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What happens when you do science in one of the country’s most spectacular church buildings? This summer, Rev Dr Vicky Johnson got to find the answer to that question. Her doctorate in biochemistry equipped her to tackle the science, so when she started work as a Canon at Ely cathedral, she set about organising a month-long science festival as part of her work overseeing outreach and congregational growth. In this month’s podcast I found out the results (abbreviated transcript below).

Can I find out where the idea for the cathedral science festival came from?

It has probably being brewing in my mind for quite a long time, being trained as a scientist and now working in the church. I’ve often felt really strongly that the church should be a place where science is celebrated – and in some ways it always has been. So the idea started from my own question, but more and more people became interested and the idea grew and grew into a massive science festival.

So when you opened the doors of the cathedral and put on all these science events, what transpired?

It was amazing! There were so many people who engaged with what we were doing. We had a schools art exhibition, and we had a major exhibition in our lady chapel where we were so lucky to be able to display an original copy of Isaac Newton’s ‘Principa Mathematica’ and Charles Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’, as well as a dinosaur, local artefacts, fossils, molecular models and scientific artwork. We also had lectures and events for families and children and hands-on experiments in the cathedral. It was a whole range of different kinds of events which allowed people, whatever their age and background, to engage in science in some way.

I was at one of the hands-on events, and it was wonderful just to be in a cathedral and watch children enjoying science in that context.

We called it ‘A Night at the Cathedral’, taking as its inspiration some of the events you see in museums. The cathedral was open and we had loads of exhibitors, including the Faraday Institute, local scientists and science organisations with exhibitions and displays and interactive activities. At the first event we had about 400 people coming through, and at the second one (which was during half term week) we had 1,000 people engaging with science in the most amazing way. They had such a positive feel, with lots of people being curious and asking questions, and loads of brilliant scientists talking to the public about their work. I think they were probably my favourite events in the whole festival.

At science and belief we’re interested in the wonders of the living world and the questions about meaning and purpose that they raise. Obviously we both saw lots of people enjoying those wonders in the festival. Did you get any sense of the sorts of questions it might have been raising for them?

Yes, this was the really interesting thing about being on the ground as events were unfolding. I did have some quite profound conversations with members of the public who came into the cathedral and were just wowed by what we were doing and the science input that they were getting. Someone came up to me and said, ‘I didn’t think churches or cathedrals were interested in this stuff, and I’m just blown away that you are.’ Then I could explain to them that I was a scientist and actually the church is really interested in science and technology and, in a way, the whole festival was celebrating that fact. It was really fascinating for me to engage with people for whom the science festival was really busting myths about the church and science.

Did you get any glimpse of any theological or philosophical questions that people were asking as they had this license to explore?

Yes, I think it did. A lot of the events we were doing, particularly our lecture series, was raising questions in people’s minds about how we live in the world – how we care for it, how we are stewards of it, how we interpret it – in the light of a living faith. Another interesting conversation I had was talking to someone who at first had some doubts about exploring science in a cathedral, and together we talked through those doubts and started thinking about the God we both believed in. Is that God over all things or do we believe in a God who only works on some days in the church? We both agreed we believe in a God over all things and in and throughout all of creation. The science festival was provoking that kind of question. In some ways it was challenging people as to how they place science in the context of a living faith.

So science is something you can do within the context of your faith because it’s encompassed by it?

Of course, yes, I think that is where we were getting to. That doesn’t mean that our faith can’t ask questions of science – especially in terms of ethics, the kind of experiments we do, the kind of knowledge we want to have, and how we use that knowledge. But I think science as a discipline in itself is a God-given gift of an enquiring mind. We were trying to promote the idea that we have been given minds to think, wonder, and ask questions about creation – and then use it, care for it and enjoy it.

You’re a biochemist and you were in a lab for a while before you became ordained. Did your work there produce any questions about meaning or purpose?

I was looking at the way cells develop and grow, and how sometimes those processes become compromised and may lead to mutations and ultimately cancer. I went into science because I felt I had the vocation to help people and to do something positive. Also, when you’re in a lab and you’re lucky enough to see some of these minute processes that are going on in our body all the time, you can’t help but have some wonder and awe for what is going on every second of every day in our bodies. Having a tiny insight into some of those processes was also an inspiration for me. So I certainly saw God in the lab – which I think is the title of one of your books. [Thanks, yes!] And I think that was always there. It wasn’t as if the laboratory was a completely sterile environment for faith.

So you then went on to train for ministry which involved studying theology. Did that change anything for you in doing that?

In a sense, it didn’t. I’ve always been of the opinion that theology (I think it was Aquinas who said it) is ‘the queen of the sciences’. I felt that my scientific mind was always asking questions, always wondering, always trying to figure out what was going on in the world, and those same things are true in theology. You’re trying to explore and wonder about what’s going on in the world – it’s just a slightly different lens. So I’ve never seen anything conflicting between proper scientific study and theology. I think they’re both disciplines which allow you to ask questions – or they should be!

Did studying theology help your sense of wonder and awe to grow, or did it change in any way?

I think doing theology helped me articulate what I’d been feeling for a long time in science – it gave me the language to pull everything together in my own mind. Then having confidence in theology and science allows me to practically do things like the science festival we did at Ely. There was a lot of thought behind the science festival here in the way we approached the subject and in the kinds of questions we were asking.

So what was the main thought behind the festival?

We could have approached it in a very different way and made it more explicitly a science and religion debate, but what we actually wanted to do was to celebrate science in the context of our living faith. Somebody said ‘there’s lots of science going on, but where’s the religious bit?’, and that exactly picked up on the point we were trying to make. The religious bit was how people interacted with the content of the science festival in that wonderful space of Ely cathedral. We want to give people some credit that they can wonder and think for themselves, and ponder the questions that the science festival raised.

Victoria Johnson

Victoria Johnson is a residentiary Canon at Ely Cathedral. Prior to that she was parish priest in Manchester. She has a PhD in Biochemistry, and worked as a Cancer Research Scientist at the University of Manchester before training for ordination and switching to theology, studying at Cambridge and Yale universities. Vicky is a member of the Mission Theology Advisory group, and Mission and Public Affairs Council of the Church of England and is currently engaged in conversations with Bishops and religious leaders on the communication of science in the life of the church, as well as planning a science festival at Ely Cathedral.