Leicester Secular Society

Sections on this page: My email to the BishopsThe Replies of the BishopsThe Archbishop's sermonMy Darwin Day articleThe Reply by Bishop of LeicesterThe Reply by Imam Ibrahim MograThe Archbishop's interviewEnd.

Evolution and the Church of England

In June 2004 I sent an email to a number of the Bishops of the Church of England trying to get them to make some sort of official pronouncement of the church's view on evolution and creationism. Below I give the email and some of the replies I received. I undertook not to reveal the names of the respondents. Many Bishops did not reply or decilned to comment. Previously only the Bishop of Oxford had spoken out on the subject, and there was nothing on official Church of England websites. There is still very little.

I also wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury, and subsequently exchanged letters with one of his advisers. The response was that this was a scientific controversy and not the business of the church. In my last letter to him I pointed out that the church was prepared to get involved in the question of climate change, which is a genuine scientific controversy (less so now), while creationism was really theological. In December 2005 the Archbishop in a sermon at Darwin's old (theological) College, praised his devotion to truth, but did not explicitly endorse his findings.

Since the Bishop of Leicester was one of those who failed to respond, I used the opportunity of writing a 'First person' column for the Leicester Mercury for Darwin Day, 11 February, 2006 to issue a challenge to the Church of England Bishops to publish something in support of Darwin's Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection. This time a reply was received from the Bishop of Leicester (and, as a bonus, from the Imam Ibrahim Mogra). These are reproduced below.

Soon after, in an interview with The Guardian on 21 March 2006, the Archbishop of Canterbury issued a pronouncement on the subject. Links and extracts are provided below.


My email to the Bishops, 1 June 2004

I am seeking to find if the Church of England takes any official view on the debate between evolutionists and creationists. You may be aware that the Roman Catholic Church has recently issued a document on this subject. I am concerned that, because of the Church's failure to take a clear stance on this subject, the field is being left open to those with more extreme views.

If there is no official policy would you be willing to express your own belief on this subject? For example, to simplify matters, would you describe yourself as an evolutionist or creationist? Alternatively, since there are shades of opinion on both sides, you may prefer to express your view in more detail.

I have sent this same question to other church leaders, so I hope you will be able to respond personally rather than to refer me to another department, since I feel that this is an important subject that ought not to be disregarded.

Yours Sincerely, George Jelliss


Replies of the Bishops on evolution/creation

Since I undertoook not to reveal names I simply number the replies, some of which have been edited slightly to avoid details that might reveal the authors.

1. I do not think that the opposition "creationist/evolutionist" makes for understanding of what is really at stake.

2. The Church of England would contain both evolutionists and creationists although you will be aware that both terms cover a wide variety of views. It is not the way of working of the Church of England to issue definitive statements on issues such as this, but if you wanted to discover more of the Church's thinking on the subject, you could contact Claire Foster at the Communication and Public Affairs Department at Church House, London.

3. I don't think there is an official C of E view on this matter. For my part - and I write as someone with a degree in science - I accept the historical fact of a process of evolution, but I do not accept that there is any conclusive, or even strong, evidence that the process has only been guided by random mutation and the survival of the fittest. I incline to the view that there are morphogenetic forces/fields which biologists have yet to understand. I do not rule out specific divine interventions, if I may use a rather bald phrase. [In this case I wrote again to ask for clarification whether this referred to Sheldrake's ideas, and got a further reply]: I was happy to respond to your enquiry, but my response was not designed for publication. You may refer in general to my response, but please don't read into it a specific support for Sheldrake tout force.

4. The Church of England has plenty of published material about creation. See, for example, Being Human (2003) a report of the Doctrine Commission or the earlier The Mystery of Salvation (1995). Keith Ward's Religion and Creation I (1996) would be relevant, as would many of John Polkinghorne's books including Science and Creation (1988) and many of his later writings. These would represent mainstream Anglican opinion, in which creationism has little place but an understanding of the creation as an act of divine love is fundamental. The Lambeth Conference 1998 Statement on the Environment has a significant section on creation and may well be regarded as an official statement. The Church has often endorsed the scientific thinking of one age to find itself widowed in the next. To present evolution as a single, coherent theory seems to me overstating it, though I have no difficulty in understanding creation as both a divine act and one in which creatures and the created environment evolves. Hope this helps a bit.

