Science and religion: Awards scheme could be worth £10,000 to your church

A bee sucks nectar from a sunflower: understanding the natural world can enhance our faithReuters

 Do science and religion go together? Not if you pay attention to social media posts claiming science has somehow 'disproved' religion. In some parts of both the Christian and the wider world, they're seen as being opposed to each other.

That's a perception a project based at St John's College, Durham is out to change.

Funded by the Templeton Foundation, the Equipping Christian Leadership in an Age of Science project is aimed at helping Christians understand how to engage with science today. The three-year ecumenical project – a partnership between the University of Durham and the Church of England – plans to carry out research into the attitudes of clergy, offer theological resources and advice on complex questions and run conferences on issues of concern. Topics will include cosmology, suffering, transhumanism and evolution.

As part of that, it's running an awards scheme that will provide up to £10,000 to churches that want to work with experts to engage their congregations with science. Among the criteria for support from the Scientists in Congregations project are that schemes have to be proposed by 'professional practitioners' in science, that they enable local groups of Christians to build confidence in science and that they "seek to change the conversation between the Church and the scientific world".

Christian Today spoke to project manager Rev Dr Kathryn Pritchard. She said all kinds of ideas could be considered, including exhibitions, lectures and environmental projects in ancient churchyards. She instanced one Baptist minister with a scientific background who was concerned about young boys in his community and started a 'Messy science' programme for them involving hands-on experiments. "It's not expensive, but it's highly effective," she said.

Another Anglican minister with a scientific background, Dr Vicky Johnson – now a canon at Ely Cathedral – has written about how she used her training with the congregation of St Michael's, Flixton, in the Diocese of Manchester.

Among other things they put together a service celebrating the legacy of Charles Darwin and studied the first two chapters of Genesis. They also held nature-discovery days in the churchyard with 'bug hunts' and a 'leaf quiz' for children and held a 'Science Sunday' when the church was decorated with circling planets and spirals of DNA.

Johnson told Christian Today: "In every church congregation, there will be someone with an interest in science or someone who works in the fields of science, medicine or information technology. We are all dependent on the discoveries of science in our daily lives, from antibiotics to mobile phones, chemotherapy to computers.

"There are many scientists who have a Christian faith and there are a many organisations and churches, where discussions between scientists and Christians are encouraged, for example Christians in Science, The Society of Ordained Scientists, and the Faraday Institute.

"Here at Ely Cathedral we are currently planning a Science Festival and the 'God and the big bang' project brings together leading scientists, Christians and school children to explore these issues." 

She said congregations were generally interested in science rather than threatened by it. "The reality is, these issues affect everyone's life and science is not a subject the Christian can ignore; our approach to science and scientific discoveries has a real impact on the mission of the church in contemporary culture."

She added: "By engaging with science, churches can actually reach out to people. This is a mission issue. By embracing science the church can really engage with people where they are, and also provide a space for ethical dialogue with scientists and the wider community."

Pritchard said that while generally there was an issue in wider society about how people saw science and how confident they are in talking about it, for Christians there could be a "conflict narrative in the way they are taught to think about it and about wider scientific developments". But, she added, "It is possible to change the narrative."

Of the awards scheme she said: "There is a huge public appetite for discussion about the science-faith relationship and previous projects have attracted high levels of interest, not only from regular church members but also from the wider community.

"The Scientists in Congregations programme is designed to demonstrate that bringing science into conversation with theology and vice versa is vital for our understanding of contemporary life."

Similar programmes have been initiated in the US, Canada and more recently Scotland, where the scheme has funded a range of projects, including pilgrimage walking trails, a Nativity play where science and faith are considered and 'Dinosaur Sunday' services. More than 20 churches have so far signed up to be part of it.

The project criteria can be found here. The deadline for applications is May 3.