Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Pettiness of Home Office Bureaucracy

As one who lived for twenty years as a student and freelance historian in the United States, I know something of the struggle to obtain permanent residency (as a spouse) and at times felt irritation both at the bureaucratic hurdles and at the costs imposed on one whose family had contributed to the well-being of the American economy, both through tuition fees and direct financial support. I clearly didn't know when I was well-off.

It came as a considerable shock to learn of the appalling treatment meted out by the Home Office to Dr. Paul Hamilton, an American scholar who, having completed a doctorate at the University of Birmingham and while applying for fellowships with the Leverhulme and Wellcome Trusts, sought further leave to remain, for which he paid a handsome £650. Not only was this application apparently denied on December 9, but the authorities failed to inform Dr. Hamilton of this fact and had him detained at an immigration centre on January 17 on the grounds that he did not have "enough close ties (eg. family or friends) to make it likely that you will stay in one place." Dr. Hamilton had already purchased an open return ticket to the United States (worth £800) and had he been notified of the denial of his application would have made his own arrangements to depart.

The present government is only too happy to encourage "entrepreneurs" to resettle in the UK if they bring in sufficient assets, but apparently disdains a foreign academic willing to spend upwards of £100,000 of his own money to boost the resources of the British education system but who then seeks - not unreasonably - to secure a postdoctoral fellowship on the same basis as a British academic. The fact that Dr. Hamilton is a Shakespeare scholar only heightens the irony. The only official who comes out of this affair with any credit is the police sergeant at Leamington Spa who called the proceedings "completely ridiculous" and initially refused to process Dr. Hamilton.

Dr. Hamilton is clearly owed both an apology and the return of his visa processing fee as partial compensation for his mistreatment. The precedent that it sets, if this judgment is allowed to stand, is alarming for the academic community at large. I have written to the Vice-Chancellors of my home institution and the University of Birmingham, as well as to the Home Secretary (copied to the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Education). I hope others will be moved to do the same.

Update, January 29: Carolyn Pike (who appears to be the University of Birmingham's Director of Legal Services) informs me that "the University is not at liberty to discuss personal matters relating to alumni with third parties." I would never have imagined that one academic asking whether or not a Vice Chancellor would offer his support to another academic would provoke such a response (and from a legal officer rather than the official to whom the appeal was addressed to boot). Let us hope that this will not be another case of the "rich" getting the pleasure and the "poor" getting the blame.  

Further Update, January 29: It appears Dr. Hamilton is now a free man. Somehow one doubts that any official apology will be forthcoming.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

John 15:13 lived out in Kenya

Shortly before Christmas, the BBC reported from Kenya that the attempted murder by Al-Shabab gunmen of Christians on a bus from Nairobi to Mandera had been thwarted by the refusal of the Muslim passengers to be separated from the Christians. Today there is news that Salah Fareh, a Muslim teacher who took a lead in this incident had died from a bullet wound inflicted at the time. He is quoted as saying:

We are brothers.It's only the religion that is the difference, so I ask my brother Muslims to take care of the Christians so that the Christians also take care of us... and let us help one another and let us live together peacefully.

It has been all too easy in the last few years to become preoccupied with the narrative of Muslims raised in the West who, while not necessarily complicit in the depredations of Islamist radicals, can still treat their actions as excusable in the context of the West's supposed moral decadence and "imperialist" intentions toward Muslim-majority nations. Furthermore, the hostility displayed toward Muslim converts to Christianity in non-Muslim nations (the deplorable case of Nissar Hussein comes to mind) raises justifiable concern about the commitment of Islam to wholehearted religious tolerance.

Nevetheless, Our Lord's declaration that there is no greater love than that a man lay down his life for his friends is illuminated by the death of Salah Fareh. In his case, a choice was clearly presented, and yet he and his Muslim neighbours preferred death to security at the expense of the lives of their brother Christians. There is a message here that we all do well to contemplate.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics

Hacker: The statistics are irrefutable...
Humphrey: Statistics? You can prove anything with statistics.
Hacker: Even the truth.
Humphrey: Yes... No!
The above quote from the British comedy, Yes Prime Minister (the episode entitled "The Smoke Screen" for those who are interested) admirably captures the problem that Anglicanism currently faces. Later this year, Ashgate will publish Church Growth and Decline in Global Anglicanism: 1980 to the Present Day to which I have contributed the chapter on the demographics of The Episcopal Church (TEC). Statistics of church growth (and decline) have been the stuff of interdenominational wrangling for the past thirty years and frequently generate more heat than light. TEC is roughly at midpoint in terms of decline among the major mainline Protestant denominations. Furthermore, particularly in the last decade, almost every major denomination except the LDS Church has reported, if not a decline, at least a diminution in growth. A case could thus be made that recent declines in TEC’s membership are part and parcel of the general shedding of the nominally religious from membership rolls in recent decades and a consolidation of the faithful remnant.