5. I do not know who you are, but am quite prepared to give a brief answer to your question. I think I am an evolutionist who is also a creationist! What I am not, and that is what ‘creationist’ has come to mean, is a creation-from-nothing-in-six-days-in-4004BC creationist. I am very conservative in my understanding of the Scriptures, but do not believe that the description of events of the beginning of the world, which are necessarily put into the terminology we understand, but must point to greater realities, for which we probably have no ready language, as it is beyond our ken, are not to be written in a woodenly literal way. / None of the above bears upon the actual fact of creation, of creation ex nihilo, and the relationship of creator to creation which is thereby established.

6. You’re right that the subject is important. But asking the question as an either/or is like asking whether yellow is square or round. I am not a specialist in this area and would defer to those who are, such as Alister McGrath and John Polkinghorne.

7. There is no Church of England policy on the matter. However, most members of the Church of England would take the line summarised in the following piece from The Guardian. I am not aware of many six day creationists in the CofE. Most of us would see God as Creator, and evolution as part of the process of creation. [The article cited was as follows, but I have been unable to find a link to it, and not wishing to breach copyright laws give just the title and an extract: Tania Brannigan, Saturday March 16, 2002, The Guardian. Creationists 'harm religion'. Bishop attacks school's 'extraordinary' approach. The Bishop of Oxford yesterday fuelled the row over creationism in state funded schools by accusing teachers who promote anti-evolutionary theories of bringing Christianity into disrepute. / In an unusually outspoken statement for a senior Church of England clergyman, the Rt Rev Richard Harries said he was saddened that Christians should oppose evolution, which "far from undermining faith, deepens it". / The Anglican and Catholic hierarchies accept evolution, ... in Radio 4's Thought For The Day slot, the Rt Rev Harries expressed his dismay that such ideas were being promoted. / "Historians of science note how quickly the late Victorian Christian public accepted evolution," he said. "It is therefore quite extraordinary that 140 years later, after so much evidence has accumulated, that a school in Gateshead is opposing evolutionary theory on alleged biblical grounds. Do some people really think that the worldwide scientific community is engaged in a massive conspiracy to hoodwink the rest of us?" / The bishop, who described science as a "God-given activity", added: "I find what this school is doing sad ... the theory of evolution, far from undermining faith, deepens it. ..."]

8. My answers to the questions you asked in your email are / "No", "Why?" and "neither/both" / yours sincerely.

9. Evolutionist as part of an understanding of God's creative activity.

10. I'm definitely an evolutionist. I regard the creationist approach as hopelessly ill-conceived and an obstacle to the spreading of the gospel. We must not ask people to leave their brains outside when they engage with Christian thought!

11. I am not sure that the Church of England has any official view on the debate between evolutionists and creationists. I personally describe myself as a "critical evolutionist".

12. Thank you for your email of 1 June 2004. Personally I do not put people in boxes - who are the creationists? Who are the evolutionists? My belief is in a loving God who created the way and sent his only begotten son to redeem the world and in the fullness of time will return ushering in a new heaven and a new earth where sin, death and evil will be no more. And at present, according to Romans 8:19-23 "the whole of Creation is groaning in labour pains longing to be set free from its bondage to decay". Is that creationist/evolutionist?

13. I am a historian rather than a biologist and cannot pretend to give a definitive answer on this one, particularly when all sorts of philosophical presuppositions lie behind the phrases. Simply put I think that God used Evolution as his main creative tool but I do not subscribe to the evolutionary philosophy that thinks that everything is always making progress towards perfection in this world.

14. (By an archdeacon). The Bishop has asked me to reply to your questions about evolution and creation. / The Church of England has no official view in the simplistic sense of saying that it is either creationist or evolutionist. There are people, bishops included, who take a whole spectrum of views on this subject. / My own view is that I believe in a Creator God, and that he created ex nihilo as Hebrews says. However, I do not believe that the 7 days of creation in Genesis 1 are literally a week as we experience it today. Neither do I believe that the creation took place in ~ 4,000 BC like Archbishop Usher. / I do think that there is evidence for cosmological evolution of the universe and our own galaxy and solar system. I also think that there is evidence for micro-evolution within species, but I do think that evolution of the species is only a hypothesis and that there is a lot which cannot be explained. / It is difficult to deal with this subject in a few words, but basically I am neither a Creationist nor an Evolutionist in the extreme use of those terms. I believe that the Scriptures are the Word of God; that science is “thinking God’s thoughts after him”; that God is creator and sustainer of the universe; that geological and biological “evolution” need not be contrary to biblical faith.

