A Personal and Historical Note:
The origin and inception of a dispersed order for ordained scientists

The roots of our Society of Ordained Scientists go back in my own thinking
to over 30 years ago when I began to take an active interest, as a layman,
in Christian theology.  I was working in my 'spare' time for the Diploma in
Theology at Birmingham University and it struck me forcibly how supine the
church appeared to be in response to the new challenges arising from
developments in many intellectual spheres and most of all in the natural
sciences.  As I put it later, in an article entitled 'The Church in an Age of
Science' in the Church Times of 26 January 1962,

The general impression of the man-in-the-street is of the Church fighting a
rearguard action, doomed to defeat. Moreover those whom the Church is
trying to reach are increasingly better equipped intellectually through
secondary and higher education. Although only a small proportion of the
population as a whole have any accurate scientific knowledge, it is science
and technology which are creating new attitudes. To people so influenced
the language of the Church appears to be not only obscure but
obscurantist and, even, dishonest.
The clergy are, through no fault of their own, ill-equipped to speak
effectively to a scientifically conditioned people, for the proportion of them
who have had any scientific education is practically negligible (almost too
small, less than one percent, to be recorded in the PEP survey, 'Graduate
Employment'. of 1954). Thus, the ordained leadership of all the churches
contains practically none who understand, from the inside, the chief
formative influence in the mind of modern man.

The recognition of the need by the Church for a more convincing apologetic
in relation to the sciences was, no doubt, in the mind of Bishop Bell of
Chichester in one of the last motions which he proposed to the
Convocation of Canterbury:

That this House, while greatly appreciating the steadily increasing interest
now being taken in adult education and wishing to encourage it in every
way, is also much concerned as to the need for examination and study by
qualified church men and women into the moral and spiritual significance of
modern scientific discoveries for human life and conduct, in co-operation
with scientists and others whose vocation or experience brings them into
contact with these and similar problems.

This motion was carried unanimously on 2 October 1957, but no more was
heard of it!

Thus it was that, when I was invited by Mervyn Stockwood to address the
Southwark Diocesan Meeting on 16 November 1960, I drew attention to
this situation and urged the Church at the diocesan level to utilise the
insights and knowledge of the scientific graduates in its membership as an
intellectual spearhead for the Church in regard to the challenge of new
scientific knowledge.  I even dropped the hint that what was needed in the
20th century was the flexible equivalent of what the Dominican order had
been at its foundation -- namely, a resource for the Church and its shock
troops in meeting the intellectual challenges of its day. I believe moves
were subsequently made in the diocese of Southwark for a team of
scientists to act as a panel or 'guild' to be available to address issues
raised by science for faith before various audiences (sixth-forms, workers
groups, etc.), but I heard no more about that.

In my article in the Church Times of January 1962, I referred to these
moves and went on to suggest:

Perhaps such diocesan 'guilds' of Christian psychologists, economists,
scientists, and so on, might one day develop into a new form of order within
the Church.

That 'one day' was a long time coming, some 25 years, but at least it has
now come in the S.O.Sc.!

At that time, as a layman -- and by then working (indeed overworking) as a
chemistry tutor and biochemistry lecturer in Oxford -- this idea was
couched mainly in terms of some sort of 'lay apostolate', with the proviso
that the scientists involved in it should also have a proper theological
education. These ideas simmered and eventually found their first
expression in the convening, initially by myself, of consultations between
scientists, theologians and clergy who were concerned to relate their
scientific knowledge and methods of study to their religious faith and
practice. These consultations took place in Oxford (1972), Cambridge
(1973) and Norwich (1974) and let to the inauguration of the Science and
Religion Forum (S.R.F.) at Durham in 1975. It continues to flourish and to
be, as its title indicates, a most valuable forum for the exchange of ideas in
an open dialogue between religion and science.

