Science and sacred spaces: How churches can bridge the science-faith conversation
Gaia on display at Holy Trinity, Boar Lane in Leeds City Centre, November 2022
You may have seen science events in your nearest cathedral – Dippy the Dinosaur, STEM trails, light shows that aim to break down barriers between science and faith. We’re proud to have sponsored many of these events ourselves through our Scientists in Congregations awards, and they attract impressive attendance and media coverage. So, what’s behind their success, and are there sensitivities that cathedrals need to be aware of? We recently took some time as a team to reflect on the unique role these projects can play in creating fruitful conversations and subverting perceptions of science-religion conflict.
Cathedrals have hosted a dazzling array of science-themed events, two of the most popular being artist Luke Jerram’s spectacular Museum of the Moon and Gaia installations. Our ECLAS Scientists in Congregations Scheme has funded Gaia projects at Hull Minster, Holy Trinity Boar Lane in Leeds, Chester Cathedral and St Peter Mancroft in Norwich, while Exeter Cathedral hosted the Museum of the Moon. St Albans Cathedral recently hosted Lighting up our Universe, a light show on the history of science.
Churches have reported that hosting these projects is an overwhelmingly positive and rewarding experience. St Peter Mancroft in Norwich described the Gaia installation as one of the most significant events the church had ever run:
“The impact of Gaia was extraordinary. We had 44,000 visitors, many of whom were moved to tears. Gaia has generated great goodwill towards the church and brought in people who had never previously visited.”
Meanwhile, a volunteer at ‘Our Earth, Our City’ Gaia installation at Holy Trinity Boar Lane remarked: “This is what our faith is all about, isn’t it? Stewarding the Earth.” Hosting events that celebrate the majesty of Creation through science not only gives visitors an opportunity to see the Church in a new light, but gives existing members of the congregation a fresh way of worshipping God.
Spectacle or sanctity?
Yet we know that holding events in church buildings alone isn’t the answer. Some cathedral installations have been unpopular or considered inappropriate for the setting. It’s important that cathedrals find a balance between creating a “spectacle” for visitors while preserving the sanctity of the space for the worshiping community. When developing science exhibits, churches have not always made the connections to faith explicit, calling into question how these installations differ from those in an art gallery or science museum.
In order to do these events well, we discussed the importance of churches supporting installations with other activities that draw out these links to faith and the Bible. There may also be opportunities to incorporate science themes into liturgy and the visual displays used as part of worship services.
Challenging the narrative
Cathedrals engaging confidently in scientific areas can challenge the idea that science and faith are in conflict. The popularity of events held in church buildings and cathedrals demonstrates that the Church can actively position itself as a positive conversation partner on topics such as climate change. Our team also suggested that hosting science-themed events in cathedrals and churches may even bring extra appeal to these topics, due to the element of “the unexpected” and “the surprising”.
There’s a case for interrogating why these projects have seen such success in churches particularly. It may be that in the post-Covid era, people have a fresh hunger to experience art on a grand scale and to re-engage with the awe-inspiring nature of sacred spaces. It can be argued that placing a scientific installation within a sacred building adds an extra dimension to the conversation. We’ve especially heard this with regards to the congregations who have hosted Gaia and Museum of the Moon and reported that holding worship services while contemplating the “overview effect” or the wonder of space exploration has been an incredibly moving experience.
Links to the wider world
We’ve learned from working with partners that projects often work most successfully when they link to wider current events. For example, Holy Trinity Boar Lane in Leeds launched their Gaia installation and accompanying events to coincide with the beginning of COP27. For churches who are considering hosting events, this might mean listening to what people are interested in and asking questions about, and then thinking about how to engage with that from a faith perspective.
At ECLAS we are excited to build on the legacy of these events. Several churches participating in Scientists in Congregations are continuing to explore science and engage with the community in new ways, and are among those leading the way in creativity and engagement. We hope this type of “Cathedral thinking” has a bright future, contributing to our long-term goal of achieving culture change within the Church, in this generation and beyond.
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