Defining Forgiveness: Christian Clergy and General Population Perspectives


concerning this article may be sent to: Ann Macaskill, Center for the Study of Human Behavior, Sheffield Hallam University, Southbourne, Collegiate Crescent Campus, Sheffield S10 2BP, United Kingdom. E-mail:


Abstract The lack of any consensual definition of forgiveness is a serious weakness in the research literature (McCullough, Pargament, & Thoresen, 2000). As forgiveness is at the core of Christianity, this study returns to the Christian source of the concept to explore the meaning of forgiveness for practicing Christian clergy. Comparisons are made with a general population sample and social science definitions of forgiveness to ensure that a shared meaning of forgiveness is articulated. Anglican and Roman Catholic clergy (N=209) and a general population sample (N=159) completed a postal questionnaire about forgiveness. There was agreement on the existence of individual differences in forgiveness. Clergy and the general population perceived reconciliation as necessary for forgiveness while there was no consensus within psychology. The clergy suggest that forgiveness is limitless and that repentance is unnecessary, while the general population suggests that there are limits and that repentance is necessary. Psychological definitions do not conceptualize repentance as necessary for forgiveness, and the question of limits has not been addressed, although, within therapy, the implicit assumption is that forgiveness is limitless.