Take your Vicar to the Lab!

‘Take your Vicar to the Lab!’ is a Diocese of St Albans initiative and is one of eight projects around the country funded by the Scientists in Congregations programme through the Templeton World Charity Foundation. The aim is to promote the co-existence between religion and science and to deepen people’s appreciation of both.

I was part of a small group of clergy who went to Queen Mary’s University at Charterhouse Square in London, where Genomics England and the 100,000 Genome Project ( https://www.genomicsengland.co.uk/the-100000-genomes-project/ ) are based to look behind the scenes at genetic research and to explore some of the ethical issues surrounding it.

In some respects, there wasn’t actually a lot to see! Labs filled with the normal lab equipment and some interesting looking machines. What is exciting however is what those machines can do. Almost every healthy cell in our bodies has a complete set of genes with DNA between them – a genome. The machines in the lab work out the code for the genome – all 3 billion letters which make up the human DNA sequence. By looking at these sequences, scientists can work out the role of genes in health and disease. When the first human genome was sequenced it took 13 years to be completed in 2013, the machines I saw can now do it in 36 hours!

It isn’t just human genomes which are sequenced, the scientists we saw have worked on the genomes of a wide range of species including bluebells.

We live in a world where science and religion seem to be considered to be at polar ends of a spectrum – God at one end and the field of science at the other, incompatible with each other, one often disproving the other - theories of evolution vs the creation narrative in Genesis for example. But when you stand in a laboratory surrounded by expensive equipment and are told that there is two metres of DNA inside a cell you cannot see with you naked eye, the two seem very much closer. After all each cell contains not only those two metres of DNA which makes you who you are, but also 46 chromosomes and 3 billion DNA sub-units. For me this is glimpse of the Creator, whose level of detail and careful design is beyond our imagining. The words of Psalm 139 echo here ‘I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.’ So wonderfully made in fact that our DNA is 99.9% similar to other human beings – it’s the detail in the 0.1% which makes us all different and our DNA is also 92% similar to mice and 50% similar to lettuce!

The headlines we see in the newspapers about ‘designer babies’ and selecting genes for intelligence and the potential for twenty-first century style eugenics also polarises science and religion. Science is seen as ‘playing God’, challenging the Christian truth that in God’s eyes, all are unique and uniquely loved. But the genome research I saw going on wasn’t about manipulating genes to create the ‘perfect’ human but was rather focussed on identifying the faulty genes and understanding the role they play in health and disease. This allows treatment and drug therapies to be specifically targeted, especially in the case of certain cancers and therefore ultimately improving symptoms and outcomes. Our Christian faith speaks into this, most especially through the New Testament where there is much focus on healing and wholeness. It is easy to say that healing only comes from God but it is important to remember that medical skills and knowledge are God-given skills and gifts.

There are of course a whole host of ethical questions which arise and which cause science and religion to challenge each other and to not always reach the same conclusion. There are questions about who owns our genetic information, the consequences of finding out your disease status or the potential outcome for being a faulty gene carrier both for yourself and other family members. Then there are the questions surrounding our sense of personhood, what it means to be made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), society’s view of disease and disability and what we do with such detailed scientific discovery and understanding, at what point do we decide we have reached God given limits and is there a line which as infinite created beings we cannot cross?

The experience has of course raised more questions than answers but it was great to get an insight into a complex, forward moving field and to see how science and faith both have a voice in ethical issues surrounding it.

To hear more about the day listen to http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08cqq7h about 5 mins 30 secs in. If anyone wants a discussion or to borrow a book, let me know!