Church of England to Darwin: We’re Sorry

By Sean Cavanagh — September 19, 2008 2 min read
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The Church of England, the Anglican denomination that dates to the 16th century, has issued an apology of sorts to Charles Darwin, the British naturalist famous for having advanced the theory of evolution.

In an essay published on the C of E’s Web site, “Good Religion Needs Good Science,” the Rev. Malcolm Brown, the church’s director of mission and public affairs, says that the church, in opposing Darwin’s ideas, has at times been guilty of distorting them and wrongly assuming that they contradict Christian beliefs. The idea that God created humans is consistent with evolution, Brown writes. Evolution simply provides a greater understanding of the exact processes through which humans came to be.

The church’s new point of view, which has been greeted with a mixture of curiosity and derision by the British press, was published with a series of documents about Darwin on the church’s Web site. The publications coincide with the approaching bicentenary of Charles Darwin’s birth in 1809 and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859.

In his essay, Brown traces his church’s opposition to many of Darwin’s principles and attempts to explain them. He also warns against the “social misapplication” of Darwin’s theories about survival of the fittest, which he says have been used to justify racism, other forms of discrimination, and “material self-interest.”

But the church official’s main point seems to be that evolutionary theory and religion are compatible, and that accepting faith does not mean rejecting science—or vice versa.

“For the sake of human integrity—and thus for the sake of good Christian living—some rapprochement between Darwin and Christian faith is essential,” Brown writes.

“Charles Darwin: 200 years from your birth, the Church of England owes you an apology for misunderstanding you and, by getting our first reaction wrong, encouraging others to misunderstand you still. We try to practice the old virtues of ‘faith seeking understanding’ and hope that makes some amends. But the struggle for your reputation is not over yet, and the problem is not just your religious opponents but those who falsely claim you in support of their own interests. Good religion needs to work constructively with good science—and I dare to suggest that the opposite may be true as well.”

Many scientists who defend the teaching of evolution in public school science classes —and reject efforts to introduce religious alternatives to it in those settings—say evolutionary theory is completely consistent with Christian faith. But they also argue that faith and science should be discussed in different spheres. Whether the Church of England’s views on this subject shape public thinking remains to be seen.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.