Sunday, 11 March 2012

View From the Pulpit - Michael Roberts, C of E Vicar on recent events at St Peter's

This blog post is by BCSE member Michael Roberts who is a Vicar in the North West.

I write as a Church of England vicar responding to Psiloiordinary’s blog post on St Peter’s School, Exeter. I was appalled to hear that a creationist was invited to speak to GCSE students for the second year running. Above all, I write as a Christian minister, who was formerly an exploration geologist and one who has followed the growth of creationism for forty years. When I first came across creationism at L’Abri under Francis Schaeffer (a founder of the Religious Right), it was having little impact in Britain. At that time in the early 70s most Anglicans thought it irrelevant but now a significant minority (at least 5%) of priests are creationists (including at least one Bishop – Wallace Benn of Lewes) and creationism has been introduced to numbers of Anglican schools, possibly with the connivance of the clergy.

Over the years I have noted how creationists attempt to go to schools to talk about creationism. Often they were welcomed by schools who had not realised what they stood for and perhaps, naively, thought they were allowing “both sides “ to be presented to students. Initially this “schools ministry” was published on creationist websites, but now are not mentioned as groups like the BCSE have a creation watch and immediately jump in to thwart the meeting, as I have done in the past. The result is that visits by creationists are not publicised and often are unnoticed, as happened at our local Anglican secondary school two years ago. To the few I spoke to, well after the event, I was told it was to give fairness and balance. However no school would welcome holocaust deniers, flat earthers or Apartheid supporters as speakers.

I was particularly concerned about one of the proposed speakers, Dominic Statham as he is a speaker for CMI (Creation Ministries International) which is one of the most virulent and vexatious of all Creationist groups. On their website you will find many articles, which make inaccurate claims about science and others which denigrate us mainstream Christians as “Compromising churchians” and “neo-chamberlainite” appeasers to secularism and humanism. Two examples are where they dismiss Prof Alister Mcgrath and the Church of England generally as well as the late Dr Arthur Peacocke and Sir John Polkinghorne, with a further attack on Sir John Polkinghorne whom they inaccurately portray as:
An Anglican physicist and theistic evolutionist whose ‘God-of-the-gaps’ theology has defined God almost out of existence, according to the ID movement’s Phillip Johnson, and relegated Him to being only the lighter of the fuse of the Big Bang. For instance, Polkinghorne says, “God I think interacts with the world, but doesn’t over-rule it. God has, if you like—is conducting the improvised performance of the universe. So I think what is settled is much less determinative, and there is much more flexibility and freedom and surprise and openness in what’s going on.” Translation: God is not the sovereign miracle-working ruler of the universe, but is largely limited by natural processes. He is incapable of even knowing, let alone determining, the future in the way in which the Bible indicates.
I find this dismissal of devout Christians, who are well-informed in science very offensive. From a wide knowledge of creationism both in Britain and the USA, I find these attitudes widespread among creationists, as did one British creationist, Paul Taylor, recently, who called Rowan Williams a “practical atheist”.

Further, I cannot see why Statham is regarded as a “well-qualified speaker” as he has no training in geology or evolution and is an engineer by training. See an extract from his book for his young earth beliefs. I think most readers of this blog will know that all forms of creationism are worthless and as I like to put it, accidentally or deliberately dishonest.

Two years ago I went to a meeting where Statham introduced the CMI film on Darwin The Voyage that shook the world. That film is grossly inaccurate and misquotes three historians whom they interviewed. As a minor Darwin scholar I know the three, as one co-authored a paper with me, another saw my first academic paper on Darwin through to publication. The other said that the saviour whom CMI worshipped must be Machiavelli! (I am sure that some happy-clappy hymns could be re-written by replacing Jesus Christ with Machiavelli!) Their annoyance on being deceived was published on the History of Science Society website. On seeing the film I support their complaints at the misrepresentation they suffered. Another CMI speaker Philip Bell admitted in an interview that they had deceived the three historians. I have spoken at length with each of these three historians, who were all vexed. I am very familiar with the work and publications of CMI and found it consistently inaccurate verging on dishonest, with a very hostile approach to any Christian who is not a YEC. However that is typical of almost all creationist groups.

Last year Philip Bell spoke to the school, which set off Laura Horner’s justified complaints and resulted in the CRiSIS petition. He consistently misrepresented normal science and even argues that dinosaurs were still living in Cumbria in the 15th century! When fell-walking in the Lakes I look out for dinosaurs. I am surprised after the controversy his presence caused last year that a similar speaker had been invited. Last year CMI commented on Bell’s visit on their website implying that opposition came from secular humanists, overlooking the fact that both myself and Rev Prof Keith Ward were involved. They gave a similar response after the scientists’ criticism of creeping creationism last September  overlooking that one signatory was an Anglican priest, the Rev Prof Michael Reiss. This is standard practice of many creationists to gain support and a rejection of mainstream Christians by implying or stating that we are essentially the same in our beliefs as secular humanists. In many ways, I feel closer to these so-called secular humanists as they are more honest and respectful to others than Creationists. For that I will probably be called an “instrument of Satan” again!!

My objections to the visit of Staham were many. First, his views are false and dishonest and would have misled the pupils, as they are presented under the guise of being scientific. His organisation has long attacked mainstream churches for being “compromisers, churchians and neo-chamberlainites appeasing secularists and atheists over evolution. Like many Christians I am not concerned with “appeasing” anyone and prefer to be truthful. Secondly, his views are in stark opposition to any Anglican theology, even going back to the Bishop of Exeter’s Bampton lectures of 1884! Temple was supporting evolution from 1860. Since then most Anglican theologians have seen no theological problem with evolution. The numbers are legion and include recent Evangelicals like John Stott, Jim Packer and Alister McGrath. Thus to have such a speaker would have been contrary to the Anglican ethos of the school, as well as misleading GCSE students. Thirdly, if his visit had taken place it would have brought the Church of England into disrepute. Fourthly, it will provide ammunition for those who want to get rid of church schools, and this in combination with Bell’s visit last year may have had that effect..

What has happened at St Peters is only the tip of the iceberg as there have been many attempts to introduce creationist speakers to all types of schools, and at times for teachers to illegally teach creationism as science. This is despite all government directives. I have come across clear examples in church schools in Exeter, Chichester and Blackburn dioceses and anecdotal evidence for others. Going back to 2002 the teaching of creationism at Emmanuel College, Gateshead brought a major problem to light, as does the spate of applications for creationist Free Schools today as in Everyday Champions School, Newark. As far as our church schools are concerned, the Church of England needs a clear policy forbidding creationism in any shape or form. I am aware that there are many issues facing the church today, but this needs at least as much attention as gay marriage. Perhaps the Bishops can do so now.

Michael Roberts, Vicar in the Blackburn Diocese.

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