15. I am very happy to give my view on the evolution/creation debate. However, I would like a little more information as to what use you putting this view? Church leaders do tend to get a lot of requests like these and it would be helpful to have a little more information as to the research you are undertaking and what you intend to do with it. / Having said that I would not describe myself as an evolutionist or a creationist. I believe that evolution is God’s way of creating. Evolution is the best available explanation we have at the moment to describe the way in which God creates. There is still much more we have to learn about God’s creation and about the activity of the creator God. Scientific enquiry and discovery is the God-given way in which we understand both the Creator and the Creation.

16. Historians of science remark how quickly the Christian public accepted the theory of evolution in the 1870s. As Frederick Temple, later Archbishop of Canterbury, put it at the time “God doesn’t just make the world, he does something much more wonderful, he makes the world make itself”. I would say that that has, basically, been the position of the Church of England ever since then and is certainly mine. I find it quite extraordinary that American bible-belt fundamentalism should be creeping into this country.

17. I don’t think there’s an official document, though there’s a wide range of science/faith material which does express a view. For myself I don’t see why there’s the slightest inconsistency between accepting a scientific account of the evolution of the world and a conviction that God created it.

18. I don’t think the Church of England does take any official view on the debate between Evolutionists and Creationists. / As far as my own views are concerned, I only respond to surveys which are ‘official’ ones. With unofficial enquiries made by individuals one has no control over how the information supplied may be used or, indeed, how it may be quoted publicly.

19. I am certainly not a 'creationist', but hold firmly to the view that God is 'Creator' of the world and indeed the universe. I also believe that human beings are made 'in the image of God'. I do not regard this belief as incompatible with some form of evolutionary development. As far as I know, this is the view of most mainstream church leaders nowadays.

20. [The following was sent as an attachment}: 1 July 2004 / Dear Mr Jelliss / Thank you for your e-mail of 1 June. It is difficult to know how to respond. There is no official Church of England position, as far as I can tell. There are, however, many experts in the area who are Anglican. I refer you to the work of Professor Sam Berry, Dr Arthur Peacock and Bishop Hugh Montefiore. / As you will be aware, it is quite possible to believe in a God who creates and provides whilst also holding to some kind of evolutionary view. The ability of organisms to adapt to and be adapted by their environment seems to indicate the ways in which ends are achieved in a flexible and developing world. I am sure that there has been some kind of 'evolution of the species'. What I am not sure about is that it has taken place only by natural selection through random mutation as the neo-Darwinians claim. Where organic processes seem essential to survival, how did an organism survive until they developed? There is also the question of the concatenations of beneficial mutations in complex organisms which are finely coordinated for the well-being of the organism. Is all of this random? Even if randomness were to be granted as the main cause of evolution, one would still have to ask about the exact conditions necessary for the emergence and development of life and also the kind of thing organic life is so that it can mutate so wonderfully. / Michael Behe and others are showing that the complexity of the cell is such that it simply cannot be explained by the old kind of neo-Darwinism and that some kind of teleology has to be involved. You may wish to refer to Citizen and Exiles: Christians in a Plural World (SPCK 1998) and also to a Church of England Report of a body called The Search for Faith and the Witness of the Church (CHP, 1996). / I hope this is enough for the moment and thank you for asking an interesting question. / In Christ's service.


Archbishops sermon at Christ's College Cambridge

In Decemnber 2005 the Archbishop of Canterbury in a sermon at Christ's Colege, Cambridge, paid tribute to Charles Darwin as seeker after truth, but did not explicitly endorse his findings. Here is the relevant extract:

Darwin, patiently charting an unexplored territory, indeed, a territory which a good many of his contemporaries thought to be as fantastic as any Narnia, is a hero indeed. You watch him as he is driven into deeper and deeper anxiety, the fixed points dissolving again and again as each theory proves less than adequate for the complexities of the ordered or disordered world: lonely and unwell, labouring over the proofs (in every sense) of his books, grieving for family tragedies; gradually realising that he has single-handedly begun to destroy one culture and create another. He is a very particular kind of icon of liberty. Free enquiry, whatever the cost; what if the truth demands that the world be remade, that reality be divided up in ways never known before? Truth is worth the price. / For Darwin, the price was heavy. He was never to be a conventional academic; he moved restlessly from one area of research to another, taking extraordinary risks with his reputation. He was constantly willing to start again. In the climate of most twenty-first century universities, he would probably not have lasted five minutes. He stands for two disturbing principles: that truth takes time and that truth costs lives. Some things are so immense in their ramifications that they take a lifetime to uncover, by many false starts and discarded theses. And to find the time for truth requires a degree of impatience or indifference to what usually counts as success and security that is granted to very few.



