Global crises underscore mutual importance of science and faith, say members of Anglican Communion Science Commission
Final instalment of Hearing the Lambeth Calls, a 10-part series on the calls to the global Anglican Communion made at the 2022 Lambeth Conference. This month’s call: Science and Faith.
Anglican bishops made an emphatic declaration when they gathered for the 2022 Lambeth Conference: “the perception of a rift between science and faith should be laid to rest in every part of our Anglican Communion over the coming critical decade.”
The perceived gap between science and faith, says the bishops’ statement—one of ten calls they made to Anglicans worldwide—shows itself in a lack of mutual engagement. “Often scientists have not been affirmed in their vocation as disciples and church leaders have not felt confident in bringing the wisdom of faith to scientific questions,” it states.
The call repeatedly refers to science as possessing “God-given resources for the life of faith.” Anglicans, it says, can evangelize “by removing it as a barrier to proclamation and belief ” and by drawing on science as inspiration for their worship. The call asks Anglicans to “enter into theological dialogue with science” and to grow in their own understanding of science as an integral part of Christian discipleship. It urges seminaries and training programs to do likewise, modelling “how the wisdom of faith can be offered to the work of science”; and for every church of the communion to establish a lead bishop for science.
The Lambeth Conference also saw the formal launch of the Anglican Communion Science Commission (ACSC), comprising scientists, church leaders and theologians from across the Communion with a mandate to lead work related to the call.
Bishop of Rupert’s Land Geoffrey Woodcroft, the Anglican Church of Canada’s representative on the ACSC, says all of the Lambeth calls “speak directly into discipleship.” For the call on science and faith, he pointed to floods, droughts and fires in Canada that have been linked to climate change.
“We think as a people of Canada that we’re at a loss for what to do,” Woodcroft says. “And yet the calls and scientific study have shown we actually have a great amount to do, particularly in education and in local action. How about we don’t drive so much? How about we recycle, reuse, we compost, we build green spaces and maintain them—in church speak, as sacred; in cultural speak, as absolutely necessary?”
Bishop of Oxford Steven Croft, ACSC co-chair, describes the Lambeth call on science and faith as “a response to the huge existential crises facing the world in climate and disease and use of technology for the future … This is a decade in which the church needs to be literate in its approach to science and also needs to be able to speak from our own Christian faith and tradition into scientific work in each of those three areas and indeed others.”
Other ACSC members share the view that science need not be seen as a threat to faith, including Andrew Briggs, professor of nanomaterials at the University of Oxford and ACSC commissioner. But Briggs takes issue with the Lambeth bishops’ call for “theological dialogue” between science and faith. It’s not entirely accurate to speak of dialogue between them, he says, since they are different systems of knowledge.
“I understand what people mean when they talk about a dialogue,” he says. “But it runs the risk of setting off people’s thinking in an unhelpful direction … For the follower of Jesus Christ whose mind is scientific, science is not really something that dialogues with their faith. It’s an outworking of their faith. That includes the curiosity that drives the discoveries in science and it also includes the values that drive the responsible use of science.
“Both science at its best and theology at its best care passionately about the truth,” Briggs adds. “They’re passionately seeking descriptions of what can truthfully be said about the material world and what can truthfully be said about God. If this is God’s creation, which I believe it is, then I don’t see how anything you could learn about it could conflict with anything that can truthfully be said about God.”
“I’ve always passionately believed that science is a ‘God-given resource for the life of faith,’ the work of the church,” he adds, echoing the words of the Lambeth call. “I also care that people of faith should speak courageously and confidently about the uses of science and the technologies that arise from science.”
Woodcroft recalls an event known as Evolution Sunday from his time as parish priest at St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Fort Garry in Winnipeg. On Evolution Sundays, he would invite a scientist to speak to the congregation—and one scientist, he says, illustrated with a particularly concrete example the different roles played by science and faith.
