Take Your Vicar to the Lab!

St. Alban’s Diocese

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Given the current atmosphere of scientific glasnost, it is timely to consider novel and effective ways of engaging church congregations and church leaders in vibrant and stimulating discussion on issues of science and faith using scientifically trained members of those congregations.

Scientists make hypotheses – when this happens, then that will result – and then test these hypotheses by practical experimentation. In the summer of 2016, we in the Diocese of St Albans came up with a hypothesis. We proposed that if we ran a programme called Take Your Vicar to the Lab then we would be able to link up clergy with laboratories. Vicars would be able to visit labs and would come back inspired by the link between science and faith. Likewise, scientists would visit local churches to help the congregation think through the same issues.

We have now spent twelve months running the scheme and testing our hypothesis. So were we correct? What conclusions have can we draw?

First, we observed that clergy are indeed interested in visiting laboratories. Around two dozen clergy have taken part in six visits and have looked at topics as diverse as genetic engineering, particle physics and the manufacture of everyday pharmaceuticals. Feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. Everyone who has taken part has come back more inspired and better equipped to make connections between science and faith.

Second, members of local congregations have been keen to think through these questions. The two conferences that we have run have attracted, between them, around 70 participants. In addition, two discussion evenings at the Cathedral Study Centre have proved very popular. We are exploring the possibility of producing a mailing list for those who want to keep in touch with future events.

Third, we have garnered considerable publicity having been featured four times on local and national radio, as well as having a report on the project published in the journal Crucible.

While these elements have all been a success, our fourth conclusion is that scientists are far less enthusiastic to talk to vicars than vicars are to talk to scientists. Gaining access to laboratories has been much more difficult than we anticipated – sometimes for reasons of commercial confidentiality – and no scientists have been willing to make reciprocal visits to local churches. It would be interesting to pursue why this might be the case.

Finally, there has been an unexpected positive benefit. The Revd Prof Nick Goulding, who has been co-leading the Take Your Vicar to the Lab project, has been appointed by the Bishop of St Albans as the honorary diocesan adviser in science and faith.

In conclusion, our hypothesis has proved partially correct. Even though scientists don’t always perceive the need to talk to people of faith, practising Christians are positive and enthusiastic about exploring how science and faith relate. For this reason, we shall be continuing the Take Your Vicar to the Lab project for at least another year, and hopefully longer.