A Comres survey commissioned by the BBC for Palm Sunday** does not look good for the Church of England despite a predictable effort to spin the findings.
In the survey, 51% of people surveyed identified as Christian. Half of the people surveyed said they didn’t believe in the resurrection, while only 31% of people identifying as Christian said they did. Only 17% of people thought the Bible version was literally true while 26% believed but thought the Bible shouldn’t be taken literally.
Although Christmas is now far more celebrated, the resurrection is the core tenet of Christianity and Easter is its most important festival. No resurrection, no Christianity. To quote the Bible: Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live. (John 11:25) And yet more than two thirds of Christians don’t believe that.
Sidebar: I wrote about how Jesus is not the only one claiming to be resurrected here.
Belief and church attendance have been falling for quite some time. The figures for belief in this survey are slightly better than those in a YouGov survey from last year which found that only 46% of people identify as Christian. This was a much bigger survey and so is more likely to represent the population as a whole (nearly 12,000 as opposed to around 2,000 people). The YouGov survey also found that more people believe in ghosts than in a Creator.
According to the current survey, 37% of people identifying as Christian never go to Church. Another survey by the Church of England itself found that only 2% of the population go to the Church of England at Easter. The flock really has strayed far from the Good Shepherd (probably because they know he’s going to herd them off to the slaughterhouse so we can all eat our traditional Easter roast lamb and rosemary).
The survey also looked at belief in life after death. It found that only 46% of people said they believed in it and the same number said they didn’t. If you don’t believe in an afterlife then the Church’s carrot and stick tactics are not going to work on you.
Sidebar: of those who do believe in an afterlife, 56% were women and 36% were men. I looked at why women may believe more than men in many kinds of supernatural phenomena (and non-evidence based medicines) here.
The Church is fighting a rearguard action and trying to spin the findings that 20% of the non-religious believe in some sort of life after death and that 9% of non-believers do believe that the resurrection happened.
The Bishop of Manchester, the Right Reverend David Walker,said: "This important and welcome survey proves that many British people, despite not being regular churchgoers, hold core Christian beliefs”. He describes the results as “surprisingly high levels of religious belief among those who follow no specific religion, often erroneously referred to as secularists or atheists”.
Let’s unpack this a bit. Firstly, the Church doesn’t have a monopoly in life after death belief. About a third of the people (32%) who believed in some sort of life after death believe in reincarnation, hardly a Christian doctrine.
Secondly, 9% believing in the resurrection is not a ‘surprisingly high level’ when you look more closely and see that these are people who ‘do not belong to a religious group’ according to the survey. They are not identified as non-believers or claiming to be atheist or secular, he’s just grasping at straws because any kind of belief, however small or tenuous is better than nothing. He does deserve credit for his top skills at ignoring all the stats that don’t reflect well on the Church though. That’s quite an impressive mental contortionist act.
Thirdly, he is conflating atheists and secularists. Atheism means no belief in God whereas secularism is a political belief in the need for separation of Church and State. You can be religious and secular, as many people are.
Like a lot of Easter eggs, the Bishop’s claims are hollow and crack under the slightest pressure.
There is also dissension in the Christian ranks. Reverend Dr Lorraine Cavenagh is the acting general secretary for Modern Church, which promotes liberal Christian theology. She said "Science, but also intellectual and philosophical thought has progressed. It has a trickle-down effect on just about everybody's lives.
"So to ask an adult to believe in the resurrection the way they did when they were at Sunday school simply won't do and that's true of much of the key elements of the Christian faith."
A cynical person might say that the Church wants us all to believe like children at Sunday School do. Many of these children also believe in Santa.
Would it be mean to point out that in 2002 a survey found that a third of Church of England clergy don’t believe in the physical resurrection? That’s a bit of an own goal. It’s also unfair to people who do believe if they’re being led by people who don’t.
These findings follow the Cadbury Easter egg fiasco where self-proclaimed vicar’s daughter Theresa May and Archbishop Sentamu got very hot under the dog collar about Cadbury’s and the National Trust dropping the word Easter from their eggs and egg hunt. I wrote about that here (short version – it’s not true).
Does any of this really matter to most of us who are more interested in hot cross buns, chocolate eggs and maybe some roast lamb next Sunday?
The Bishop of Manchester also said: "This demonstrates how important beliefs remain across our society and hence the importance both of religious literacy and of religion having a prominent place in public discourse."
This is the crux of the matter. The Church will not give up its power and influence. It will not give up unelected bishops in the House of Lords or its tax-free benefits or state-funded Church schools and hospital chaplains or its general right to meddle in people’s lives. It wants the right to cherry-pick who gets to go to its schools, to mislead children in sex education classes and to discriminate against women and non-hetero cis men.
Church leaders are deluding themselves about the relevance of their beliefs and their jobs in a multi-cultural society. Yes, this country has a Christian heritage, religion has shaped society and history but it is not the sole influence. Societies evolve and the Church is looking increasingly like a dinosaur just before the meteors hit. Or, to add another simile, the Church is like a ferret that will not let go once its jaws have locked on.
However, this survey is no reason for celebration. Politicians won’t do anything to secularise the country because they’re afraid of losing votes. Anglicans (Church of England) are more likely to vote Tory, for a start. This government is very good at ignoring research it doesn’t like in any area and at dismissing ‘experts’ as irrelevant.
So the Church of England has the last laugh. Whatever surveys show, there is no prospect of change any time soon. It’s much easier to hold onto power than to gain it. Inertia, cowardice and the status quo prevail.
** Palm Sunday is the one before Easter where the Bible says Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey and people waved palm leaves at him.