Woodcroft recounts one scientist who finished his talk by holding up a rock and looking at the parishioners. “He said, ‘Science has taught me that if I drop this rock right now, it will land on my foot and hurt me. That’s gravity, the theory of gravity.’ Then he looks at us again and he says, ‘Religion taught me not to throw it at you.’”
Historically, theological dialogue between science and faith has often focused on questions of biblical literalism, such as the 1925 Scopes trial in Tennessee that revolved around the teaching of evolution in schools. ACSC members who spoke to the Anglican Journal, however, said no such obstacles presented themselves in discussion of science within the Anglican Communion.
“The obstacles that we usually see are where a literal interpretation of scripture or a fundamentalist interpretation of Scripture can lead to an outright rejection of a scientific truth,” says Archbishop Linda Nicholls, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada and ACSC commissioner.
“That is not usually where the Canadian Anglican church finds itself. It’s not to say there aren’t people who struggle with some of [these questions], but for the most part, Anglicans recognize that God’s gift of thought and exploration is a gift to be welcomed and brought into dialogue with scripture.”
Climate change, COVID-19, artificial intelligence in focus
ACSC members describe broad enthusiasm for the Lambeth call on science from bishops across the Communion with a focus on practical issues, three in particular: climate change, COVID-19 and artificial intelligence (AI).
“We haven’t encountered obstacles,” Croft says. “I think because of the place of these three great crises in the life of the world and the role of science within them, there’s general agreement that we need to do work in this area, though less agreement perhaps on what that work might involve.”
Anglicans have increasingly highlighted the need to tackle climate change. At the Lambeth Conference, bishops from Bangladesh and Melanesia described the devastating effects of rising sea levels. In Melanesia, Briggs says, crops are increasingly unable to grow because of fertile land being submerged by salt water from the ocean. In that context, he asks, “How do people feed themselves and their families?”
The COVID-19 pandemic, Briggs says, also brought scientific questions to the fore for many Anglican church leaders and members.“
Any bishop who had previously perhaps given not as much thought to science … was [now] faced with issues of vaccine hesitancy and vaccine inequity … then with really practical questions like whether you should hold services in person,” he says. “If you don’t hold them in person, what do you do about holy communion?”
Woodcroft notes that in countries like Brazil, churches took the lead in advocating a pandemic response based on science. In 2021, a Brazilian congressional panel recommended that then-president Jair Bolsonaro be charged with crimes against humanity for his pandemic response—arguing that he intentionally let the virus spread in a failed bid to achieve “herd immunity.” Meanwhile, a conference of Roman Catholic bishops that year urged Brazilians to get vaccinated.
“The Brazilian [government’s] response to COVID-19 was, ‘Don’t worry about it,’” Woodcroft says. “And it was … pretty much all of the Christian churches that were protecting society, and not the government.”
Briggs says while AI offers significant benefits in areas such as health care and building quantum computers, it also brings potential for harm. He cites the use of AI by social media and data companies, which make money through advertisements and therefore have an economic incentive to maximize the amount of time people spend looking at screens.
“A lot of the public attention is on adolescents and young people and it’s right that they should be protected,” he says. “But actually there’s a lot of adults who don’t have the resilience to cope with the psychological sophistication that the AI applies to their use of their media … We already do have very significant Christian thought leaders who speak out about those things.”
One area where Anglicans engage in theological dialogue with science, Nicholls says, is in hospitals, where many serving chaplains providing pastoral care must grapple with the ethics of practices like medical assistance in dying (MAID).
Woodcroft agrees. “I believe that science informs us in very positive and hopeful ways to have conversations that are intelligent, fruitful and inclusive of the myriad of voices that are involved,” he says.
At the international level, Croft hopes the ACSC will provide a methodology for the Anglican Communion to engage in theological dialogue with science over the next 10 years. “In this early stage, we are very much in listening mode to try to develop a methodology and discover what will be helpful to different provinces in different places,” he says.