Anglicanism and the Natural Sciences

By Alister McGrath

The news that a new Anglican Communion Science Commission is being established is to be welcomed, not least because it ensures that Anglicanism will be prepared to engage an increasingly confident scientific culture that often challenges traditional beliefs and attitudes. There is a need for Anglicans to be aware of both the scientific and theological aspects of debates focusing both on the general cultural authority of science and specific debates in which scientific advance raises significant religious questions. Yet it is also important to be reassured that the Anglican tradition has the capability of engaging with these questions, critically and transformatively.

Happily, Anglicanism has a long history of informed engagement with a scientific culture, and provided the religious context that enabled and encouraged the development of the natural sciences in early modern England. It is important that this legacy should be sustained and extended, given the global reach of both Anglicanism and the natural sciences.

It is widely agreed that the development of what used to be known as the “Scientific Revolution” of the later 17th century (but which scholars now prefer to designate the “emergence of a scientific culture”) was shaped significantly by Anglicanism. This development partly reflects the aftermath of the English Civil War of 1642-51, which led to social, political and religious fragmentation, and seriously threatened England’s future as a European power. The restoration of the monarchy in 1660 signaled the beginning of a more settled period in English culture. Yet a highly significant development took place later that year: the establishment of the Royal Society of London, which rapidly became the focus of the new experimental philosophy that we now call “natural science.”

The new science was seen as capable of bringing together leading members of the English intellectual elite in an atmosphere of toleration and respect. Its distinctive focus on evidence avoided the political and religious polemics of the recent English past. It seemed to some that there was a natural affinity between the Church of England and the natural sciences.

Perhaps this might help explain the remarkable synergy of religion and science that emerged in the later 17th century, seen in the works of Robert Boyle, whose advocation of what he called “physico-theology” seemed to offer a fertile middle ground between religion and science. Yet most historians point to Isaac Newton’s Principia (1687) — or, to give the work its full title, “The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy” — as marking the point at which the emerging natural sciences were seen as capable of making sense of a complex universe, and at the same time apparently reinforcing belief in a creator God, who had brought an ordered universe into existence. Many Anglican hymn books still contain Joseph Addison’s “Spacious Firmament on High,” widely seen as a celebration of the religious significance of Newton’s ordered universe:

Th’unwearied Sun, from day to day,

Does his Creator’s Pow’r display,

And publishes to every Land

The Work of an Almighty Hand.

Newton’s focus on the regularity of the natural world was supplemented in the 18th century by a growing appreciation of the complexity of the biological world, which was also seen as pointing to the wisdom of a creator God. A new religiously motivated public interest in natural history began to emerge. The Anglican clergyman William Paley’s Natural Theology (1802) argued that the complexity of biological structures — such as the human eye — pointed to a divine designer and creator. God was the “watchmaker” who created a complex and beautiful world. How could such complex structures have come into existence by themselves?

The credibility of Paley’s approach was, of course, seriously undermined by Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection, set out in The Origin of Species (1859). Yet Darwin did not see his new theory of biological origins as conflicting with traditional religious beliefs. He responded positively to the suggestion of the Anglican cleric Charles Kingsley, a critic of William Paley’s “dogma of the permanence of species,” that God was perfectly capable of creating things with a capacity for innate development. Darwin’s growing agnosticism had nothing to do with his views on evolution, but focused more on his unease about some theological views relating to eternal punishment that were prominent in some sections of the English churches of this period.

By the 1880s, Kingsley’s mediating approach to Christianity and evolution had gained wide acceptance within influential sections of the Church of England. Frederick Temple — later to become Archbishop of Canterbury –—developed this approach in his 1884 Bampton Lectures at Oxford University, when he declared that God “did not make the things, we may say; no, but He made them make themselves.” Although “New Atheist” writers such as Richard Dawkins have portrayed Anglican clerics of this period as scientifically ignorant opponents of Darwin, the historical evidence does not support this view. Darwin was buried in Westminster Abbey with the full support of both the scientific establishment and the Dean of Westminster.

While Anglican thinkers have subsequently made significant contributions to the theory and practice of the natural sciences internationally, particularly in Australasia and North America, I propose to focus on two writers who I believe might well be of particular service to the Anglican Communion Science Commission as it reflects on how best to offer a responsible theological engagement with the natural sciences. I shall focus on John Habgood, a former Archbishop of York, and John Polkinghorne, a former professor of mathematical physics at Cambridge University, who resigned his chair in order to follow his calling to be an Anglican priest. Though their contributions are quite distinct, they share some significant themes from which we can learn. Happily, there are many others who could easily be added to this discussion, enriching it by their diversity across scientific disciplines and national boundaries.

John Habgood was an atheist when he first arrived at Cambridge University to study the natural sciences, but soon found himself drawn to Christianity. (For a full analysis of Habgood on science and religion, see my essay “An Undivided Mind: John Habgood on Science and Religion.” Journal of Anglican Studies 19, no. 1 (2021): 68-83.). The books that Habgood recalls reading in 1950 are indicative of his growing appreciation of the intellectual and imaginative aspects of Anglicanism, including William Temple’s three major works, Mens Creatrix, Christus Veritas, and Nature, Man and God. Like many scientists at Cambridge who were interested in the relation of science and faith, he found the writings of the leading Anglican theologian Charles Raven — then at the height of his influence — helpful and important in framing a positive relationship between evolution and religious faith.

