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Letters to the Editor

29 April 2022


Relation of religion to evolution

From Mr John Pilkington

Sir, — What a treat to read Dr Mark Vernon’s interview with Professor Robin Dunbar (Features, Podcast, 22 April).

The drift of Professor Dunbar’s argument is convincing; and lingering scepticism about his certainty concerning the practices of our remote ancestors may well be dispelled on actually reading the book. I am interested, though, that he ducks the issue about underlying truth (“I tend to take the view that [that] probably is beyond conventional proof”).

Quite so; and it is proper for him, as a scholar, to limit his discussion to the domain of his academic interest, and the range of the tools available for its investigation. But it is an important question for the rest of us. As a former academic zoologist, I would follow Professor Dunbar in addressing it from an evolutionary point of view.

Whatever else may be said about the mechanism of evolution, it is clearly a wonderful search engine, producing organisms physically and behaviourally in accord with reality, a point that is often overlooked. For example, most birds can fly. It may be supposed that this is a great advantage for survival and reproductive success, and a bird’s anatomy, physiology, and behaviour are clearly in accord with the realities of aerodynamics. We could assert that a bird exhibits understanding of aerodynamics in its flight behaviour, although it has no equivalent of our knowledge of the subject.

I propose that there is no reason to limit the effectiveness of the evolutionary search engine to the physical domain of reality. That is, I suggest that if an apprehension of transcendence emerges from evolutionary processes, then there is every reason to think that that apprehension corresponds to some aspect of reality. Two consequences follow.

First, while the story about endorphins and so on is quite accurate (“true”), it should be considered an account of certain events, but not an explanation of them. On Sunday morning, I came away from a most uplifting service at my local church. No doubt my endorphins were circulating freely, but that is not to deny some further reality behind the experience.

Second, while an apprehension of transcendence may emerge from evolutionary processes, and be in accord with some external reality, it no more confers knowledge of that reality than bird flight confers knowledge of aerodynamics. So, for Homo sapiens, it (the apprehension of transcendence) becomes a field of intellectual inquiry, and is called theology.

This brings us to the conclusion of the interview, where the search for a Grand Unified Religion is invoked. While the theologians’ GUR is likely to prove as elusive as the physicists’ GUT, the history of science — and I submit that this is applicable to theology also — suggests that, while it will be informed by all the world’s religions, it is unlikely to be a mere syncretistic average of them. More likely it will come from a light-bulb insight by the light of which, to paraphrase C. S. Lewis, everything else makes sense.

Oaklands, Backwoods Close
Haywards Heath
West Sussex RH16 2EG

The resurrection and definitions of history

From the Revd James Richards

Sir, — If we, with Canon Andrew Lenox-Conyngham (Letters, 22 April), accept A. J. P. Taylor’s definition of a historical event as one to which there were witnesses, then we may be forced to accept the conclusion that the resurrection, by that definition at least, was not a historical event.

On the other hand, the post-crucifixion appearances of the living Jesus were attested by hundreds of witnesses, many of them still alive a couple of decades later (1 Corinthians 15.5-7). I for one would be quite happy to accept the resurrection of Jesus as a logical conclusion.

The Rectory, Longlands Road
Windermere, Cumbria LA23 3AS

From Canon Wyn Beynon

Sir, — Canon Andrew Lenox-Conyngham’s letter raises an interesting question. What is history? His agreement with A. J. P. Taylor that it must be an event that has witnesses is problematic. Certainly there must be evidence. But witnesses?

The disappearance of the crew of the Marie Celeste is historical. Yet there are no witnesses to the disappearance, only to what happened before it sailed and after finding the hulk. History is what emerges when subsequent generations dissect, deconstruct, and discuss what has been recorded.

History must always be speculative, even when there are witnesses. Everything must be approached with a hermeneutic of suspicion. Witnesses who were part of what happened have a very different story to tell from those who simply observed.

History is not to be confused with a record of “what happened”. History is the engagement with the record, and that needs time and distance: history cannot be written on the fly. History takes time, if you’ll forgive the pun.

The resurrection of Jesus was a historical event. We have evidence and the fruits of generation after generation engaging with it.

