Talk publicly about science? “I was clenching my buttocks” says the bishop

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Clergy are interested in science but lack the confidence to discuss it in public, according to a new report.

The research, conducted by Equipping Christian Leadership in an Age of Science (ECLAS), surveyed 1,100 clerics, mostly from the Church of England, and interviewed 32 senior church leaders and educators.

Most church leaders surveyed (91%) said they had conversations about science, including climate change, evolution and the origins of the universe; 85% had researched, read or watched a TV show about science in the past year. But the report found a “disconnect” between personal enthusiasm for science and confidence in discussing it in the public domain.

The Bishop of Oxford, Dr. Steven Croft, who co-chairs the Anglican Communion’s Scientific Commission (News, May 28, 2021), welcomed the findings, which were released last week. He said Tuesday, “The report underscores both the sense of the importance for the church to confidently engage with science, and the fact that many clergy feel out of their comfort zone and ill-equipped in this dialogue. However, there is some very good news in the report that personal connections, training and encouragement can lead to more positive engagement.

The paper, Generate enthusiasm and overcome fear: commit with Christian leaders in the age of sciencewas written by Dr Lydia Reid with final remarks by the Principal of St John’s College, Durham, the Reverend Professor David Wilkinson, co-director of the project at ECLAS.

Summarizing the findings, Dr Reid said: “One of the main observations that emerges is that, although the relationship between science and religion is portrayed as a ‘conflict’ relationship in the media, it was not not the prevailing view among church leaders and educators I surveyed and interviewed. Indeed, many church leaders were enthusiastic and appreciative of the science, viewing the relationship as one of ‘integration’ or ‘dialogue’.

“Nevertheless, the conflict thesis had framed how church leaders related to science – with expressions of fear and uncertainty reported by church leaders, and in the clear omission of scientific topics in ordination training in a British context.”

The report identifies the “conflict thesis” of the interaction between science and religion as supported by the media, but found that only 0.2% of clergy saw the relationship in terms of “conflict” – against 51% who saw it as “integration” and 45% who saw it as “dialogue”.

Professor Wilkinson writes: “The stubborn existence of the conflict model alongside its use in public discourse by famous scientists immediately puts church leaders in a defensive position.”

Asked by the researchers, “Would you participate in a local radio interview about science and Christianity?” an unnamed Church of England bishop replied, “I would run a mile! Another bishop replied, “I was squeezing my buttocks!

Professor Wilkinson, who holds a PhD in theoretical astrophysics, writes: “We must not overlook the power of senior church leaders modeling an engagement with science that is not characterized by fear. Fear and hesitation about science on the part of senior church leaders has a ripple effect that is eroding trust in clergy and laity alike.

The report identifies pre-ordination training as essential to giving clergy the confidence to engage in science in the public domain. ECLAS operates a “Science for Seminaries” program to encourage the integration of scientific subjects into theological education.

Dr Croft welcomed this work and said: ‘I would encourage dioceses to carefully consider what is offered through the CMD and ensure that confident engagement with science is on the agenda’ .

The full report is available in the most recent edition of Zygonan academic journal focused on the interactions of religion and science.

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