Excerpt from a longer review for the International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church, September 2004.
Paul Avis (ed.), Public Faith? The State of Religious Belief and Practice in Britain (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2003), ISBN 0-281-05531-9 (pbk), 145 pp.
The remit of this important collection of essays is both appropriately ambitious and necessarily modest. Ambitious in that it seeks, in the context of renewed public policy interest in matters religious and spiritual, to provide an overview of issues surrounding belief and practice in Britain today; one that focuses both on the statistical, methodological and hermeneutical issues, and on the implications for mission and ministry in today’s churches. Modest because, in the compass of a relatively short book, the detailed contours of such a vast field of interactive enquiry cannot be mapped fully.
What is attempted instead is a set of vivid, engaged snapshots, backed by thorough investigation, from nine authors who each possess acknowledged expertise in their overlapping disciplines. These include sociology, psychology, ecclesiology, census and survey research, theology, statistics and education. The overall impact is to highlight fresh perspectives, challenges and contentions in the ‘state of belief’ debate. This is achieved for those seeking an intelligent introduction to the subject by pointing them to some horizons and pitfalls, and for existing researchers and commentators by stimulating them towards the pursuit of greater investigative depth. A tricky combination, but one realised well overall.
If there is a common agenda that threads together the different arguments of Public Faith? it is engagement with the problematic nature of empirical study in relation to matters of conviction and belonging: that is, to inter-subjectivity. In some cases (Bernice Martin) this leads to a high degree of scepticism about measurement per se. Her robustly argumentative chapter speaks forthrightly of ‘the non-quantifiable religious dimension in social life’. She offers a strong defence of qualitative research, narrativity and the critique of what Charles Taylor calls ‘closed world systems’. Calculation is not excluded, but it is radically re-situated.
In other cases challenging the hegemony of empiricism means subjecting the yardstick for quantifiability to the tests of longitudinal trend analysis, survey evidence and the observation of cultural change (Robin Gill), or to the charge of methodological inadequacy in the case of the question about religion in the 2001 Census for England and Wales (Leslie J. Francis). Of these contributors, Gill is the most measured and pragmatic, Martin the most polemical (her attack on John Gray’s admittedly caustic moral naturalism being an example) and Francis – who makes use of the idea of religious affiliation as a source of ‘social capital’ – the most forensic and technical. They each create interesting cases, and Gill pointedly reminds church leaders of the depth of the challenges they face, even as he sides with those who criticise simple talk of ‘catastrophic decline’.