History has no end (despite Baudrillard and Fukuyama). History must constantly be revisited and revised. The Rustat debacle reminds us that history is never set in stone.

89 Stourbridge Road
Halesowen B63 3UA

From Dr Brendan Devitt

Sir, — Canon Andrew Lennox denies that the resurrection of Christ was “a historical event”. A “historical event” is something that “happened”, though not necessarily something for which we have witnesses. Bones found in an archaeological dig, for example, might indicate that the person was brutally stabbed some time during the 12th century. We would hardly deny the historicity of their killing in the absence of written or eyewitness evidence.

Jesus’s physical and social availability to his disciples following his execution can suggest only that an event took place inside the tomb that made this a possibility. To describe this mysterious event as “historical” is merely to say that it happened.

206 Lowestoft Road
Norfolk NR31 6JQ

Liturgical responses to rise of direct cremation

From the Revd Paul A. Eddy

Sir, — Gordon James expresses concern (Letters, 22 April) over the huge cost-savings to families of direct hospital-to-crematorium services offered by funeral directors, and says the C of E should create a new liturgy for the burial of ashes when a funeral hasn’t happened.

May I assure him that we already have a lot of flexibility over liturgy in pastoral services, and, these days, for good financial reasons, the new move is of great help to families. Once the cremation is done, funeral-director costs end.

Mechanical cremation (natural cremation has possibly occurred since the start of time) was always intended as a “preparation of the body for burial”, and not a “disposal of the body”.

Given this, I regularly take a “funeral” in church where a casket of ashes is brought into church and is placed at the front, alongside a picture of the deceased. We then have a full funeral (including tributes), and, at the end, we all process out, gather around the plot in the garden of remembrance, and the ashes in their casket are lowered into the ground with appropriate prayers.

If the burial of ashes is not to happen then and there, you can still pray the commendation and communal prayers.

Clergy are used to taking services where many body organs have been removed for medical or science use; and, indeed, some funerals are held with no body.

Theologically, I think it is still possible to commend the person into God’s care, and later judgement for us all — whether in full or part body, no body, or ashes. It is no less a funeral. With careful preparation and explanation with the family, clergy and Readers authorised for funeral ministry can, I think, already adapt current liturgy. Such funerals can be of huge help to mourners.

The Vicarage
24 Church Green
Stanford in the Vale
Oxfordshire SN7 8HU

Comments on the judgment in the Rustat case

From the Rt Revd David Wilbourne

Sir, — On Christmas Eve 1974, I received a telegram from Jesus (!) awarding me an exhibition to read Natural Sciences. It was the best Christmas present ever, because no one in our family had been to university before, let alone Cambridge. Because my dad was a vicar in darkest Hull, my open exhibition was converted to a Rustat exhibition, awarding me £40 per year over two years. Back then, it paid for my dinners in hall for a couple of terms, a real help.

The whole débâcle about the Rustat memorial (News and Comment, 22 April) has made me uneasy about his money and any dubious origins’ setting me up for an eventual career in the Church. Using the maths that my Rustat exhibition enabled me to study, I calculate that my award would now be worth £754.74. I have rounded this figure up to £800, and, over the past eight months, have paid £100 per month to Christian Aid, which, in serving the poorest of the world’s poor, gives some redress to the constituency that slavery exploited.

This is just a very small, personal gesture in the grand scheme of things. But, if the memorial can’t be moved, might wealthy Jesus follow the example of the college’s kenotic namesake and move the money?

8 Bielby Close, Scarborough
North Yorkshire YO12 6UU


From Canon Peter Doll

Sir, — The Archbishop of Canterbury has rightly asserted that places of Christian worship should be “sacred places where everyone [emphasis added] can encounter the unconditional love of God”.

It was troubling, therefore, in the context of Easter Week, to realise that from the “everyone” graced with God’s love, he excluded Tobias Rustat and others of his kind, i.e. sinners. By virtue of our shared baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection, Rustat is my brother in Christ, as he is to the Archbishop and every other baptised person throughout time. Like him, we have all also fallen short of the glory bestowed upon us.