First Person Column in Leicester Mercury 11 February 2006.

As scientists celebrate Darwin Day tomorrow, George Jelliss wonders where the Church of England stands.

Charles Darwin was born on February 12, 1809. His birth is increasingly celebrated by biologists and many others influenced by his ideas, through holding lectures and festivals on and around Darwin Day. These will lead up to his 200th anniversary in 2009, which will also mark 150 years since the publication of Origin of Species.

When Darwin died in 1882, the country thought so highly of him that he was buried in Westminster Abbey, alongside other great creative thinkers. The Church of England at that time, after 20 years of controversy, had accepted the undoubted importance of his ideas. All these years on, the essential correctness of Darwin has been ever more thoroughly established by evidence from all manner of sciences.

The millions of years needed for evolution have been confirmed by the work of geologists and astronomers on the great age of the Earth and the even greater age of the universe. The detailed operations of heredity have been shown by the science of molecular genetics, developed since the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA. So why are Church of England bishops so reluctant to state their acceptance of evolution?

The Archbishop of Canterbury, in a lecture at Christ Church, Cambridge, where Darwin studied, praised him for his dogged pursuit of truth, yet did not, in direct words, endorse the truth Darwin found. No Church of England websites seem to carry a full-hearted endorsement of evolution. In contrast, many other Christian churches and their websites are outspoken, even hysterical, in their advocation of Young-Earth Creationism, which denies the truth of Darwin's findings, and says, against all scientific knowledge, that the Earth, and indeed the whole Universe, was created only a few thousand years ago.

Did you know that the UK and Europe head-quarters of the US-based 'Answers in Genesis' organisation is in Leicester? Nearby, in Rugby, is the headquarters of the 'Biblical Creation Society'. Both groups backed big conferences in Leicester in 2002 and 2005, organised by evangelical churches. So it is especially important in Leicester, with its two universities dedicated to science, that the established Church speak out loud and clear. Are Bishops afraid to upset many of their members who are still stuck in pre-Darwinian ignorance? Surely they should have the intellectual courage to show their followers how their religious beliefs can be reconciled with scientific truth. This is especially important if they continue to wish to support, and indeed to control, a large part of child education in this country.

* George Jelliss, Leicester Secular Society member.



First Person Column in Leicester Mercury 14 February 2006

The Bishop of Leicester responds to the challenge issued here on Saturday by George Jelliss.

George Jelliss issued a challenge in this column on Saturday ("Bishops should speak up about Darwin's truth") which I am delighted to take up. Darwin opened our eyes to the fact that the natural world is in constant change and development. Because of him, we no longer see the world as one in which species are stable, immune from change or created ready-made. And this, I believe, is entirely compatible with the Bible, which describes in the Book of Genesis a process of creation which is gradual and developmental, proceeding by a sequence of events. We seriously misunderstand this book if we believe that it is meant to be a literal scientific account of how the world was made.

It is true that some Christians (as George Jelliss points out) appear to find Darwin's theory of evolution as contradicting scripture, as if the theory of evolution undermines the idea that human beings are made in the image of God. This saddens me. Charles Darwin's theories do not imply that humans are simply a sophisticated version of an ape. Homo sapiens came about as a result of a dramatic leap in the evolutionary process producing beings of immensely greater intelligence and self-consciousness than our evolutionary ancestors. But that does not imply a break in the evolutionary process. The wonder of it for me is that it has precisely come about by means of God's creativity through evolution.

George Jelliss seems to imply that science and faith are in opposition. The scientific method develops by producing explanations of the physical world based on the best available evidence to date. Scientists offer us maps which have always been open to revision when the territory is later surveyed more closely than before. In that sense, scientific "facts" are always provisional. That is not so different from a faith perspective of the world. The University of Leicester's genetics department is headed by someone who is a member of our Cathedral congregation. There are countless examples of leading scientific thinkers whose faith has been deepened and enriched by their scientific understanding.

