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Bishop of Manchester finds holes and encouragement in BBC poll

16 April 2019

Richard Bavin

The Empty Tomb, a watercolour by Richard Bavin, which appears by kind permission of the artist

The Empty Tomb, a watercolour by Richard Bavin, which appears by kind permission of the artist

A POLL which suggests that nearly half of self-identified Christians do not believe that Jesus died and rose again to forgive their sins has been described as “somewhat limiting” by the Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker.

The ComRes poll of 2042 British adults, carried out last month for BBC Local Radio and published on Sunday, found that only 46 per cent respondents who identified as Christians agreed with the statement: “Jesus died on the cross and was resurrected at Easter so that you can be forgiven for your sins”.

In total, 26 per cent agreed with the statement. Forty per-cent disagreed; 20 per cent neither agreed nor disagreed; and 15 per cent selected “don’t know”. Among self-identified Christians, only 17 per cent disagreed; the rest would not commit themselves.

Across all respondents, women were slightly more likely to agree (28 per cent) as were those aged 65 and above (33 per cent, compared to 16 per cent of those aged 18-24).

Of those respondents who attended church at least monthly, 67 per cent agreed, as did nearly half (48 per cent) of those who had ever attended. Among “active Christians” (those who identified as Christian and attended church at least monthly), there was 82-per-cent agreement.

Dr Walker suggested that the statement itself was “somewhat limiting. I would want to see the crucifixion and resurrection in slightly broader terms, emphasising the promise of eternal life and the assurance of God’s unquenchable love for all his creation. The fact that the survey focuses on sin inevitably has a bearing on how people have answered.”

In another BBC-commissioned ComRes poll two years ago, 43 per cent of respondents said that they believed in the resurrection (News, 13 April 2017).

The Talking Jesus polling carried out in 2015 by ComRes and the Barna Group for the Church of England, the Evangelical Alliance, and Hope UK, produced the same percentage, but also found that 40 per cent of respondents did not know that Jesus was a real historical figure (News, 6 November 2015).

This year, additional questions explored attitudes to forgiveness. A high percentage of respondents said that they would find it “impossible” to forgive crimes. For murder, the percentage was 73 per cent, with 23 per cent selecting “difficult”. For child abuse, it was 85 per cent.

Nearly one quarter (23 per cent) stated that infidelity would be impossible to forgive, and 60 per cent said that it would be “difficult”.

Each action — verbal abuse, abuse on social media, stealing and discrimination — was regarded by a majority as at least “difficult” to forgive — with the exception of swearing, which half felt was “easy” to forgive, and 39 per cent said did not require forgiveness.

A Christian identity was not linked to lower ratings of impossibility: 76 per cent stated that murder would be impossible to forgive. But church attendance brought different results: only 53 per cent of active Christians and 57 per cent of those attending at least monthly agreed. Jewish respondents were most likely to state that forgiving murder would be impossible (94 per cent), and Buddhists least likely (46 per cent).

Dr Walker said: “On most of the example wrongdoings the survey poses, regular churchgoers were significantly more likely to think that it was possible to forgive than the general population. That doesn’t surprise me, but it does encourage me enormously.”

The Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, writes:

Earlier this week, the BBC published a poll which revealed the views of a representative sample of British society on the weighty issues of sin, forgiveness, and the resurrection.

The survey is entitled “Easter Forgiveness”, and at its core is a question relating to the purpose of Jesus’s death and resurrection being to forgive us our sins, asking to what extent respondents believe this to be the case.

At the outset, this seems somewhat limiting. I would want to see the crucifixion and resurrection in slightly broader terms, emphasising the promise of eternal life and the assurance of God’s unquenchable love for all his creation. The fact that the survey focuses on sin inevitably has a bearing on how people have answered.

Nonetheless, the clearest finding of the poll is that people who go to church regularly feel more able to forgive. On most of the example wrongdoings the survey poses, regular churchgoers were significantly more likely to think that it was possible to forgive than the general population. That doesn’t surprise me, but it does encourage me enormously.

Christians believe that Jesus’s death and resurrection are the proof that our sins are forgivable. In the Lord’s Prayer, we recite the words “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” and most services include an act of confession and absolution. The survey shows that this makes a big difference to how people feel about forgiveness.

There is also a perhaps surprising statistic: that 18 per cent of regular churchgoers expressed ambivalence about the meaning of the resurrection.

Yet my message to these respondents, and others who experience feelings of doubt, is that these are not only entirely normal — they are at the heart of the Easter story.

As Jesus’s disciples scattered following his crucifixion, struggling to make sense of what they had seen, it was a time of enormous uncertainty, to say the least. But the Easter story ultimately tells us that this is not the end, and in the resurrected figure of Jesus, we can find our certain hope.

Each of us is on a lifelong journey of faith, and there is no prerequisite set of beliefs for anyone wishing to come to church.

Elsewhere, one of the striking features of the research is that the group most likely to identify as Christian were under the age of 24. This is in line with my own experience as I meet many young people who are curious about faith and are setting out on their own faith journeys. It also backs up the findings of other recent studies.

There is much here for thought and prayer as we take the journey through Holy Week. But most important to remember is that the resolution of the Easter story is the most astonishing love, which conquers all sin.

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