Same-sex marriage survey: another comedy of interpretive errors

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Dear God, here we go again. I suppose we ought to be grateful that the Ozanne Foundation (OF) has at least had the sense to commission some work from YouGov this time, rather than repeat the car crash that was its attempt at research in late 2018 (the Faith and Sexuality Survey). The new Same Sex Marriage Survey was undertaken by YouGov at the behest of the OF in late February 2020 and received responses from 5169 individuals who were deemed by YouGov to be representative of the British public.

So – what do the results show? Well let’s see what the Jayne Ozanne and the Bishop of Liverpool, Paul Bayes, tell us that the results show first. And this is, of course, where we depart from objectivity.

Jayne Ozanne says:

Fast changing attitudes within society and the Church of England have led to a rapid decline in the number of people believing same sex marriage is wrong …. Nearly half of Church of England members now believe same sex marriage is right, with well over two-thirds of those under 50 believing it is right, despite the Church of England’s official stance against same sex relationships.

[The survey] shows a marked increase in the number of Anglicans believing same-sex marriage is right alongside a marked decrease in numbers believing it is wrong.

Results are highly age dependent, with the only Anglican group to believe that same sex marriage is wrong being Anglicans aged over 65+ ….Even Anglicans aged 50-65 are now strongly now in favour, with a majority believing it is right. 

What is more, younger Anglicans – often found within evangelical churches – are overwhelmingly clear where they stand on this issue, with nearly three quarters of the under 50s now believing in same sex marriage.  

These results show that those opposed to same-sex marriage are now clearly in the minority, and that a substantial group within the Church of England believe same sex marriage is right.  This shows the urgent need for the Church of England hierarchy to recognise and respect the clear views of a significant proportion of its members, which are steadily increasing as time goes by.  To pretend that this is an issue on which many have not yet formed a view is to misunderstand the reality of what is happening in our pews. 

Paul Bayes says: 

These results provide a challenge to us in leadership within the Church of England to ensure that we understand the views of the people we serve. 

Attitudes are indeed changing quickly, and we must be open to what the Holy Spirit is saying to us through them if we are to be an effective witness of God’s love to the nation.    

It sounds quite good for the Ozanne Foundation so far, right? All those backward Anglican pew-fillers are finally being dragged into the 21st century! And look at that! In the 18-24 age group, 77% think same sex marriage is right! It’s only those old fogies in the 65+ age group that are the blot on the landscape. Given that this inconvenient finding is then ignored, perhaps we may assume that this group is irrelevant because they won’t be here for much longer, statistically speaking.

So where’s the problem? Well it’s this – the findings don’t really show ‘the reality of what is happening in our pews’. Shall we review the results ourselves? Where to start?

Firstly, let me say that I have no issue with YouGov for their survey, only the ‘findings’ from it that are being claimed by the OF and their friends.

Let’s start by looking at the sample, as usual. Around 2% of the population in the UK are apparently practising Anglicans – a figure that comes from the Church of England itself apparently. But in the representative sample from the YouGov poll, we find that around 20% say they are Anglican. Hmm. Straight away the sample is clearly not representative of the group in question – regular members of the Church of England. Let’s face it, while the survey asked for responses from all sorts of religions and Christian denominations, the only one that the OF is interested in is the ‘Anglican’ contingent.

What we see in the responding sample is this: those contacted at random in the survey who identified as Anglican must be largely ‘nominal’ Anglicans rather than practising regular worshippers. They are probably what I call ‘hospital Anglicans’ – if admitted for treatment they would tick the ‘CofE’ box rather than any other such as say, RC, Pentecostal or whatever, on the off-chance they may need a chaplain while on their sick bed. In other words, unless YouGov has managed to uncover, purely at random, a sample of hidden, underground practising Anglicans who have hitherto remained silent and invisible to the statisticians at Church House, these 20% of respondents are extremely unlikely to be weekly or even monthly pew-dwellers. So not really representative Anglicans at all. How do we know this is likely? Because the survey did not ask these ‘Anglicans’ if they actually attend church.

To support this stance – so you can see it’s not just me saying this is not a true picture of Anglican views in 2020 – Andrew Hawkins of ComRes, another professional research organisation, has apparently tweeted that because of this sampling anomaly, it is “incorrect to describe this as a sample of Anglicans in England in any meaningful sense other than as a cultural identifier”. In other words, this sample of ‘Anglicans’ cannot be taken as a religious identifier in any way that reflects religious belief.  Yet the OF is touting these results as showing how ‘attitudes’ are changing in the Church of England.

We might also add that the online interviews didn’t ask respondents anything about their general religious practice or other religious beliefs. They could easily have done so – they did manage to ask about political affiliations and Brexit-voting history – so we have to ask why the Ozanne Foundation didn’t want YouGov to go into such details. Any thoughts?

All of this immediately puts to bed Jayne Ozanne’s claim that acceptance of same sex marriage is ‘the reality of what is happening in our pews’. Next!

Looking further at these amazing pop-up Anglicans uncovered in the survey, we also find that much is made by the OF of the age-related breakdown among the respondents. Among the youngest age group, the 18-24 respondents, 77% of the ‘Anglicans’ said that they thought same sex marriage was right.

Jayne Ozanne says:

What is more, younger Anglicans – often found within evangelical churches – are overwhelmingly clear where they stand on this issue, with nearly three quarters of the under 50s now believing in same sex marriage.

Ok….but can we just dig a bit deeper, there please? That 77% was part of a statistically inadmissible group of respondents. This means that because such a small number of respondents from that age group gave answers, the figures can’t be relied on as being representative of young Anglicans.

As YouGov correctly states in the report:

Any percentages calculated on bases fewer than 50 respondents do not represent a wide enough cross-section of the target population to be considered statistically reliable. 

