After Grenfell: the Faith Groups’ Response
A study into the responses of faith groups to the Grenfell Tower tragedy on 14th June 2017. (2018)
Charlotte Hobson discusses the results of new polling on responses from the public to Bishop Curry’s sermon.
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The recent Royal Wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex received global attention. Speculations about Meghan Markle’s dress, gossip about her familial relationships and gushing coverage of the day’s events were discussed religiously by media outlets worldwide. On the day, a 100,000–strong crowd gathered on the streets of Windsor, 18 million viewers tuned in from home, and the event featured in 3.4 million tweets.
Drawing particular interest was the sermon delivered by Bishop Michael Curry. Surprisingly, this 14 minute homily was the ‘most tweeted about moment of the ceremony’ receiving 40,000 tweets per–minute. Comment ranged from criticising the simplistic message as ‘Christianity-lite‘ to praising it, as the Archbishop of Canterbury did, for embodying ‘raw God’.
According to some Christians, ’people… really engaged… it helped [them] see there is a big picture of this whole Christian story’. Other sources suggest that the public response was more diverse. Non–religious circles reacted with a palpable bemusement – images of the royal family looking uncomfortable with barely concealed smirks were rife on social media as the sermon unfolded, and in national newspapers after the event.
News coverage was generally positive, referring to Bishop Curry as having ‘electrified’, ‘upstaged everyone’, ‘dazzled’, and ‘stole[n] the show’. Public figures also documented their support on social media – supermodel Naomi Campbell tweeted ‘BISHOP MICHAEL CURRY GIVING ME LIFE’ and former leader of the Labour Party, Ed Miliband, suggested that ‘Rev Michael Curry could almost make me a believer’. Since the event, Bishop Curry has appeared on several extremely high profile U.S television shows, has been parodied on Saturday Night Live, and appeared on the final of Britain’s Got Talent in a pre–recorded good luck message to contestants.
This isn’t the first time that enigmatic and impassioned preaching has captured attention and received popularity. In the 19th century, ‘preaching sensation’ Charles Spurgeon attracted thousands to his public sermons and sold millions of written copies – during the height of his popularity it is thought that over 25,000 were being sold weekly. More recently, American preacher Billy Graham filled football stadiums with crowds eager to experience his charismatic evangelistic ‘crusades’. Religious figures are rarely considered with such popularity in a modern context – in fact, public expressions of religious faith in modern Western society can be met with unease or restriction and media coverage of religion often focuses on negative stories steeped in controversy such as abuse and terrorism. The media’s overwhelmingly positive coverage of Bishop Curry’s sermon, though not unprecedented, is still noteworthy.
This being said, the extent to which this sermon will hold any widespread long–term significance or impact shouldn’t be overestimated.
Religion in contemporary British society is frequently described in terms of deterioration and even death. In 2013, the British Social Attitudes Survey revealed that more adults identified as non–religious than did religious. Support for this trend has been repeatedly evidenced in subsequent research. Christian affiliation and practice have dramatically reduced over recent decades and non–religion has risen, according to some polls, to the majority identification. Little of this is likely to be altered by a 14 minute homily delivered by an American preacher as part of Royal Wedding festivities. The day’s extravagance – though toned down in comparison with previous monarchical nuptials – resulted in a celebration completely removed from the reality of everyday life for the vast majority of viewers who observed, literally, from afar. Encouraging personal engagement with a message delivered in such a context is likely to be difficult and consequently, the media’s positive coverage shouldn’t be assumed representative of public opinion.
We at Theos commissioned ComRes to conduct a poll exploring what Britain really thought about Bishop Curry’s address, getting beneath the frenzy and exploring the actual response of the public, once the media bandwagon had moved on. A demographically representative sample of 2,007 British adults were asked to what extent they agree or disagree with six statements referring to the sermon’s appropriateness and impact.
As any realistic assessment of such an event would expect, results demonstrate limited longer–term personal engagement with Bishop Curry’s message. Nevertheless, a striking number of those who did respond positively and engage with the message were young in age and/or non–religious. This is ultimately encouraging for Christians, highlighting that individuals in categories often deemed disengaged with or disinterested in religion were, here at least, open to what was being said.
As noted, British media covered the story with almost unanimous positivity. However, our poll suggested that the general public were less absolute in their support. The statement ‘Bishop Curry’s sermon expressed ideas that people can easily agree with’ garnered the warmest response with 34% of the sample agreeing. Levels of agreement for other statements concerning the appropriateness of the sermon’s tone and content, its ability to increase church attendance and understanding of Christian beliefs range from 29% to just 12%. That noted, the proportions of individuals disagreeing with these statements were also relatively low, ranging from 38% to just 11%.
Ambivalent responses were comparatively high but, unlike agreement or disagreement, relatively consistent: the proportion of respondents who ‘neither agreed nor disagreed’ with our statements ranged from 30% to 20%. If we combine these figures with the surprisingly high percentages of our sample who responded with uncertainty – ‘don’t know’ – we have a rather large proportion of respondents with either non–existent or very limited opinions on the sermon in question: 60% of respondents were either unsure or indifferent about whether the sermon improved their understanding, around half responded in this way to statements regarding the sermon’s appropriateness (45–51%), and 45% did the same when asked whether they would attend church in the future if they thought that the preaching would be similar to Bishop Michael Curry’s sermon.