As a former college chaplain, I have intense sympathy for the challenges that this memorial poses to the Revd James Crockford in his ministry as Dean of Chapel, and for the offence that the memorial causes to the Master and many members of Jesus College. But I also feel that the judgment handed down by David Hodge posed deeper moral, historical, and theological challenges, which the Archbishop, Master, and Dean have all failed to address, falsely caricaturing it as a simplistic preference for “marble to people”.

Deputy Chancellor Hodge reminds us that everyone setting foot in that chapel does so as a sinner in need of God’s forgiveness, and that the memorial stands as a reminder of our individual and corporate complicity in the crime of slavery in our own day. No one involved in arguing this case is in a position to cast the first stone at Rustat.

56 The Close
Norwich NR1 4EG

From Mr Jonathan Chaplin

Sir, — The widespread dissatisfaction with the consistory court’s judgment in the Rustat case is wholly understandable. It is crisply captured in the title of an eloquent piece by the Master of Jesus College, Sonita Alleyne, in The Guardian on 14 April: “The Church of England promised to tackle racial injustice. Why is it defending a slave trader’s memory?”

There are, indeed, complex matters of procedural, jurisdictional, ecclesiastical, and heritage law at stake in the case, which might always have obstructed a straightforward answer to Ms Alleyne’s question; these are amply rehearsed in the 108-page judgment. But the central issue at stake is surely pastoral and theological: does not a contemporary worshipping community enjoy the authority to reorder its liturgical space to remove a well-attested offence to the quality of its worship and pastoral care?

But the Church decided to appoint a specialist in business and property law, with no proven expertise in pastoral or liturgical theology or the theology of racial inclusion, to resolve that question. Reading the way the judge handled such issues in the case makes that absence very clear.

If the Church is not willing to ensure that the judges it appoints to deliver justice in its own ecclesiastical courts have the requisite theological formation to do so according to the Church’s own theology, it can hardly complain at adverse outcomes like this. And if its reply is that the judgment only underscores that the law as it stands ties the Church’s hands in such matters, then let it take bold steps to get them untied.

19 Coles Lane, Oakington
Cambridge CB24 3AF

About Pontius Pilate

From the Revd Andrew Roland

Sir, — I was interested in the review of The Innocence of Pontius Pilate (Books, 8 April). I believe, however, that there is another way of approaching Pilate than historical theology, and that is the way of historical fiction. The great thing about the latter is that you have to pay equal attention to historical evidence and to psychological realism. Disciplined imagination can throw up new and useful ideas.

When I was writing Jesus the Troublemaker, Pilate made sense to me when I realised that he was a military man, in the same mould as Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer. Dyer was responsible for the Amritsar massacre in 1919, in which between 375 and 1000 unarmed civilians were shot by British soldiers. To the end of his life, Dyer justified his action as needed. “[My aim] was not to disperse the meeting but to punish the Indians for disobedience.” The distinctive statement by Pilate in my book is, “High Priest, I don’t need you to tell me how to maintain order.”

Twelve years ago, the agnostic/atheist Philip Pullman wrote his novel The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, for which he read the four Gospels in three different translations. His view of Pilate is similar: “We’re responsible for keeping peace here, if you hadn’t noticed. And I will not put up with political disturbance from any direction.”

As a footnote, why does no one ever mention Albinus? He was procurator of Judaea in AD 62. According to Josephus in The Jewish War, the Sanhedrin brought a certain Yeshua ben Anan (Jesus Ben Ananias) to him for execution because he had been prophesying the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. Albinus had him scourged to the bone, but Jesus/Yeshua continued to shout his prophecies and not answer the procurator’s questions. In the end, Albinus had him released as a maniac. Is this what Pilate wanted to do? “I will therefore have him flogged and then release him” (Luke 23.22).

100 Philbeach Gardens
London SW5 9ET

Bishops’ glass House

From Dr P. J. Upton

Sir, — “If breaking the laws you have made, and then lying about it, does not require resignation, then what does?” Has the Bishop of Leeds (News, 22 April) forgotten that he and his fellow bishops broke canon law in March 2020 by forbidding clergy from entering their own churches? And how Archbishop Welby subsequently redefined the edict as “guidance” even though it contained the phrase “must not”?

Redlands, Lighthorne
Warwickshire CV35 0AH

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