Christians believe our faith is not just a matter of private opinion, but a public truth. It offers an account of the most important realities in our lives - the realities of truth, beauty and goodness. We believe we can explore these things best by entering a relationship with God (who for Christians is revealed in the life and death of Jesus Christ). Yet this public truth does not contradict what the scientists tell us about the nature of the universe. For Christians, the more we understand and penetrate the mysteries of the created world, the more we see evidence of the hand of a creator God. That is why we should celebrate Darwin's life and all the Origin of the Species has taught us.



First Person Column in Leicester Mercury 16 February 2006

Ibrahim Mogra responds to the views on Creationism expressed in this column by secularist George Jelliss.

My faith in Islam is continually strengthened by every scientific discovery. This might come as a surprise to many, but the association between the Koran - revealed almost 1,400 years ago - and science is one of harmony and not of conflict. The concepts and ideas put forward by the Koran in relation to the universe, when no scientific equipment was available, is truly amazing. Unfortunately, verses relating to scientific data are sometimes badly translated and interpreted, so that a scientist's criticisms seem justified when the Book does not actually deserve it at all. There are also erroneous commentaries that 100 years ago would not have raised an eyebrow, but would offend contemporary scientists.

Modern interpretations must be rooted in the classical understandings of the various passages, but must also take into account new scientific discoveries and be critical of both. Along with thorough linguistic knowledge, a commentator must also be equipped with a highly diversified scientific knowledge. Information about the Creation is scattered in the Koran and so there is no continuous narrative. The creation of the universe is frequently mentioned as having taken place in six "days". That is a very narrow interpretation of the Arabic words used in the creation verses. The Koran does not give a specific order of creation. When it mentions six "days", it does not mean 24-hour days, for this could only have happened after the creation of the sun and the orbiting of the earth. The word is to be understood as a "period", a "long length of time". Chapter 32, verses 4-5, says "...in a period of time whereof the measure is a thousand years of your reckoning". Chapter 70, verse 4, says "...in a period of time whereof the measure is 50,000 years". If scientific discoveries show that the universe is millions of years old, then Muslims should see that to be precisely what the Koran wants us to understand about the time factor in the Creation debate until something different is discovered.

Although I have said Muslims must embrace scientific findings, these findings will still be subject to scrutiny under the light of the teachings of the Koran. That is exactly why Darwin's theory of Evolution, suggesting the human being started as something very different, is not acceptable. The Koran endorses that everything was created from water, and that the human being is created in the best form - from Adam - walking upright and conversing intelligently, always learning to utilise God's bounties to better their lives.

* Ibrahim Mogra is an associate imam in Leicester and is a member of the Muslim Council of Britain.


Archbishop's Interview in The Guardian

The Archbishop of Canterbury gave an interview to Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger on 21 March 2006. Here is the relevant extract:

AR: Are you comfortable with teaching creationism?

AC: Ahh, not very. Not very. I think creationism is, in a sense, a kind of category mistake, as if the Bible were a theory like other theories. Whatever the biblical account of creation is, it's not a theory alongside theories. It's not as if the writer of Genesis or whatever sat down and said well, how am I going to explain all this.... I know 'In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.' And for most of the history of Christianity, and I think this is fair enough, most of the history of the Christianity there's been an awareness that a belief that everything depends on the creative act of God, is quite compatible with a degree of uncertainty or latitude about how precisely that unfolds in creative time. You find someone like St. Augustine, absolutely clear God created everything, he takes Genesis fairly literally. But he then says well, what is it that provides the potentiality of change in the world? Well, hence, we have to think, he says, of - as when developing structures in the world, the seeds of potential in the world that drive processes of change. And some Christians responding to Darwin in the 19th Century said well, that sounds a bit like what St. Augustine said of the seeds of processes. So if creationism is presented as a stark alternative theory alongside other theories, I think there's - there's just been a jar of categories, it's not what it's about. And it - it reinforces the sense that...

AR: So it shouldn't be taught?

AC: I don't think it should, actually. No, no. And that's different from saying - different from discussing, teaching about what creation means. For that matter, it's not even the same as saying that Darwinism is - is the only thing that ought to be taught. My worry is creationism can end up reducing the doctrine of creation rather than enhancing it.