DESPITE the existence of Christians in laboratories and science faculties, and the presence of scientists in pulpits — and the House of Bishops — there is a lingering public perception that science and faith are incompatible.
In a recent editorial for the scientific journal Nature, the Revd Dr Kathryn Pritchard, the leader of Scientists in Congregations, wrote of a popular impression that, when it came to science, “the Church has left the conversation or was never properly there to start with.”
In a bid to tackle this erroneous and ahistorical understanding, Messy Church is starting the conversation about science and faith with some of the Church’s youngest disciples.
“Our dream is that, in ten years’ time, nobody will be saying they don’t mix — instead, it will be common to hear: ‘I had my first experience of science being fun at my local church,’” the founder and team leader of Messy Church, Lucy Moore, says.
Messy Church Does Science, launched at the close of the Science Festival in Ely Cathedral last month, has been enabled by Scientists in Congregations, a three-year project with funding from the Templeton World Charity Foundation, co-led by the Bishop of Kingston, Dr Richard Cheetham, and Professors David Wilkinson and Tom McLeish of Durham University (News, 20 March 2015).
Dr Cheetham, who read physics and philosophy at Oxford, and taught physics at Eton College and at a North Yorkshire comprehensive school, says: “Religious faith of any variety is often viewed with suspicion and scepticism. Religious beliefs are seen as private, subjective opinions, which can often lead to a small-minded, reactionary, and divisive view of life. By contrast, science is widely seen as giving ‘true’, objective, and useful knowledge about the way the world really is.
THE BIBLE READING FELLOWSHIPMessy Church Does Science at Cheltenham“There is an urgent need for a much deeper understanding of the nature of Christian faith, and of science, and of their relationship and interaction, to be communicated very widely in both the life of the Church and the wider world. This is not simply a minority interest for a few slightly nerdy specialists, but a matter which infuses the cultural air we breathe, and profoundly affects the credibility of the Christian faith and our ability to proclaim the gospel effectively in our generation.”
Churches across England were invited in 2016 to apply for grants of up to £10,000, to fund innovative projects to foster a better understanding between science and faith, using the expertise of Christians who were scientists. Under the auspices of the Bible Reading Fellowship, Messy Church has used its grant to produce a book featuring 100 fun and eye-opening experiments — each graded for mess, danger, and difficulty — designed to explore the “big thinking” and “big questions” that link science and faith.
“Messy Churches are hot on discovery, experimentation, and exploration,” Mrs Moore says. “We wanted to encourage even more Messy Church groups to feel confident about using science in the activity time, so that families would understand that the Church celebrates science and rejoices in it.” There are now 3476 Messy Churches worldwide; new registrations are coming in every day, and she describes the network as a generous, friendly one that has built up a great deal of trust with families.
Science had been “one of those ideas that had been bubbling on the back burner for ages,” she explains. Messy Church had explored science on a small scale, suggesting that awe, wonder, and “working out how the world works” were all ways of coming close to God. “But, like me, a lot of people don’t have a scientific background, and don’t have the confidence to do things well and to do science properly. We hope the the book and the online resources will give people the confidence to take more risks.”
DR DAVID GREGORY, popularly known as “Dr Dave”, has been doing science in his own Messy Church for three years, and is a director of the project. Vice-President of the Baptist Union, he graduated in physics and astrophysics, and, before ordination, spent 15 years as a research meteorologist at the Met Office and European weather centre — a period of time he believes has strongly shaped his ministry.
“I want to help local churches engage with science,” he says. “There is a lot of interaction between science and faith in academic circles and university towns, and scientific collaboration is helping to broaden that out.”
THE BIBLE READING FELLOWSHIPMessy Church Does Science at CheltenhamMrs Moore describes Dr Gregory as a huge asset: someone whose science has real integrity. His own monthly Messy Church science activities regularly attract 15 families. “We try to make them as hands-on as possible. Kids have a natural sense of inquisitiveness and interest in the world,” he says. “Parents too — many have left science behind at an early age, and are rediscovering something. But they also ask: aren’t science and faith fighting against each other?
“This is a way of undermining that story; to say they do come together, and they have something to say to each other.”
THE book has the chapters on themes that relate both to theology and science — including water, the human body, energy, and power — grouped as “things scientists explore and which are in the covers of the Bible as well” by Mrs Moore. “These aren’t sessions in themselves: the material is designed to be pick-and-mix; so, if you are doing something on John the Baptist, say, you might look in the ‘Water’ chapter.”
Take Dr Dave’s elephant’s toothpaste experiment, for example. “Add some washing-up liquid to a bottle containing hydrogen peroxide. Nothing happens. But then you add some yeast, and it fizzes up, because the yeast releases the oxygen in the hydrogen peroxide. It comes out of the bottle like a tube of toothpaste. And, if you’re clever and put little strips of red food dye down the bottle, it comes out striped,” he explains.
“You then get a lighted splint, and it foams and it comes back to life again. Yeast makes something big happen. I might say it reminds me of the story in the Bible where Jesus talks about yeast leavening the whole bread. I might say the way God works is powerful and big and most often he works through smallness.
“Out of the small things we have, God can do amazing things — that for small children is an important message. Or I could talk about how the splint comes back to life and God gives us life.”
It is all about questions, Mrs Moore affirms, “trying to create curiosity rather than give answers to things”. The experiments use simple equipment, most of it readily available around the home; a few need something more specialist. Dr Dave’s favourite is his spectroscope, or “rainbow-maker”: a plastic sheet cut into small squares, which acts as a prism when held to the eye, splitting up the light into its component colours.
THE BIBLE READING FELLOWSHIPMessy Church Does Science at CheltenhamTHE book also provides role-models in the stories of ten present-day scientists. Fifty Messy Churches field-tested the activities before the book’s completion and launch at the Cheltenham Christian Arts Festival in April, and a series of roadshows is also under way. The next — a free-ticket event — is on 30 August, in the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory at Harwell, in Didcot. Scientists in Congregations has provided extra funding for Science in a Box, a resource to take away from such events “and carry on doing science and thinking about God in your own home,” Mrs Moore says.
“Science is fun: a gift from God that brings joy to life, helping us to appreciate his life and love all the more,” Dr Gregory concludes. “All of us want to share that sense with others, helping them to enjoy the wonder that science reveals about the world and ourselves, and, through it, something of the God who lies behind it.”