And in the report on the ‘Background’ page, YouGov states:

Any percentages calculated on bases fewer than 50 respondents must not be reported as they do not represent a wide enough cross-section of the target population to be considered statistically reliable. 

See that?  ‘Must not be reported’.  Why? Because such figures are not statistically reliable. That’s the 77% of young Anglicans who now’ think that same sex marriage is right’.

So the problems with this ‘overwhelmingly clear’ response from young Anglicans is simply this – it is not overwhelmingly clear at all because the figures can’t be used to show anything meaningful as they are too low. They are not representative of the self-identified Anglican population in the survey, let alone the true Anglican population in the pews.

Interestingly, the figures from the other age groups were statistically reliable (more than 50 individuals responded in each age group), but we are still left with the fact that this is a group of ‘Anglicans’ that we know are not representative of the Church. Ho hum. Next!

What about the claims that ‘nearly half of Church of England members now believe same sex marriage is right’? Let’s look at that. Firstly, the respondents were not asked if they are Anglican ‘members’. To an Anglican, being a member means being on a parish electoral roll and regularly attending services if health permits. That’s how the Church calculates its members. In the survey, people were just asked to tick a box indicating their religious preference. This is not the same thing as being a member of the Church, as we have already noted, above.

So bearing this confounding factor in mind, yes, 48% of the ‘Anglican’ respondents said that same sex marriage is ‘right’. But when we look at those who said it is ‘wrong’ and then add the ‘don’t knows’, we find that 52% of the respondents are on the ‘not right’ side of the fence. ‘Don’t know’ could go either way. As it is, the ‘don’t knows’ did not feel strongly enough about same sex marriage being ‘right’ that they could say so.

It is an entirely reasonable argument to suggest that given the current social climate, respondents may have felt uncomfortable saying to a researcher that same sex marriage is ‘wrong’ and said ‘don’t know’ instead. The survey was administered as a phone interview, with a YouGov member speaking to each respondent. There is a well-known research phenomenon called Social Desirability Bias, which is a tendency among respondents to give answers that are likely to find favour with the interviewer. How likely would you be to say ‘wrong’ if you were stopped in the street or in a phone interview and asked if same sex marriage is right or wrong? Did socially desirable bias happen here? We don’t know. But it’s a point worth considering.

Going back to the age groups for a moment, we know that the 18-24 group results are not reliable so we have to dismiss them. In the other groups we see a similar potential problem as in the overall Anglican responses – the ‘don’t knows’ are quite a big group. Again, this could be partly due to social desirability bias. Of course, it may be entirely accurate and I could be completely wrong.

What about the comments made by Jayne Ozanne and the Bishop of Liverpool? Once again Paul Bayes excels himself in his comments:

Attitudes are indeed changing quickly, and we must be open to what the Holy Spirit is saying to us through them if we are to be an effective witness of God’s love to the nation.

It’s news to me that the Holy Spirit now speaks to us through people’s attitudes and research surveys. Traditional Anglicans may do well to ponder the efficacy of our bishops in general as they attempt to ‘be an effective witness of God’s love to the nation’. For this I suspect we should read ‘be an effective witness of God’s love for anyone but traditionalists’.

Paul Bayes again:

These results provide a challenge to us in leadership within the Church of England to ensure that we understand the views of the people we serve. 

The people you serve, Bishop? How about listening to the people who are actually sitting in the pews week in and week out? The ones who are paying the bills and doing all the daily parish work? The ones who believe the Bible? How about understanding their views?

Jayne Ozanne says again:

These results show that those opposed to same-sex marriage are now clearly in the minority, and that a substantial group within the Church of England believe same sex marriage is right. 

Well sorry, Jayne, but we’ve already dismissed that one. And that’s even before we have considered the notion that opinions can actually change doctrine and 2000 years of Christian teaching.

She continues:

This shows the urgent need for the Church of England hierarchy to recognise and respect the clear views of a significant proportion of its members, which are steadily increasing as time goes by. 

Apparently, then, if enough people believe something, then that makes it right.

To pretend that this is an issue on which many have not yet formed a view is to misunderstand the reality of what is happening in our pews. 

But, we have already concluded that this survey does not tell us anything at all about what is happening in the pews. Let’s do a survey of actual Anglican congregations before we can be clear about same sex marriage being cheered to the rafters in all our parish churches.

It will be interesting to see how the Living in Love and Faith report is received by those who have given such a strong message of support for same-sex marriage.

Given the false ‘Anglican’ sample that responded here, I don’t think the Living in Love and Faith report is going to have any effect whatsoever on the respondents.

Thank God for Colin Hart of the Christian Institute. He said recently that Christian doctrine should not be determined by public opinion.

You can’t abandon Christian teaching because some people don’t like it….the faith once delivered to all the saints didn’t emerge as a result of polling or focus groups. Neither will it emerge from following secular trends. The Bible’s message is clear. Marriage can only ever be between one man and one woman, to the exclusion of all others, for life.  We cannot draw any conclusions from the poll about the beliefs of communicant members of the CofE.

How does it take a layman to say so clearly what our church leaders should be saying? Answers on a postcard please.

Has this YouGov survey changed anything in reality? I doubt it. The sampling problems confound all the findings. Once again, the Ozanne Foundation claims as fact things which have not been clearly demonstrated.

What we are left with here is this. Jayne Ozanne and Paul Bayes are either totally unaware of their errors in interpreting their own and now YouGov’s research. Or they are aware of it but choose to carry on announcing their flawed ‘findings’ anyway. Which is it? The answer is important. Because they are either deluded, with no apparent will to see the limitations of their arguments, or they are being deliberately dishonest. Any thoughts on that?

And anyone for a national survey of parish church electoral roll members so we can find out what is actually going on in the pews?

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