God in the Life of a Science Missioner

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The Revd Jen Brown tells Jo Duckles how she became a Science Missioner in the Churn Benefice as well as running the Cuddesdon School of Theology and Ministry at Ripon College.

The Revd Jen Brown. Photo by Jo Duckles.

The Revd Jen Brown. Photo by Jo Duckles.

We meet at Ripon College where Jen tells me her story from her office. “I was raised in a Christian family so church has always been a part of my life,” says Jen, who grew up in the US, just outside of Washington DC. She married her English husband Chris, whose background is also in science, in 1996 when he was working out there, and they moved here in 1999.  “I loved doing science at school. At university, I started as a biology student then changed to psychology. Psychology remains my main area of interest, but I have always maintained an interest in the other sciences, especially biology and astronomy.”

Before ordination Jen was a medical writer with connections in the biomedical and pharmaceutical industry. “I first felt a sense of call to ordination when I was at university but that was accompanied with a sense of ‘not yet’ and it wasn’t until I was settled here in the UK that it became clear to me that the time was right,” says Jen, whose theological training was on the Oxford Ministry Course.  In the States, Jen attended an Episcopal church which blended an evangelical focus on the Bible with a more high-church liturgy and emphasis on the Eucharist.”Being an Episcopalian, the Church of England felt like a natural home for me when we moved here.”

The eldest of six half brothers and sisters, Jen has six nephews and she has regular contact with her family in America via email and Skype. “Modern technology makes living at a distance far easier for families than it would have been 20 to 25 years ago,” she says.  Jen has a Masters in the Psychology of Religion, and has recently started a PhD, studying how faith and ethical behaviour overlap. “I think that sort of thing is really important for Christians,” she says. “I’m hoping something will come out of it that the Church can actually make use of in a practical way in helping people to be better disciples.”

Her studies put Jen in touch with other researchers and scientists and means engaging with those who are not necessarily people of faith. Being involved in research also helps her in her role of Science Missioner to engage with research scientists.
“Christians can be portrayed by non-believers as people who accept things unconditionally and in most cases that is not how it is at all. The way the science and religion story is told in the media is often too simplistic.”

And while Richard Dawkins and his supporters may see religion and science as polarised, Jen has never taken that view.  “It has never occurred to me that there should be a conflict. I have never felt that science calls into question my personal faith. I think that the area that I study raises questions about what discipleship is and what it means to live as a Christian and the psychological processes that go into worship and prayer.”

Both of her roles are part time, and currently the science missioner role is about encouraging people to engage, mainly through putting on public events. So far this has included a series of talks on issues including neuroscience, psychology, physics and theology, and one on the history of science and theology. When we met Jen was preparing for a talk on the environment to be delivered by the Revd Dr Gillian Straine, an Anglican priest who used to be based in Kidlington, Oxfordshire and has written widely on the issue of science, religion and the environment. Gillian’s story was featured as a God in the Life of in the Door.
The Science Missioner role was created in 2014 by the Revd Jason St John Nicolle, after a donation from a private individual. As that money was coming to an end, the Revd Professor Alister McGrath, the Director of the Ian Ramsey Centre at Oxford University, secured a grant for £128,042 from the Templeton World Charity Foundation to extend and expand the project. “The grant extends the project for another three years, so it means we can spend time thinking and planning what we want to do,” says Jen.

Jen’s varied roles mean there is no such thing as a typical week for her. “As a Science Missioner I could be doing anything from sending lots of emails looking for speakers for an event, or going out and speaking with someone on site up at Harwell, or writing my blog. At least once a month I preside and preach in one or two of the churches in the Churn Benefice, to keep me rooted and I am part of a book group that meets every two months.” In her spare time Jen is a keen gardener. “I like engaging with the living environment,” she says.

Jen’s interest in astronomy was buoyed by her latest birthday present, a telescope, which she was planning to use once it was dark on the day we met. “On the days we have clear skies that will occupy me in the hours of darkness. It’s my first one and very exciting.” She also has enough books to keep her going for months, so tries to carve out time for reading, and is involved in the Anglican Society for the Welfare of Animals. “I have always had pets and spent a lot of time with animals and there is some good science that says we should be re-thinking how we relate to our fellow creatures on God’s earth,” says Jen, who has a cat and a dog.

Coming soon:
The next events Jen is arranging are a talk by Bishop Lee Rayfield, the Bishop of Swindon, on genetics and human identity on Thursday 19th May at Ripon College Cuddesdon, and a public conversation between experts in the fields of science, art and theology on the subject of science, art and spirituality, on Friday 27th May at the Cornerstone Arts Centre in Didcot. Both begin at 7.30pm. Click here for more information.