Sermon at Matins

20 November 2005 at :00 am

Sermon at Matins, 20 November 2005

by the Reverend Canon Robert Reiss, Canon of Westminster

In June 1860 the British Association met in Oxford, and there was an extraordinary debate between some scientists, including Professor Thomas Huxley and J.D. Hooker the President of the British Association on one side, and William Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford, son of the emancipator of the slaves, and one of the most well known Bishops in England at the time on the other. The debate was on the question of evolution. Charles Darwin's book The Origin of the Species had been published the year before. And there was a proper scientific debate to be had; not all scientists were convinced by Darwin's arguments. But Wilberforce unwisely chose a rather flippant way of responding to the case by appealing to Victorian sensitivities about ladies. His exact words were not recorded at the time but it seems he asked, or at least was later recorded as having asked Huxley, whether he thought he, Huxley, was descended from apes on his grandfather's or his grandmother's side. Huxley was, rightly I think, incensed. 'If', he said, "the question is put to me, would I rather have a miserable ape for a grandfather or a man highly endowed by nature and possessed of great means of influence and yet who employs these faculties and that influence for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific discussion - I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape." He was subsequently reported as saying that he would prefer to have an ape than a Bishop as a grandfather, but the damage had been done. Although the event was only talked about privately at the time, when Darwin's biography was published in 1887 and even more when Huxley's biography was published in 1900 it came to be seen a symbolic of the Victorian conflict between science and religion, serious scientists doing battle with frivolous and obscurantist Bishops over questions of truth.

The picture was, of course, far more complex than that. Certainly there were scientists who could be quite aggressively critical of Christianity. Professor Huxley was one. Francis Galton, a relative of Darwin was another. He applied statistics to assess the efficacy of prayer, looking at the average age of death of those in the upper classes. Clergy were the longest lived, at 69 years. Lawyers came next at 68. The medical men and Aristocrats tied at 67, but members of royal houses died younger, the average age was 64. Yet everyone prayed for the sovereign and royal families. Therefore, according to Galton, prayer does not work! You do not have to be very sophisticated theologically to realise that it was a rather naïve view of prayer.

But not all scientists were hostile in quite that way. Darwin himself at one stage thought about ordination, but while he did seem to lose whatever faith he once had, he retained a respect for Christianity partly through the lasting effect of a former teacher who was himself ordained and whose memory Darwin treasured, and also because of his wife, who never lost her Christian faith but who had a happy marriage with him. Yet other scientists remained active Christians. Sir Charles Lyell wrote an important three Volume work on Geology where he showed that the world was much older than people had traditionally thought. He used fossil evidence for his argument and he was very supportive of Darwin. But he remained a loyal Anglican throughout his life. Dean Stanley of Westminster preached the Sunday after his burial here in the Abbey and proclaimed that Lyell had shown there need be no conflict between science and religion.

And Stanley was not alone. On the clerical side not all clergy were as scathing as Wilberforce. There were a number who were quite willing to accept whatever scientific discoveries were made and simply to see them as evidence of the need to come to a different understanding of the origins of the world but in a way that did not fundamentally conflict with the assertion that God was the ultimate creator and what he had made was good. Charles Kingsley, a canon here at Westminster, F D Maurice, professor of Theology at King's College London, R W Church, Dean of St Paul's, and Frederick Temple, Headmaster of Rugby and later Archbishop of Canterbury were all highly respected Victorian clergymen who felt there need be no conflict between religion and science.

When Darwin died he was too was buried here. Some of you may have even walked over his grave as you made you way down the north aisle in the nave. The Dean at the time, Dean Bradley, had no great problem with Darwin being buried here but some visitors to the Abbey now do express surprise, which is partly why I am talking about this whole matter today. A colleague of mine told me only a few days ago that a visitor here very recently express deep distress to see his memorial stone here.

Well Bradley agreed to Darwin's burial because Darwin was by then widely recognised as a great scientist. Burial and, later, memorialisation in this Abbey was never confined to people whose belief's conformed to some notion of orthodoxy; the quality of their contribution to the nation's life was the critical issue. And Darwin certainly met that criterion.

But I believe it is also important to realise that the problem for the theologically more conservative Victorians was the effect of all of this on their understanding of the Bible. If you believed, as was mainly believed by Victorians at the beginning of Victoria's reign in the 1830s that the Bible was literal history then not just Darwin's work on biology but Lyell's work on geology posed considerable difficulties. You could not think that the first few chapters of the Book of Genesis were accurate history if their scientific findings were correct. But by the end of Victoria's reign most thinking Englishmen and including many, but not all Bishops did not see that as a problem. The Bible obviously contained myth and legend as well as history they concluded.

The conflict now, which I do not think is very great in this country but obviously still arouses passions elsewhere, especially in America, is the conflict between Darwin's theory of natural selection and what some describe as a theory of Intelligent Design. Neither side of that particular debate is trying to say that Genesis is literally true, so the conflict is very different from the Victorian one. But does the world as we can see it today show evidence of an intelligent designer, or could it just be the happy or otherwise outcome of a process of natural selection. I cannot claim to have read that widely in this debate, but on the brief reading I have done it seems to me personally that those advocating intelligent design have not yet made out a compelling case, it reads to me as special pleading. And there is the suspicion that it owes more to politics than to science.

But what is clear to me is that it is quite possible, as some of those early Victorian clergy thought, to be a Christian and yet to accept the notion of natural selection. God may have created a universe the outcome of which was genuinely open, and still is genuinely open. There is no hidden hand guiding the whole thing, but God has not left himself without witnesses. The very idea of God as something that evokes in us responses other than purely material ones, that calls us to a wider and grander view of what might be, and recognises that the example of self sacrifice shown to us by Jesus Christ might be a clue to finding that greater vision, that is no anaemic view of God. But the critical question, which perhaps always was the critical question, is whether, and how, we respond.

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