I have been asked about creationist infiltration into the Church of England, which has only come about in the last forty years. By Creationism I means those who reckon the earth to be only thousands of years old and that evolution has not happened. I will not discuss Creationism as such, except to say it is scientifically worthless and wrong as well as being bad theology.
Well here goes.
First consider the make-up and history of the Church of England. Right from the beginning, i.e 1540s, it was not completely Protestant, and has been called a bone half-set. Elizabeth wished to retain both ultra-protestants and semi-papists, resulting in tensions for over a century culminating with the execution of William Laud and the Civil war. After the Restoration in 1662 the Latitudinarians (fore-runners of liberals) gained the influence but from the 1730s Evangelicals began their long reign. Until about 1790 they were a small and despised group but brought about a change from below. From 1810 evangelicals were dominant, but as a good number of scientists were evangelical, notably the geologist Adam Sedgwick, the creationists of the day were hammered and thus by 1860 there were only a handful of Young Earthers. Thus in the 1860s no Anglican questioned Darwin on geology and by 1880 most had accepted a form of evolution and so that consensus remained until about 1970. The few years before 1970 were crucial, as Morris and Whitcomb’s book The Genesis Flood was published in Britain in 1968. This comes over in my personal experience as from 1968 to April 1971 I was working in Africa as an exploration geologist and just before I graduated in June 68 I became a Christian through the Christian Union. Nobody ever mentioned creationism – which was probably just as well On my return I got in touch with the CU members from college a year or two younger than me and lo! most were creationists. In May 1971 I went to L’Abri above Lake Geneva to study under Francis Schaeffer (later a founder of the Religious Right) and was told to study creationism. I very gently pointed out the flaws of The Genesis Flood and other creationist works as is my wont . That autumn I started ordination training at Cranmer Hall, Durham in Oct 1971 and creationism was below the radar. One visiting lecturer was Rev David Holloway of Jesmond and a fellow student was George Curry, both of whom helped found The Christian Institute and Emmanuel College, Gateshead, where creationism was taught as science, causing a rumpus in 2002. George is now part of truthinscience, which tries to get creationist teaching materials used in schools. Neither gave any indications of being creationists at that time. However soon after creationism began to grow slowly in the CoE. A vicar I worked under from 76-78 was sympathetic to it, but didn’t think I was a Christian. We got on just fine – NOT , but the nasty side of evangelicalism made me assess evangelicalism. (He questioned my faith because I did not speak of my conversion at every opportunity!) Creationism grew steadily in the 80s and more in the 90s, so that by 2000 a good 5% of CofE clergy were YEC and more sympathetic. Wally Benn, the first creationist bishop ever, retired last year. Within most dioceses are numbers of creationist clergy and no one calls them out. After all many are vicars of “thriving” churches.
So why are there creationists?
To describe the CofE simplistically there are three poles; Evangelical, Catholic and Liberal, with most being a bit of each. Since about 1970 over a third of ordinands have been evangelical and come from churches with a strong biblical teaching. Probably the most influential writer they/we would look to was John Stott, whose beliefs were centred on the cross, with a moderate substitutionary atonement for sin. That also involved original sin but he combined a historical Adam with evolution. However there was little contention over this and many let Adam slide into myth or kept mum. I think it fair to say that many scarcely thought about it, but as creationism hit the UK after 1968, questions began to be asked including by me. My geology prevented me going down the creationist road, as I was appalled by the creative way creationists dealt with geology and the rest of science.
The appeal of creationism is to those who have a high view of the Bible, verging on inerrancy, and wish to have a firm and clear doctrine, and thus avoiding the alternative of “going liberal” and down the slippery slope to liberal Christianity which so many evangelicals spoke about. As the Church of England has a fragile unity, it was not something many, especially bishops, wanted to be contentious about. Frankly Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement has been adopted in the church over creationists. There are various reasons for this;- wishing to avoid a more fractured church; confusion in themselves; not being seen as a priority despite it being let into schools; respecting it as a valid opinion etc. It does not help that most clergy cannot deal with the science.
Apparently the question is on how literal the Bible should be understood. However initially in the 70s this was a non-issue. Most evangelicals took the vast age of the earth and evolution for granted, implicitly accepting a non-literal view of Genesis. There were few clamouring voices challenging this. In a sense it was unthinking, and even by stretching Genesis like an elastic band, as Sedgwick put it in 1858, one cannot push humanity further back than 20-odd thousand, whereas palaeoanthropology opts for a million or so. Thus to retain a historical Adam one had either to push Adam back to a million years BC (replacing Eve with Raquel Welch) or postulate that God had injected a hominid, physically identical to us , with a soul ten or twenty thousand years ago. Stott adopted that view and it kept most evangelicals quiet, until the creationists came along and shot holes in the idea. This view is dependent on the opinion that humans are made up of two bits, body and soul, rather than being a psychosomatic unity. Hence dualism of body and soul is strongly defended by conservatives.
Essentially creationism forced evangelicals off the fence, making them decide whether there was no Adam or question geological time and retain a historical Adam. Stott’s view is really as unstable as Ammonium Tri-iodide. (This is easy to make and in my irresponsible youth while working in a civil service lab made some and sprinkled it in the corridors. Stillettos rapidly and audibly decomposed it.)
