Church of England issues 'apology' to Darwin

September 16, 2008

A spokesman for the Church of England has said the church misunderstood Charles Darwin's work nearly 150 years ago and that "by getting our first reaction wrong," has continued an on-going misunderstanding.


At the end of an essay titled "Good religion needs good science," the Rev. Dr. Malcolm Brown, the Church of England director of mission and public affairs, addressed Darwin directly, saying that nearly 200 years after his birth "the Church of England owes you an apology for misunderstanding you and, by getting our first reaction wrong, encouraging others to misunderstand you still."

"We try to practice the old virtues of 'faith seeking understanding' and hope that makes some amends," Brown wrote. "But the struggle for your reputation is not over yet, and the problem is not just your religious opponents but those who falsely claim you in support of their own interests. Good religion needs to work constructively with good science -- and I dare to suggest that the opposite may be true as well."

Brown's essay, posted September 15, reflects the church's position on Darwin but isn't an official apology, the Church of England told the Associated Press.

The Rev. Norman Faramelli, who teaches Christian ethics at Episcopal Divinity School and social ethics at Boston University, told ENS September 17 that he concurred with Brown's "apology" to Darwin. He added the caveat that "it's not just the Church of England that owes him an apology," noting the opposition to Darwin was "clearly ecumenical" and extended to the scientific community of Darwin's time.

Faramelli also said that "misapplication of Darwin" has led to what he called the "pernicious" spread of social Darwinism, which endorsed competition and "survival of the fittest" as a way to organize societies.

Brown also in his essay criticized what he called the misapplication of Darwin's discoveries, where natural selection has been used to justify racism and other forms of discrimination.

Meanwhile, the Rev. Canon Ed Rodman, a member of the Episcopal Church's Executive Council and the council's Committee on Science, Faith and Technology, said September 17 in an interview that he was unimpressed with Brown's comments. He called them "insubstantial," adding that "damning with faint praise is no praise at all." Rodman said that it was time for the church to "fully acknowledge its culpability in discrediting Darwin's work."

The Episcopal Church has said that the theory of evolution does not conflict with Christian faith. In 2006, the General Convention affirmed, via Resolution A129, that God is creator and added that "the theory of evolution provides a fruitful and unifying scientific explanation for the emergence of life on earth, that many theological interpretations of origins can readily embrace an evolutionary outlook, and that an acceptance of evolution is entirely compatible with an authentic and living Christian faith."

The previous year, the Episcopal Church's the Episcopal Church Network for Science, Technology and Faith released a Catechism of Creation. In its section on creation and science, the catechism says, in part, scientific researchers since Darwin have refined and added to his ideas, "but never thrown out his basic theoretical framework."

In response to the question of whether accepting biological evolution conflicts with the biblical statement that humans are created in the image and likeness of God, the catechism notes that "image and likeness" have often be described as "those divine gifts of unconditional love and compassion, our reason and imagination, our moral and ethical capacities, our freedom, or our creativity."

"To think that these gifts may have been bestowed through the evolutionary process does not conflict with biblical and theological notions that God acts in creation," the catechism says. "Scripture affirms that God was involved (Gen. 1:26-27)."

Robert Schneider, a retired Berea College professor who was the catechism's lead author, wrote in June 30 essay here that the catechism grew out of a concern that "Episcopalians by and large shared [an American] ignorance about science, and even more distressing, showed little understanding of the doctrine of creation, even though we profess it every time we recite the Nicene Creed."

Schneider wrote that "it is incumbent upon all Episcopal educators to learn the basics about the doctrine of creation and its relationship to the work of science."

"God's two books, the Book of Scripture and the Book of Nature, come from the same source, the creating Word of God, and we need to help the faithful develop a better understanding and appreciation of this fundamental truth," he wrote.

Brown's essay is part of a new section of the Church of England's website developed to mark the approaching bicentenary of Darwin's birth in 1809, and the 150th anniversary of the publication of "On the Origin of Species" in 1859.

The Darwin pages include ones that explore Darwin's faith and his relationship with the Church of England. Diocese of Swindon Bishop Lee Rayfield, a former biological scientist, contributed a welcome page to the section in which he comments that "theology and science each have much to contribute in the assertion of the Psalmist that we are 'fearfully and wonderfully made.'"

The website also includes sections titled Darwin and the Church, Darwin and Faith, and Brief History of Darwin, as well as a list of further reading, and an events page listing how various bodies are celebrating Darwin's bicentenary over the coming months.

Darwin attended a Church of England boarding school in Shrewsbury and trained to be a clergyman at Cambridge. He married into an Anglican family and was inspired to follow his calling into science by another clergyman who was fascinated by the study of botany.
However, Darwin is said to have lost his faith, in part due to the death of a daughter and an increasingly need for evidence to back up belief.

"There is no reason to doubt that Christ still draws people towards truth through the work of scientists as well as others, and many scientists are motivated in their work by a perception of the deep beauty of the created world," Brown writes in his essay, adding that "for the sake of human integrity -- and thus for the sake of good Christian living -- some rapprochement between Darwin and Christian faith is essential."

-- The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is Episcopal Life Media correspondent for Episcopal Church governance, structure, and trends, as well as news of the dioceses of Province II. She is based in Neptune, New Jersey, and New York City.