such as never switching off or taking a day off. Are there others who are implicated in this? Do others – such as the priest’s family – bear the cost of the vocation? Finally on the theme of intimacy, Nigel noted how priesthood imprints itself on all relationships. Clergy are always defined through their status, and this can curtail friendships and the potentiality for intimate relationships for single clergy. Nigel ended by going through some of the future directions needed when researching the Church of England.

Picking up the closing comments of Nigel’s keynote, the symposium closed with an open-floor discussion of future directions and priorities in researching the Church of England. Key themes raised included difference and ‘layers and levels’ within Anglicanism; the significance of built-heritage in shaping the Church’s resource allocation and activities; the changing role of the geographically-defined parish as a site of both activity and meaning-making; and the possibility of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ Church as comparative sites for exploring a range of social issues. Challenges were also identified to this research agenda, including difficulty in securing funding for sociological research relating to Christianity; the challenge of talking and researching inter-disciplinarily (across Sociology and Theology for instance); and the prevalence of ‘insider narratives’ given that much research on the Church is currently conducted by clergy completing research degrees at theological colleges. The mix of academics, clergy and practitioners at the symposium led to an interesting exchange of ideas, both in this final discussion session, and in the question and answer sessions which followed each talk, and we would like to thank the speakers as well as all the delegates for their contributions to the event. The Twitter ‘story’ of the symposium can be viewed here.