A few years ago the biochemist Denis Alexander re-stated Stott’s view in Creation or Evolution. The book takes a very conservative position, but caused uproar among creationists and the multi-author volume Should a Christian embrace evolution? was written to counteract it. Though Alexander is not an Anglican, the two books highlight the issues for Anglicans as well. Alexander got round the Adam problem by arguing that God infused a hominoid with a soul some 10,000 years ago, and allowing human like creatures to have existed for a million or so years. It has long been common view among evangelicals who feel they must retain a historical Adam, but it does seem to be a line in desert sand during a sandstorm. Though there was nothing novel with Alexander’s view of Adam, as many had held it before and the Cambridge geophysicist, Prof Bob White FRS of the Faraday institute, an Anglican, also holds it. (As an aside White wrote an article on the age of the earth and Genesis for the webpages of Reform, a strongly evangelical Anglican group, and the web-editors felt fit to add that many hold a Young earth position.) In the controversy over Alexander’s book, many creationists tried to claim that Alexander’s position over Adam was novel, but it was more or less the standard evangelical view, Anglican or not, for a good century. In many ways the YEC view is a more satisfactory way of dealing with a historical Adam, and also appeals to those who think that Christ’s forgiveness of actual and original sin requires a historic Fall.
Soon after Alexander’s book was published, IVP published a Creationist rebuttal. The first laudatory blurb was bt Bishop Wallace Benn of Lewes (since retired), and one chapter was written by the Revd Michael Reeves, formerly a curate of All Souls Langham Place, the bastion of Anglican evangelicalism.
As is seen in the discussion in the USA over Peter Enns’ book The Evolution of Adam, a historical Fall of a historical Adam has become a litmus test for more conservative Christians. Two Anglican theologians, Bishop Tom Wright and Prof Alister McGrath, often deal with these issues and consider the importance of Adam, but not supporting a historical Adam. Though both are Evangelical they are too liberal for some.
I think I have expounded the dilemma for evangelical Christians and that the classic position of Stott and Alexander as inherently unstable, thus forcing the serious evangelical either to be creationist to retain a historical Fall, or to accept a million year lineage of homo sapiens and in the words of ken Ham to become a “compromiser” and drift into a “liberal” or secularist stance. Many evangelicals (and former ones) have been in that unstable position and then move one way or the other. I come into that category. However that has not been the only factor in the Church of England over the last 40 years. Part has been the so-called Liberal Agenda, which is more a cluster of contemporary issues which may or may not be related; e.g. position of gays, ordination of women, revision of the Prayer Book, (going back to the 70s and 80s The myth of god Incarnate and Bishop David Jenkins, loosening of subscription to the 39 Articles and probably some more. As a result the more conservative evangelicals felt under pressure and often reacted to preserve their conservatism. Creationism could help them do that, or they became creationist to preserve their conservatism.
There are various individuals and groups dealing with the questions raised by science, and especially evolution, but tending not to give direct criticisms of creationism, but instead positively embracing modern science. Prof Keith Ward and Sir John Polkinghorne regularly gives talks and lectures. (and Wright and Mcgrath mentioned earlier). The long-term influence of the late Arthur Peacocke pervades so much of the science-religion dialogue today. He began his life work on science and religion in the 1950s and took advice from one of the few Anglican priests then working in the field – Rev Dr Grenville Yarnold, who was my uncle and not a relative of Olympic Gold medallists. The Faraday Institute (though ecumenical and not Anglican) organises many courses and has produced the excellent resource Test of Faith. Few of these make any public reference to creationism. It seems that one should not criticise creationism, though all regard it as misguided.
Against that the anti-evolutionary teaching in some Anglican churches and the influence of groups like Creation Ministries International, Answers in Genesis and various home-grown groups, and the predilection to creationism by Anglican bodies like Anglican Mainstream, Reform and Church Society ensure that creationism is presented as a goodly and godly view.
And thus creationism has grown in the CoE. Over the years I have researched on aspects of “creation and evolution” going back to about 1600 and looking well beyond the CoE. Much was summed up in my book Evangelicals and Science (Greenwood Press 2008). Until recent years very few actually denied science to defend their view of Christianity.
Ah , but Ussher? No, Ussher produced his date of 4004BC in 1656 when no one had a clue of the vast age of the earth. Geology began soon after that, and those studying rocks were frequently Christian and there was little controversy, except from 1817 to 1855, when there was a spate of anti-geologies, which were firmly put down by Anglican clerical geologists until Creationism was exported from the USA in 1970. Most notable were the Oxbridge geologists Adam Sedgwick and William Buckland. Their bust-ups with creationists in the 1830s and 1840s make for fun reading. Sadly there are few in the Church of England who take on creationists as did these two. (I once got my knuckles rapped when I said that bishops should take on creationists and point out why they are wrong. I think they prefer to keep quiet.)
And so today Creationism is tolerated in churches despite its manifest falsehoods; many tolerate it in schools and it is increasingly seen as a valid alternative in society in general. It is too often seen as improper to call it for what it is, bad science and bad theology, and not quite honest. One of my frustrations has been that Bishops realise that Creationism is utterly wrong but then don’t do anything about it whether in parishes or schools.
Here is a poster outside a church with a creationist vicar!! I couldn’t possibly comment where!
The infamous Noah’s Ark Zoo, an overtly creationist zoo in Bristol is run by an Anglican Reader, i.e. someone authorised by the Bishop (of Bristol) to preach in churches. In my view his licence should be removed.
It is difficult not to feel a sense of despair about all this. I have four reasons; first it makes Christian beliefs seem absurd (though that will not upset my atheist friends); secondly, it is effectively totally dishonest, thirdly, it is highly damaging to science education and thus the technological progress of our society; and fourthly many Creationists tend to dismiss Global Warming (partly because Global Warming draws on historical evidence on climate going back a few million years and more), one of the most serious issues our world faces today.