Although Habgood went on to research in physiology at Cambridge, he was becoming increasingly aware that there was a world beyond science that needed engaging. His concerns about scientific provincialism led him to leave scientific research behind, and enter the ministry of the Church of England. He expressed those concerns lucidly ten years after this momentous decision: “It is the perennial temptation of science to become immersed in some tiny fraction of the whole field of knowledge, and then to derive all their criteria of judgment from this one fraction.” Habgood’s concern was that the scientific research community tended to disengage from a wider discussion of ethical and political concerns into its own “tiny fraction of the whole field of knowledge.”

For Habgood, public engagement required a commitment to recognizing the importance of such questions in the first place, and allowing the various “fractions” of human knowledge and insight to be correlated with each other — a task which Habgood considered integral to the public ministry of the church. This, it must be stressed, remains a major concern that needs to be engaged today. In 1964, Habgood noted that many of the questions he was asked to discuss in the field of science and religion during his visits to English schools were not about the compatibility of science and faith, but rather focused on “the moral choices confronting scientists in the practical use of their discoveries.” During Habgood’s period as Bishop of Durham and then as Archbishop of York, he championed public debate of the ethical problems posed by scientific advance, based on the need to engage in respectful and informed dialogue across disciplinary boundaries.

Perhaps Habgood’s most important intervention in the field of science and religion during his time as Archbishop of York took place in 1998, when the Athenaeum Club initiated a series of lectures intended to engage major cultural issues of concern. Habgood was invited to give the first such lecture, with the title — suggested by the Athenaeum — “Theology and the Sciences.” The lecture represents a remarkable piece of intellectual and professional diplomacy, positioning theology as a viable sphere of discourse in its own right, while at the same time countering possible misgivings and making connections with the interests and concerns of its intended audience.

Noting that the Athenaeum’s first secretary was none other than the great Victorian scientist Michael Faraday, Habgood pointed out how the fostering of dialogue and reflection between science and religion was integral to the Athenaeum’s founding vision. While the ideas contained in that lecture are significant, its importance for the work of the Anglican Communion Science Commission lies in the Athenaeum’s decision to launch this flagship lecture series by explicitly engaging science and religion as both significant intellectual and cultural presences, and selecting Habgood as embodying the personal and professional virtues they regarded as integral to its purpose.

My second Anglican exemplar is John Polkinghorne, a Cambridge mathematician who rose to fame through his work on quantum theory, and was elected to a newly created professorship in mathematical physics in 1968. Yet like Habgood, with whom he overlapped at Cambridge, Polkinghorne felt called to some form of Anglican ministry. In 1979, aware that his best days as a theoretical physicist might now lie behind him, Polkinghorne resigned his Cambridge chair, and began to train for the priesthood of the Church of England at Westcott House, one of the Church’s two theological colleges in the city of Cambridge. He did not anticipate a return to the academic world, seeing his future as lying in the regular pastoral ministry of the Church of England.

Polkinghorne served in a number of pastoral positions in small Church of England parishes. His important work One World — which can be seen as a manifesto for his distinct approach to science and theology — was conceived during his period as curate of St. Michael and All Angels, Bedminster, and written while he served as vicar of the parish of St. Cosmus and St. Damian in Blean (a village in Kent, close to the cathedral city of Canterbury) in 1984-86. Give his personal history and intellectual agility, it was clear that Polkinghorne’s future ministry lay in the academy. He was invited to let his name be considered for various senior positions back at Cambridge, serving as Dean of Chapel at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, in 1986-89, and subsequently as President of Queen’s College, Cambridge, in 1989-96.

What distinguished Polkinghorne’s writings on science and religion from the outset was their accessibility and the clarity of their language. Perhaps because of his parish experience, Polkinghorne knew the importance of connecting with his audience, understanding the questions that they might have, and developing answers that resonated with their concerns and abilities. Polkinghorne’s approach to the relation of science and theology can be summarized in one of the straplines of one of his first published books on this theme: “Theology and science differ greatly in the nature of the subject of their concern. Yet each is attempting to understand aspects of the way the world is.”

Polkinghorne’s approach parallels, in many ways, that of the great Anglican divine Bishop Butler. Like Butler before him, Polkinghorne emphasized the congruence or resonance between Christian ways of understanding the world and those disclosed by science and reason. Where some other major voices in the field of science and religion during the 1980s distanced themselves from Christian orthodoxy, Polkinghorne explicitly adopted an incarnational and Trinitarian approach to this relationship. His 2004 volume Science and the Trinity shows this approach at its best.

A Trinitarian view of reality, Polkinghorne persuasively argued, offers a lens through which the successes and the limits of the scientific enterprise can be satisfactorily identified and explained. Science raises questions it cannot answer on the basis of its own methods, thus pointing the way to the need for a renewed theological engagement with nature. For Polkinghorne, science and faith have the potential to enrich each other’s partial understanding of our world. “Science offers an illuminating context within which much theological reflection can take place, but in its turn it needs to be considered in the wider and deeper context of intelligibility that a belief in God affords.”

Anglicanism, then, is rich in both historical and contemporary theological resources for exploring the relation of science and faith, and engaging the many questions which emerge from an increasingly influential global scientific culture. Both Habgood and Polkinghorne model an approach that is theologically and scientifically informed, yet which was stated clearly, accessibly, and above all graciously. It is clearly important both to nourish this tradition of engagement and reflection, and to ensure that this is used to engage in critical yet constructive dialogue with contemporary culture, particularly in emerging regions of the world.

The Anglican Communion Science Commission has the potential to be a major voice in this global conversation. It is perhaps one of the most significant initiatives within the global communion in recent memory, and deserves to succeed. In the past, we have perhaps had too many examples of consultations and commissions that have talked to each other, rather than engaged the wider world around us. This commission promises to be different; it clearly has the vision to have a significant effect on our changing world.


Alister McGrath is Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford.


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