It may have been a chance encounter between neighbors that sparked the creation of the Ecumenical Roundtable on Science, Technology and the Church.
Lutheran Church in America staffer John Mangum and Verlyn Barker, a campus minister and staffer within the United Church of Christ (UCC), may have seemed an unlikely pairing but they soon discovered they had common interests.
Barker in his written reflections says that he and Mangum happened to live in the same apartment complex on the upper West side in New York City and became good friends. Out of that friendship came the “conviction” he says that it was time to form an ecumenical body focused on faith and science.
The pair co-founded in the late 1980s what was to become the Ecumenical Roundtable on Science, Technology and the Church of which the Lutheran Alliance for Faith, Science and Technology that sponsors this newsletter is still an active participating organization.
The Ecumenical Roundtable has sponsored annual conferences led by prominent theologians and scientists that are attended by a range of people including scientists, laypeople, pastors, theologians and ethicists.
The roots of the group can be traced back to a number of predecessor consultations and conferences.
The earliest such meeting dates back to 1985 with a University of Redlands conference held by the United Ministries in Higher Education (UMHE) group that brought together 11 Protestant denominations. Barker was the president of this UMHE group that organized the conference under the theme of “Science, Technology and the Christian Faith: Ministry and Higher Education in a Scientific and Technological Age.”
According to Barker, this UMHE meeting followed a court case that ignited the debate on “creationism” being taught in public schools.
In 1982, a US District Court judge in Arkansas handed down a decision that gave a clear definition of science that ruled that creation science was religion not science. This was only applied in the Eastern District of Arkansas and would ripple through numerous public school boards for decades.
Eventually a national program emerged in the UMHE that was embraced across denominational agencies with a focus on science and technology.
At its core was the interest from campus ministers including James Miller, who was a campus minister at Michigan Technological University and a Presbyterian. Miller, who has served in numerous leadership roles within the Presbyterian Association on Science, Technology and the Christian Faith through the years, and would also later serve as the senior program associate for the Program of Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion (DoSER) of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C.
Fast forward to 1986/1987 and a true ecumenical effort begins to take shape.
On October 2, 1986, Mangum hosted a meeting at the Lutheran Church House in New York City. Mangum, who has since passed, was director for planning for the Division of World Mission and Ecumenism of the Lutheran Church in America (the predecessor to the ELCA).
According to Ecumenical Roundtable archives, the meeting’s purpose was to get acquainted with faith and science programs and resources in the church groups represented at the meeting. Represented were the Episcopal Church, Trinity Institute, Roman Catholic Church, American Lutheran Church, Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church USA and United Church of Christ.
The outcome was a global consultation in Larnaca, Cyprus that brought together young theologians and scientists from every region of the Lutheran World Federation. Also in attendance were ecumenical guests from the United States. The theme was “The New Scientific/Technological World: What Difference Does It Make for the Churches?”
The meeting was “a memorable experience marked by the presence and participation of some brilliant young people, including a 19 year old, called the ‘whiz’ from Argentina who reminded us of the importance of these discussions for his generation,” recalls Barker.
One participant in the event was Lutheran Alliance member John Albright, who describes Mangum as having an “ardent desire to have a conference on science and religion to involve not just Americans, but people from many parts of the world.”
The conference itself was funded in part by the LCA and the Lutheran World Federation and took place in late November 1987. A total of 17 countries were represented including participants from South America, Africa and Asia. Albright, who taught physics at Florida State University at the time and is now retired from Purdue University (Calumet) says that roughly 45 participants attended including those who were to take leading roles in the faith and science dialogue. They include Arthur Peacocke, Vitor Westhelle, Eduardo Cruz, Antje Jackelén, Robert J. Russell, Ted Peters, Bill Lesher, and Ron Cole-Turner.
Those younger Lutherans attending from North America became the direct ancestors of the Lutheran Alliance for Faith, Science and Technology, according to Albright.
Bengt Gustafsson, an astrophysicist from Sweden, spoke on the current status of his science, especially with regard to cosmology. He urged theologians not to take science too seriously, because it is still a work in progress. It was good advice, since in 1987 people knew nothing about exoplanets, for example, says Albright.
Arthur Peacocke also attended as a physical chemist and ordained priest in the Church of England. His work in integration of faith and science is widely cited and was published in 1981 — The Sciences and Theology in the Twentieth Century. At Cyprus, he spoke about challenges from science to theology, especially with regard to evolution. He indicated that without the phenomenon of death, there could be no evolution, Albright says.
Albright in his recollections adds that a powerful theme was expressed by Vincent Titanji, a biochemist from Cameroon in West Africa. He saw his scientific research as a response to a calling, specifically to find a cure for river blindness, a horrible parasitic disease endemic to his homeland. His case was strongly supported by theologian Ted Peters, who lamented the propensity of churches to limit “calling” to purely ecclesial settings.
The themes of vocational calling in the sciences and the church’s response to the scientific discovery have been part of ongoing discussions within the Ecumenical Roundtable over the years. Also prevalent throughout its existence is the Ecumenical Roundtable’s questioning of its own future.
At Cyprus, the concern was for the establishment and continued activity of centers, such as the Center for Theology in the Natural Sciences at Berkeley. Bob Russell, founding director of CTNS, was a concluding plenary speaker. Attention was paid to a center in Chicago that was about to open and later became the Zygon Center for Religion and Science housed at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.
As formal meetings were organized in various locales over the decades, the Episcopalian, UCC, Methodist, Roman Catholic and Presbyterian churches have all had participating delegations.
More than 30 years after Cyprus, the Ecumenical Roundtable met once again, this year in Chicago at the ELCA churchwide offices.
Although the discussion centered on the perennial topic of the future of the roundtable meetings, the two main denominations in attendance — Presbyterian and Lutheran — remain committed as ever to continue sharing resources and insights to further push an agenda that is in line with the initial founders’ aims of “being the church while dealing with emerging theological and ethical issues of contemporary science and theology.”
Susan is an author with a long-time interest in religion and science. She currently edits Covalence, the Lutheran Alliance for Faith, Science and Technology’s online magazine. She has written articles in The Lutheran and the Zygon Center for Religion and Science newsletter. Susan is a board member for the Center for Advanced Study of Religion and Science, the supporting organization for the Zygon Center and the Zygon Journal. She also co-wrote Our Bodies Are Selves with Dr. Philip Hefner and Dr. Ann Pederson.