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Broad Church

Dr Mark Betson FGS

Revd. Dr Mark Betson FGS* explores some things that the Church and geoscience have in common…

With a number of articles in Geoscientist discussing science and religion and, more specifically, science and the Church, I thought I should say something about what the Church of England (CoE) does to engage congregations (and beyond) in trying to relate what they hear about Earth science with their faith.

The CoE, and the whole Anglican Church, is broken up into dioceses governed by bishops. Within these there exists a dedicated bunch of individuals called Diocesan Environment Officers (DEOs), whose role is to advise on and promote environmental issues. DEOs come from a diverse range of backgrounds and may be lay or ordained people within the Church. Owing to tight financial constraints that apply to everyone nowadays, the role is usually one hat among many worn by the person - who may combine it with an advisory post on social responsibility, or with being vicar of a parish.

DEOs stand on the front line of interaction between bishops and churches of the diocese, and the news of Earth and environmental science communicated in the media. Most are not science specialists, but all are open-minded about what is going on in science, and conscientious about the advice they give. I am sure most will have shared my experience of occasionally holding my head in my hands in disbelief at the lack of concern and complete misunderstanding of things (both environmental and theological) that one occasionally finds. I was once asked, for example, if we should encourage global warming (burn as many fossil fuels as possible), so as to destroy this world and thereby hasten the Second Coming!

Happily this type of view is not common (even in the US, now). Much more common is an earnest desire among churchgoers, priests and bishops, to understand what is going on and what, in faith, they can do about it. Translating that desire into practice is a DEOs’ daily challenge - one made especially hard by the information overload (from media, environmental groups and government) about what actions we should be taking.

Having been educated as a geoscientist, worked in an environmental consultancy and now as a trained theologian working in a parish and wearing a DEO hat, I have been privileged to see both sides of the coin. The challenge comes down to something facing many geoscientists who deal with the public and any kind of non-specialist organisations – communication. Simply putting evidence before people and expecting them to see what you see rarely works well. Science is not free from a human element and scientists need to believe in what they are saying - and be ready to have that belief challenged by non-scientists. When that happens, both parties emerge with a better level of understanding of matters that are a concern to everyone. Here endeth the first Lesson!

* Diocesan Environment Officer, Diocese of Chichester