Sunday 21 August 2011

Studying a Local Church

I'm very pleased to have received a copy of a dissertation (not a thesis) about the Anglican church I used to attend. It's funny, really, because whilst it attempts to disguise the church in question, describing it as at 'Water's Edge' in North Lincolnshire, it actually names the youth group and so immediately identifies the church! I remember doing my Ph.D and going to great trouble inventing Viking names for the locality and churches, realising that even a journalist with a low intelligence might actually guess where I did the research. But then there was sex in my Ph.D and the necessity to disguise was the greater.

I have to say: I don't like the methodology because of what it misses. It makes no proper description of the church.

The church is a moderate, town, liberal Anglo-Catholic church with segments of other kinds of contemporary Christian belief, from hard line right wing Evangelical to some Progressive Christianity Network types. The boss won't call himself liberal, because he adheres to the whole tradition (I think this is a correct view too - liberals are selective) but he asks more questions that tells answers, and the church contains gay friendly literature. The curate is also broad but lower down the candle and has an ecumenical base. This is my ideological assessment, not the dissertation's.

The dissertation is about, overtly, education in the church. Apparently there was a survey intended of the In Depth group that I led for many sessions, but no one answered. Well, was anyone approached? The researcher had all the papers I gave available; indeed, anyone can consult them because they are on my website. She has missed finding out that the level was described once as that of the seminary or even higher, so that might have been a point to pick up and whether such a level was appropriate and what corner of the church it served (or didn't).

I doubt that questionnaires were the right methodology, and given that it was supposed to be 'inside the church', the method ought to be ethnographic and questionnaires are barely ethnographic. Ethnography is both a social science method and a school of teaching Religious Education - the RE emphasis is based largely at Warwick. Robert Jackson there pushes the interpretive approach, which is ethnographic - what people do rather than what the religion claims.

A main focus is on the youth group but the dissertation covers the range of activities. Well less than half of parents using Toddler Time describe themselves as Christian, and a fifth say they are not. Four fifths say the child is primarily a member of the group, which is well appreciated, not the church, and none attend the regular services otherwise. Junior Church temporarily wasn't running. E1W goes from 10 to 19 years, with 18 attending on a 4 to 1 girls to boys ratio and most are not church parents. There are various happy activities including an annual trip to the Catholic shrine of Walsingham (with another church). When 7 people answer a questionnaire, all girls, of which five call themselves Christian, then, again, I think there is a need for more ethnographic methodology. Talk with them! Their own most frequent attendance at services is at least once a month, a seventh of parents attend more than once a week but the rest attend less than once a year. None of the young say grace; under three quarters pray occasionally (equal pray once a week or never), and 57% say no to God guiding their lives with 43% saying perhaps God does but uncertain.

The dissertation claims that this shows that most of the young people do not attend because of a 'mission shaped church' claim about atendance causality from Christian parents, but through friendship networks. In any case, the Christians are quite secular with a large majority for answering to 'While I believe in the Christian faith, there are more important things in my life' and 'While I am a Christian, I do not let my faith influence my daily life' receiving a high minority figure. Whilst the actual figures are from such a small response, it is interesting that a high minority can identify with 'While I am a Christian, I do not let my faith influence my daily life' and although 'I value my religious doubts and questions' gets over half for yes and also 'For me, doubting is an important part of what it means to be a Christian gets a high minority, nevertheless 'Questions are more important to my Christian faith than are the answers' only gets a seventh in the affirmative. 'I am constantly questioning my religious beliefs' received towards three quarters affirmation.

When I did my participant observation (ethnographic method - I also did semi-structured interviewing) of an Evangelical church, the young people were pretty much being forced down an Evangelical interpretation of Christianity. Nevertheless, their connections, and their concerns afterwards when going to the pub, were very secular and based around their own group. The church was important, but they were more important. Plus they did not like the idea that other young people did not have to put up with Evangelical teaching. These young people did have church parents, but a lot of it was about respectability. The same pattern is in this North Lincolnshire church but without the Evangelical party (dis)stress.

The dissertation argues that there is a sense of detachment from the young people towards the rest of the church. This isn't necessarily justified by the figures: 'This group is a full part of the Church, not an addition to it' received over half agreement and with no one directly disagreeing, even if the church is a somewhat traditional or remote in feel. There is, though, importantly, a huge age difference between them and the rest of the attenders, and there is no continuity from youth group to general attendance. Attenders at services do pretty much start in their fifties and get older, and certainly no adult respondents were under 50. The figures for attendance in age ranges aren't actually correct (I should know; I was there - not all at 09:30 Wednesdays were 80 years or over).

I must quote this sentence from the dissertation - it is about members of the prayer group:

People from the Methodist Church, the Roman Catholic Church and the Unitarian Church as well as people who rarely attend church, are members in addition to those who are members of the Church of England.

It is possible that the Unitarian is not me, though I think it is. We do have a chap in the Hull Unitarians who attends at times and comes from over the river, but he said he had never been in the Anglican church. The emphasis, still, is on locals attending, not on people in agreement choosing this church instead of others. Some do go to a village church that is Evangelical, but few crossed boundaries (I did). Six sevenths of attenders have been Christians for over 40 years. The style of worship is a chief attractor but the dissertation writer has made too much of this: it is an answer from insiders choosing between services. In general, this remains a community church and yet one only of a small minority of the town. Indeed the dissertation states:

...belonging is more important to them than teaching and inspiration.

One of the oddities is the lack of other faiths in the town but most of 15 respondents thought Christians should engage in multi-faith dialogue.

Well, this is a dissertation for a higher degree, and it is what it is. I'm not its tutor!

I see no mention of the choir, its place with younger people and of an older communal model of churches where choirs processed many young people through a church? The choir is all about learning. The choir can double attendance in evening services. Is there a hint of the cathedral in this local church? There certainly is. The importance of quality in performance in worship is emphasised.

What about the Minster model of the church and the now satellite parishes? What about the concentration of leadership in one place, and the family connections that add to the clerical mass (pun slightly intended)?

If I was doing a study it would be qualitative in method not quantitative. Surely a higher degree can include conversations? I could write a dissertation of that very place; and would have a rich description of the church, and interviews in depth as well as good recall of all the goings on that don't break confidences. Aspects of this church such as the under-breath party and managerial tensions are important because they shape its direction: and there is a tension with it as a 'town' church (a moderating factor that might be weakening). A researcher ought to know the gossip that gives character to a church. Frankly I have to criticise a conclusion that includes:

I think Archbishop Rowan Williams can be confident in his belief that Christianity is not in terminal decline, as I think it will be able to appeal to those who are indifferent to religion, with the right marketing and in the right form.

There is no justification for this statement. On what basis is such an appeal made? A strategy for recruitment (and some of us discussed this) is not based on indifference but on interest: people who walk through church doors for religious participation are usually already interested. Growing a casual visitor into a participant takes a long time (unless rapid ideological bullying takes place).

The church is a community church on an older model, and its age range suggests it is not a renewable model. It is fortunate that young people are present, but they are there on their own justification, and they are its present and not the future. Take a look at a magazine in the 1970s - there were bus loads of children. I would not speculate about the Builder Generation or the Boomer Generation but discuss churches and specialisation, as set against leisure, welfare and education.

Then there is the random element. A person who walks through the door and stays can attract in a network of people over time. One simply can never know. The researcher should always consider what is not of a pattern but yet might affect it.

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