While I am not convinced that the loss of the “nominals” is the sole basis for TEC’s decline (particularly since 2003), it is comparatively easy to draw conclusions about the state of the Protestant mainline generally (and TEC in particular) given the efficiency with which statistical data is gathered year by year. Definitions of membership are clearly articulated and congregations and dioceses (or their equivalents) are routinely encouraged to update their statistical returns to take account of recent changes. Compare this with, for example, three of the largest African-American denominations, the Church of God in Christ, the National Baptist Convention, USA and the National Baptist Convention of America, which claim 5.5 million, 5 million and 3.5 million members respectively. In these cases, few local statistics exist to either sustain or refute the accuracy of the national figure (which has not even been updated in recent years).

It is important to acknowledge here that while there are dangers in associating church growth with ecclesiastical health (dysfunctional or spiritually unbalanced churches can be extremely “successful,” as the Prosperity Gospel attests), most observers would agree that church decline, while sometimes inevitable, is problematic, whether in a congregation, a diocese or a denomination. The only sure way to judge growth and decline is by means of statistics that are current, reliable and consistent across the jurisdiction under scrutiny, all of which brings us to a recently published article by Daniel Munoz in the Journal of Anglican Studies.

For conservative Anglicans, “North to South: A Reappraisal of Anglican Communion Membership Figures” will come as a shock in that it questions the narrative of Global South growth and Global North recession (at least in respect of Anglicanism) that has dominated recent debates. Some readers will be familiar with the findings of the 2013 report of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, which shows significant gains for Christianity in Africa and Asia.

What Munoz reveals in his analysis, however, is that if such growth does occur, Anglicanism may not be the main beneficiary. He notes, with some plausibility, that for conservative Anglicans to question the reliability of membership figures for the Church of England, while accepting uncritically those statistics provided by African provinces is to make a mockery of global comparisons, all the more telling when one considers that the Anglican Communion Office lacks current statistical data from 32 of its 38 member provinces. Although his focus is on statistics, Munoz offers some anecdotal – but revealing – evidence from African church leaders about the rise of nominal Christianity within their own flocks as well as the challenge posed by newer Pentecostal groups. His main interest, however, is in exploring a possible gap between what he terms “outer circle” membership (the kind of cultural Anglicanism that lingered on in Britain until at least the Second World War) and “inner circle” membership, or those actively engaged in the life of the Church. To determine the latter, he appealed to national and provincial church offices and also sampled information on websites where those existed. Focusing on Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda, and relying on a degree of extrapolation from such data as was publicly available, Munoz estimates that inner circle membership within the Global South may only be about 3.9 million compared to outer circle membership of 41.4 million. Conversely, he estimates the Global North to have 4.6 million inner circle members compared to 35.7 million outer circle members. 

On this basis, the Global South would be considered to have 45.9 percent of inner circle Anglicans as against 53.7 percent of outer circle Anglicans. Such a finding hardly makes the Global South an insignificant presence in Anglican affairs but it serves as a reminder that playing the numbers game is a risky business. Judged in terms of inner circle membership, there would not be nine African provinces with over a million members but only one, Nigeria (which would actually be smaller than TEC). 

If a word of caution is needed it is that Munoz’s estimates suggest that the inner circle constitutes no more than 10 percent of the outer circle in most African provinces, comparable with figures for the Church of England and the Anglican Church of Australia. Were the same approach to be applied to North America, one would expect Canada to have an inner circle membership of no more than 144,000 and the USA of no more than 240,000, but Munoz reports their inner circle membership as 545,957 and 1,588,057 respectively. While one might believe there to be a greater religiosity among American Anglicans than those of Britain and Australia, it seems unlikely to be greater by a factor of between five and seven. [I added the below calculation from the figures in Munoz's article after publishing this post.]

Global South - Outer Circle: 41,451,522
Global South - Inner Circle:    3,952,373
Global South Active Membership Share: 9.5%

Global North (less USA and Canada) - Outer Circle: 32,123,599
Global North (less USA and Canada) - Inner Circle:    2,709,038
Global North (less USA and Canada) Active Membership Share: 8.4%

USA and Canada - Outer Circle: 3,852,080
USA and Canada - Inner Circle:  2,134,014
USA and Canada Active Membership Share: 55.4%

That said, Munoz’s research should serve as a reminder to the Global South that inflated membership figures are ultimately self-defeating. It may be wrong to articulate definitions of membership too narrowly, but definitions are needed and congregations and provinces have a responsibility to report numbers accurately and consistently. Anything else is ultimately a betrayal of the men and women in the pew who look to their leaders not only to proclaim the Gospel but to acknowledge the Church as she is, even while looking for the Church as she should be.