Churches mark 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth

|PIC1|Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution may have been a difficult pill for the church to swallow over the years but with the 200th anniversary of the naturalist’s birth on Thursday, churches today are celebrating his contribution to science and understanding God’s creation.

“Christians believe that God created the world. Charles Darwin gave the first successful scientific account of one important part of God’s creation: how life developed from the simplest of forms into the extraordinary variety that we see around us,” said the Rev Dr Philip Luscombe, Principal of Wesley House, Cambridge, and President of the Cambridge Theological Federation.

“In doing so, Darwin ruled out some of the ways in which many had assumed that God worked. But as he himself was clear, nothing that he wrote affected the majesty of God in creation.”

The Rev Jenny Ellis, Spirituality and Discipleship Officer at the Methodist Church, said that Darwin’s scientific theory of the mechanics of creation allowed people to appreciate the “faith truth” of the biblical stories and the “precious value and giftedness of God-inspired creation”.

“The stories convey the sense of the wonder and goodness of creation; of the creative, divine Spirit who brings it into being and sustains it; of creation’s deep inter-connectedness, its rhythm and balance,” she said.

Dr Luscombe said that Darwin’s work revealed the power of the theory of evolution through natural selection and paved the way for modern science.

“The human genome project is only the latest example of research which is ultimately inspired by Darwin. All modern biological science relies on the foundation Darwin provided,” he said.

Their comments come as prominent scientists and leading religious figures published a letter in The Daily Telegraph calling for an end to the fight over Darwin's theory.

"Evolution, we believe, has become caught in the crossfire of a religious battle in which Darwin himself had little personal interest," wrote the signatories, which included two Church of England bishops, a spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain and a member of the Evangelical Alliance.

"We respectfully encourage those who reject evolution to weigh the now overwhelming evidence, hugely strengthened by recent advances in genetics, which testifies to the theory's validity," the letter stated. "At the same time, we respectfully ask those contemporary Darwinians who seem intent on using Darwin's theory as a vehicle for promoting an anti-theistic agenda to desist from doing so as they are, albeit unintentionally, turning people away from the theory."

"In this year of all years, we should be celebrating Darwin's great biological achievements and not fighting over his legacy as some kind of anti-theologian."

2009 also marks the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” in which he set out his theory of evolution, and churches are marking both anniversaries with special seminars, exhibitions and events.

“We join in celebrating the life and work of Darwin because he helped us all to see better the intricacy of God’s creation, and forced us to wrestle once more with the eternal problems of good and evil,” Dr Luscombe added.

The Church of England is marking the anniversaries with the launch of a new section on its website highlighting the “forgotten” church work done by Darwin in his local parish of Downe in Kent.

The section has been launched by the Church to demonstrate that science and church work are not mutually exclusive and that although Darwin lost his own faith in the Christian religion, he still supported the church and did not become anti-religious.

Articles tell of how Darwin used to supervise church and school finances, was founder and treasurer for 30 years of a “Friendly Club”, and ran the local Coal and Clothing Fund for 21 years.

The Rt Rev Dr Lee Rayfield, Bishop of Swindon and a former biological scientist, said, “This bicentenary is providing a much needed opportunity to gather a more rounded appreciation of Charles Darwin, his life and his work. I hope these pages will assist broader reflection on the relationship between religious conviction and scientific endeavour in ways which will be creative for our own time.”

Earlier in the week, the head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, described Darwin in a Times column as “one of Britain’s most extraordinary scientists” and called his theory of evolution “one of the greatest discoveries of all time”.

Father Giuseppe Tanzella-Nitti, Professor of Theology at the Pontifical Santa Croce University in Rome, said that St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas had drawn similar conclusions to Darwin about the development of the natural world, according to The Telegraph.

Atheists and Christians continue to disagree on Darwin's theory. According to a survey of more than 2,000 people, recently published by religion think tank Theos, more than half of Britons believe the theory of evolution cannot explain the complexity of the natural world. One in three said they thought God created the Earth within the past 10,000 years.

In 2002, Charles Darwin was voted the fourth greatest Briton on the BBC’s 100 Greatest Britons poll. He followed Winston Churchill, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Princess Diana.