Earth Scientists, Bishops and Fracking … a heady mix at Durham

frackingDavid Wilkinson has a succinct way to say it: ‘Learn to see Science not as a secular threat, but as God’s Gift’. From that notion follows everything we are excited about. David is Principal of St. John’s College, Durham University, where I have just emerged, dazed, from a discussion of fracking that brought together theology, oil and gas engineering, earth science theory, local community politics, national policy frameworks, global environmental science and more in a group of bishops and scientists. How on earth did we get to this?

David and I have been working together since I joined the university in 2008 to find ways of helping the church, and the world beyond, to see and work with science in new ways. For some time we have been thinking through this germ of an idea – science as God’s gift – talking with others about it, writing books, working with congregations, graduate students, leaders of churches – more or less anyone who will listen and argue about it.

It’s a central thesis and consequence of Faith and Wisdom in Science, that the church theologically can, and politically must engage deeply with science, technology and their social setting.

It dawned upon us that there is a critical group of influential people that much of the ‘science and religion’ discussion either bypasses or forces onto the back foot: senior church leaders at the level of bishop or their equivalent in other denominations. How could we help these crucial opinion-formers, leaders and enablers to navigate what for many of them is unfamiliar territory (only a small minority have a science background) and yet one that is cited over and again as an area in which the church looks ill-equipped and on the defensive? After all, if ‘natural philosophy’ – ‘love of wisdom to do with natural things’, the more theologically-resonant name for ‘science’ – is really God’s gift, then our whole perspective on it changes. For a start, science would now need theological thinking alongside and in support of it, rather than in opposition or defence. It then follows that the repetitive conflict narrative that all too often glues itself to the ‘science and religion’ debate needs complete reframing. Science becomes a human mandate in continuity with the Biblical story of creation and re-creation, and the church a needed voice in the constructive guiding of the new technologies that offer both promise and risk. Scientists in congregations might even be able to feel wanted and valued, rather than hymn-singers on their day off, and scientists with no church connection at all ought to find natural conversation partners in bishops! That last conclusion is a radical prediction of our hypothesis that simply had to be tested.

But how to set about it? The John Templeton Foundation and Templeton World Charitable (TWC) trust came (afterjohns-32 considerable negotiation, discussion, and a pilot project – all long stories for another time) to our aid. TWC has just funded a four-year programme, supported by both Anglican archbishops and the Archbishops’ Council’s Mission and Public Affairs Division, and based at St. John’s College,Christian Leaders in an Age of Science’. It simultaneously supports five strands of work that explores the radical vision:

(i) a full-time researcher (Dr. Lydia Reid) working with Christian leaders nationally,

(ii) the development of material in the theology and ministry of science for ordinands (it’s handy that Durham now runs the Church of England’s Common Awards through St. John’s College),

(iii) a project manager (Revd. Dr. Kathryn Prichard) stationed in Church House, Westminster, who also co-ordinates a growing network of theological and scientific advice on science to the church’s Ministry and Public Affairs division.

(iv) a ‘Scientists in Congregations’ project sponsoring awards to churches of up to £10k that explore locally the consequences of a theology of science as gift-to-a-purpose.

And fifthly? A programme of 3-day workshops where the bishops and scientists work together – visiting labs, meeting young researchers, hearing about new research, exploring history and theology, thinking though new messages in the media … THAT’s where the fracking discussion happened. Just the first of six – this one on Earth Sciences but later we will be tackling complexity, the brain and mind, cosmology, the evolution of humans … most seem to be sold out already. I can’t wait.

(a modified version of this article was posted on the Church of England’s Website)

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