Why the Church of England is talking about Artificial Intelligence

The Revd Dr Kathryn Pritchard

As the ECLAS director who leads on work with the Church of England’s public policy team, I am fortunate to help inform behind the scenes thinking about AI and Robotics and related technologies.

People are often surprised and encouraged when I tell them about the work the Church of England policy team and its bishops are doing in the areas of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Robotics. Purple-shirted, dog collar-wearing members of the House of Lords are frequently spotted at committee meetings and sessions on these topics. Indeed, bishops report sensing surprise from some delegates who may be wondering whether the senior Church of England leaders belong in this environment.

Until 2016 the Church of England was not formally involved in this area. Then, thanks to some synergistic happenings, AI and Robotics arrived firmly on the Church of England’s radar.

One of these happenings was a 2016 ECLAS conference at the University of Durham. There, bishops and other senior church leaders were immersed for two days in the world of AI and Robotics. The delegates met research scientists in their labs and saw the painstaking work that goes into training machines to recognise chickens, cats, and dogs (all part of that fascinating area termed ‘machine learning’). They saw the ‘raw’ ‘training’ of machines to accurately perceive distances and objects while in motion, for use in technology to support driverless cars. Our church leaders were delighted to meet and interact with robots. Later, together with scientists, ethicists and theologians, they reflected on big questions emerging from the event. By the end of the conference, if they hadn’t been already, delegates were convinced that it was vital for the Church to engage with AI.

The momentum of this conference carried into the House of Lords, and after an enthusiastic breakfast meeting with policy advisor colleagues in the Church of England, we decided it was time for the Church to ‘get on the front foot’ regarding AI and related technologies. The Bishop of Oxford, Steven Croft, had also grasped the nettle, sensing this area was vital for Church engagement with society. I should add that this engagement mainly concerns present-day technology – so-called narrow AI – rather than theoretical future developments.


Deepening engagement

Once the ball started rolling, relationships with leading scientists and AI ethicists became vital for the Church to stay on the front foot.

Responding to this need, ECLAS has convened several high-level policy related conversations since 2017. Last November, for instance, I chaired a high level AI Ethics themed conference at Lambeth Palace, where Church of England bishops and policy leaders heard about the very latest thinking and research in AI Ethics, Assistive Robotics and Social Care, AI and Employment, and AI and Racial Bias.  These topics were chosen both because they are high profile in the world of AI, and because they make up part of these busy bishops’ existing interests in policy and mission.

The scientists who contribute to these events have told us that they are struck by the depth and breadth of thought senior church leaders and advisors give to these topics. Most uses of AI require stringent ethical consideration if the technology is to achieve its intended goals. Some scientists mention losing sleep over possible unintended side effects and unwanted applications of their research. So, both the scientists and the bishops value the opportunity for a nuanced and complex discussion of the science and its ethical applications.

With my ECLAS colleague, Dr Alex Fry, I am exploring precisely what contributes to these conversations working well and where there are areas for improvement. One of the keys to maintaining this openness, it seems, is the ability to engage in the ‘messy middle’ rather than offering premature ‘wisdoms’. This allows the conversation to ‘breathe’ in an emerging area, a liminal space where shared language is not immediately available.

AI events and policy discussions are not the end of a process; this is a growing area of importance and will continue to be a focus of our work at ECLAS. In the meantime, the Church must continue to engage and learn within this vital public conversation.



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