The Myth of the Holy Hierarchy

Remembering UK scientist R. J. “Sam” Berry (1934–2018), a real scientist with real faith

“As a Christian at university, I was faced with a hierarchy of possibilities. The really holy people became missionaries, the rather holy people were ordained, and the fairly holy people became teachers; the ‘also rans’ did all the other jobs in the world,” so wrote R. J. Berry in his book Real Science, Real Faith. Having discovered that he either couldn’t or shouldn’t do any of the “holy” jobs, Berry, known to most as Sam, eventually realized “that we have all been given different talents and callings, and that there is not (and should not be) such a thing as a typical or normal Christian.”

Sam Berry was anything but a normal Christian. He attended his local church regularly, went to the monthly prayer meetings whenever he could, and served on the church council. For the last 30 years of his life he was licensed to preach, and for about 20 years he took part in national synod meetings. This would have been a huge commitment on top of a regular job and raising three children, but Sam was a high-capacity person who was not content to conform to the stereotype of “also-ran”—those who run races but never win. He demonstrated to the best of his ability that every single Christian is in full-time ministry.

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© Faraday Institute

Ruth Bancewicz is a Senior Research Associate at The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, where she works on the positive interaction between science and faith. After studying Genetics at Aberdeen University, she completed a PhD at Edinburgh University. She spent two years as a part-time postdoctoral researcher at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Cell Biology at Edinburgh University, while also working as the Development Officer for Christians in Science. Ruth arrived at The Faraday Institute in 2006, and is currently a trustee of Christians in Science.


Scientists making a difference

I’ve recently been reading Nigel Bovey’s book ‘God, the Big Bang and Bunsen-Burning Issues’ (Authentic, 2008). This collection of stories has reminded me that there are huge numbers of scientists who really want to make a difference with their work and haven’t kept their faith and their science in separate compartments. I could quote hundreds of people, but best to make a start with one…

Ghillean Prance (Professor Sir…) is a botanist with a long and distinguished career mainly revolving around the Amazon rainforest. He was one of the first people to highlight that it was bad to chop so much of the rainforest down and try to do a something about stopping the massacre. In his chapters in ‘God, the Big Bang…’, and Real Science Real Faith, Ghillean shows how holistic his approach was – he was thinking of the plants, the environment, and the people who lived in the rainforest, their beliefs and communities. He has certainly not been one to keep his roles in the Christian community and the scientific community separate.

As tropical deforestation has accelerated I have become progressively more active in ecological issues, and as a consequence also in creation theology and the Christian basis for environmental protection.

During my travels around Amazonian Brazil I have always looked for local churches and sought to link up with them and encourage their work in any way possible.

I have seen excellent missionaries who have understood the needs and ways of local people. I have also seen mistakes. Back in the 1970s, I ran workshops and in 1993 I published a book called ‘Missionary Earthkeeping‘ to encourage people to learn the whole of what the Bible teaches about caring for God’s creation – care for the environment and care for individual tribes. Nowadays the approach is better, but that’s the message the West still needs to hear.

I was partularly intrigued by Ghillean’s description in Real Science Real Faith of ethnobotanists who spend a lot of their time with indigenous people. The temptation to embrace the animist beliefs that give such a deep sense of value for the environment is often strong. Ghillean had already experienced Jesus working in his life through the Holy Spirit, so his reaction was to learn selectively rather than embrace the whole package. So he started by using tree climbers rather than felling trees to collect specimens, and spent the rest of his career doing what he could to protect the rainforest. Ghillean also did what he could bring what he had learned to the rest of the church, and he is spending much of his retirement (if scientists ever retire…) helping the church to rediscover its earthkeeping roots.