Where positive responses were recorded in our poll, these were more–so in relation to certain elements of the sermon and registered by certain demographic groups.
The statements we tested can be separated into two groups: private – those concerning the individual respondent, e.g. whether their understanding has improved – and public – those concerning the sermon itself, e.g. was the tone and content appropriate.
Many aspects of this Royal Wedding marked intentional breaks from past traditions. Bishop Curry’s sermon was one such break. In place of a solemn and short homily delivered by an English bishop, this charismatic address was presented by a black, American, Episcopalian bishop replete with references to contentious political and social issues. Respondents to our poll were apparently comfortable with these alterations, perceiving the tone, content and issues covered to be appropriate for a Royal Wedding. People were less positive on a private or personal level: only 16% of respondents would be more likely to go to church if the preaching was similar to Bishop Curry’s, and only 12% thought the sermon improved their understanding of Christianity. The public may have appreciated the sermon as a public event but that didn’t mean it made a personal difference to them.
Although it is important to recognise that a large proportion of our sample regarded the sermon with relative ambivalence or uncertainty, these statistics should not silence the small but significant minority of individuals who did engage with and appreciate it – and by extension, the group of normally religiously–disengaged individuals for whom this address was informative and persuasive.
It comes as no surprise that the majority of respondents who found our statements agreeable were themselves already Christians and/or regular churchgoers. 31% of weekly church–attenders thought the sermon improved their understanding of Christian beliefs compared with 8% of non–attenders. 55% of weekly churchgoers were more likely to perceive the sermon’s tone and its content as appropriate for the occasion, compared to 22% of non–church–goers.
Similar disparity is evidenced in relation to the statement concerning future church attendance. 29% of regular churchgoers agreed that they were more likely to attend church if the sermon emulated that of Bishop Curry’s, compared to only 12% of non–attenders. In fact, as many as 44% of non–attenders disagreed that the sermon style was attractive enough to entice them into future church attendance suggesting that the sermon encouraged further churchgoing where this was already an established habit, but was relatively ineffective in promoting any initial connection with religious establishments. This is unsurprising – it would be naïve to think that an (albeit unexpectedly energetic and entertaining) one–off sermon like Bishop Curry’s could radically alter the entrenched habits of non–believing British viewers. Nevertheless, our poll also indicates some positive responses from a striking amount of non–religious individuals. In light of expectations, this is significant.
One in ten religious ‘nones’ (10%) said that they would be more likely to go to church if the sermon was like Bishop Curry’s, 18% agreed that the sermon’s mixing together of religion and politics was appropriate, 6% stated that their understanding of Christian beliefs had improved, 21% perceived the sermon’s tone and content to be appropriate and 26% believed that it was appropriate to address social and political issues in such a setting. This was by no means a religious revival, but it is nevertheless significant, highlighting that positivity was not wholly confined to religious circles.
This is further emphasised by the fact that younger age brackets tended to perceive the sermon more positively than older generations. Existing research highlights that non–religion is the purview of young people, and churches often greatly struggle to engage with them. According to our poll, compared with the oldest age bracket, more respondents aged 18–34 agreed that their understanding of Christianity had been improved by Bishop Curry’s sermon (18–34 12%, 55+ 10%), that the mixture of religious, political and social issues was appropriate (18–34 33%, 55+ 27%), and would consider attending church if the preaching resembled Bishop Curry’s (18–34 18%, 55+ 15%).
Bishop Curry’s sermon generated widespread media attention as an unexpected and entertaining – both in the reactions of guests and in its charismatic tone – segment within a globally anticipated, historically significant ceremony. It would be naïve to imagine, therefore, that it would thereby effect any widespread, long–term change with regards to public opinions concerning religious belief and practice. A single 14–minute sermon does not a revival make. Our poll confirms this in revealing generally high levels of ambivalence and uncertainty, and a positive correlation between existing religiosity and positive attitude to the sermon.
However, the poll also exposes a significant minority of individuals who, though largely understood to be disinterested in and disengaged from religion, through their genuinely positive attitudes evidenced a willingness to engage more with Christianity.
This is encouraging news for Christians, but also presents a challenge – clearly, it is untenable to rely on one–off spectacles of public religiosity for countering widespread religious decline. Mass conversions do not come from hearing a stranger speak for 14 minutes on TV and therefore Bishop Curry’s sermon will not serve as a quick–fix to the difficulties Christians and churches are experiencing in contemporary society. Any expectations otherwise are simplistic. High–profile positive media coverage is undoubtedly worthy of celebration, but the need for small–scale, continual outreach and interaction with non–Christians is also undoubtedly worthy of acknowledgement. Bishop Curry might have ‘nudged the dial’ a notch or two in a very high profile setting, but the work is far from complete.
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Theos researches and investigates the intersection of religion, politics and society in the contemporary world.