By Despina Katsidou, Deputy Project Coordinator for ECLAS and St John’s Alumna.
St John’s College is the headquarters of a national project called Equipping Christian Leadership in an Age of Science (ECLAS), which has received a grant of £3.4 million from Templeton Religion Trust. We aim to promote a culture of open dialogue in the science and faith arena; changing the narrative from a model of conflict between science and Christianity to one in which science is understood as a divine gift. By working with senior church leaders from a variety of Christian denominations, we will encourage a ripple effect through the rest of the Church, encouraging others to find value and joy in science alongside their faith.
COVID-19 has made it difficult for any project to get started, particularly one of this scale. Many team members joined just prior or during lockdown, myself included. While I studied at St John’s and know its blue corridors and Bailey buildings well, some of my colleagues have never set foot in the college. Despite the challenge of working remotely, we have got off to a dynamic start, using COVID-19 as an opportunity to reflect on theological understandings of science and medicine. Our colleague Dr Franziska Kohlt has presented original research on the warfare narrative, widely used by politicians and public alike at a conference focused on theology and the pandemic, and to a gathering of Anglican bishops.
ECLAS incorporates three separate research elements, located at St John’s College, the University of York, and the Mission and Public Affairs (MPA) unit within the Church of England. Each research hub has a post-doctoral researcher focused on a specific areas: Dr Thoko Kamwendo at St John’s College is researching senior church leaders’ views and attitudes towards science, Dr Franziska Kohlt at the University of York is examining narratives of science and faith, and Dr Alex Fry at MPA specialises in ethical concerns and considerations in the development of artificial intelligence, among other things.
This original research links strongly to our conferences for senior leaders. These conferences offer participants from various Christian denominations the opportunity to engage in debate and reflection on cutting-edge areas of science, from cosmology to robotics and genetics. From previous conferences on topics such as neuroscience and climate change, we know that senior leaders appreciate having a ‘safe space’ to learn, ask questions, and explore these fundamental issues.
A third strand of ECLAS is our Science in Congregations programme. Over the next three years we will be offering 20 grants to congregations to create a project which engages with science and faith. These projects have taken incredibly creative forms in the past, including a theatre production, an ambitious display of cosmology at Ely Cathedral, Messy Church resources and more. These grants will extend the opportunity to engage in conversations on science and faith to Christians nationally.
Our Science for Seminaries programme aims to deepen scientific understanding in seminaries across the UK. Seminaries will be able to apply for grants to be developed alongside scientists and in collaboration with ECLAS.
Finally, we offer expert policy advice to senior leaders seeking to contribute to the public discussion on science and ethics. This work is rooted within MPA and includes work with the AI hub to facilitate training, knowledge sharing and the advising of bishops.
Working on a project of this scale at St John’s College is truly a privilege; it is one thing hearing about the research at Durham University, and quite another to be involved in a college-based national research and an influencing project. As a member of the St John’s alumni community, this role is even closer to my heart, and I cannot wait to step back through the College doors and work on this project in person (as opposed to my kitchen table)!