All this had been very much at the level of the head, but the heart too has
its reasons, and during this development of the S.R.F. I intuited,
instinctively discerning almost, that somehow a purely intellectual dialogue
between those engaged in the scientific and theological enterprises was
not enough. For theology, 'theo-logy', is ex hypothesi concerned with
words about God -- and words restrict and confine. God is in the 'still,
small voice' and in the silences that follow louder, more articulate
exercises. Theo-logy cannot of itself be the experience of God who is
known through life in prayer, in worship, and in silence. Furthermore, I
began to see that the Church needs not only intellectual inquiry of the kind
stimulated by the S.R.F. and other bodies, but it needs a cadre of
committed and informed members to constitute a new kind of order (the
Dominican idea again?), held together by prayer and sacrament, and
committed to the life of science for and on behalf of the Church -- to
represent the Church in science and science in the Church. The
requirement of this double commitment -- to both science and the Church --
led me to think of the possible members of such an order as those with an
explicit double vocation with respect to both and so to think of it as being
constituted of 'priest-scientists'.  I was encouraged in this by an increasing
awareness that, unlike the situation 20 years previously (and referred to in
the first quotation above from my 1962 Church Times article), the Church
of England now possessed a considerable number of able and well-
qualified scientists amongst its priests and deacons -- to the often-
expressed astonishment of members of other churches, especially those
predominant outside Britain, who had noted this phenomenon.

I began a process of mentioning what I feared might be seen as this crazy
idea to a number of priest-scientists known to me. These approaches were
necessarily tentative, personal and private for the whole idea was only an
intuition and I needed to know if anyone else shared the same concern.  I
can only take it as an outreach of God as Holy Spirit that it transpired that
all those with whom I broached the matter did respond sensitively and
warmly to my, still inchoate, suggestions. In particular, it was Canon Eric
Jenkins (then Vicar of Hightown and Science Advisor in the Liverpool
Diocese) above all who began to devote his tenacious and efficient
organising powers to furthering the process of making it actually happen.  I
gladly refer to his foregoing account of subsequent events and I continue
with some of the aspects known to me personally.

During this period of 1985-6, I took the advice of various people. These
included: Canon Donald Allchin (then of Canterbury), who had a wide
experience of religious communities (we met in Oxford on 18 November
1985); Bishop Michael Mann, because of a possible connection with St
George's, Windsor; the late Revd Professor Eric Mascall, who made
available valuable information concerning the Oratory of the Good
Shepherd, a dispersed Anglican order of which he was a member; Dr
Margaret Bowker, to whom I owed much spiritual counsel; and, on her
advice, the Revd Gerard Hughes, S.J., because of his skill and experience
in advising nascent groups or communities on how to come to their
collective decisions. Illumination in this matter was important for those of
us who had been involved in the developments up to the middle of 1986,
because of the impending consultation on 5 June 1985 at Windsor of a
dozen or so of those who had expressed rapport with the general idea.  A
decision whether or not to pursue it would then have to be made.

Fr Hughes was invited but could not come to that consultation, but I was
able to see him at Manresa House in Harborne, Birmingham, on 28 May
1986, and to hear him amplify in person the passages about making group
decisions which I had found so helpful in his God of Surprises (Darton,
Longman and Todd, London, 1985, 1986, especially pp. 146-9).  His advice
in this regard is based on the experience of St Ignatius Loyola and his
friends who, when at a crucial point in their self-definition as a group, had
to decide whether or not to remain together and to take a vow of obedience
(that is, to become a religious order) or to part, using their (considerable)
individual talents more individually and separately.  Gerard Hughes
describes the event in his book (pp. 146-7) and what I learnt from that, and
more directly from him, was the wisdom, after a general discussion of all
the pros and cons and ramifications of a proposal of this ilk, of having a
long interval of silence during which all those present could go away to
meditate and pray privately.  Only after this is there a re-assembling, when
each individual states in turn the outcome of this process of reflection, with
no further argument.

It was this procedure which was, in principle, implemented at Windsor on 5
June 1986, which led, as Eric Jenkins's account reports, to the definite
decision by those present to form a new dispersed order of ordained
scientists.

From that point on, I found myself swept along by the current of the
common mind and as the agent, with Eric Jenkins, of that accelerating
process of communal consent which brought the Society of Ordained
Scientists into existence and which characterises its ongoing present.

LAUS DEO
Arthur Peacocke
Oxford, January 1994

Back to History contents