13 January 2008

Darwin and the Anglican Church

On this date in 1938, the Church of England officially recognized, and accepted, the theory of evolution.

That's 70 years ago today. An interesting thing to ponder as we face another round of religion vs. evolution in our own time. In Florida, Bill Foster is running for mayor of St. Petersburg, and has publicly linked Darwinism with the Columbine shootings and other tragedies. (Thanks to Pharyngula for the link). On the federal scale, we have a major candidate for President, in Mike Huckabee, who is clearly against the teaching of evolution in schools.

So how did the Church of England, a sect with a long history going back to the fourth century, come to accept Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection? Perhaps the decision had its roots in the church's pride in its native son. After all, Darwin did attend a Church of England school. The decision was part of the 1938 Commission on Doctrine, but if one man was responsible for its passing, it would have to be Bishop Ernest William Barnes.

Barnes was part of what may have been the last generation of the scientist/priest. A mathematician and fellow of the Royal Society, he was also an avid biological collector, and made frequent trips into the wild to observe and collect. In 1927, he wrote a famous letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury, in which he outlined his beliefs in evolution and promised "to show why they did not seem to upset the main Christian position". In a brilliant turn of phrase, he finished his letter "No man shall drive me to Tennessee or to Rome." Only two years before, the state of Tennessee had made its famous case against John Scopes, in the so-called "Monkey trial".

He was hardly the first or the only voice in favor of evolution, but he may have been the best known. His view that theology "must take into account the God of Nature revealed by science" was an insight that many of us would welcome eighty years after he wrote it. He and his kind managed to convince the Church of England to officially accept evolution, and to deny any claim that it somehow undermined or conflicted with their teachings. Though the debate continues even within the Church of England, we can look back on this as a victory not only for the proponents of evolution, but for the much larger populace that yearns for science and religion to more easily coexist, as two forces which should, at their best, make human life better.

Fittingly, tomorrow's article is Maury's Faith.

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