Suzanna Mason on the Anglican Faith, Politics, and Natural Philosophy

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

The Anglican Faith

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What is the modern Anglican faith? What does it mean to you?

Suzanna Mason: The origins of Anglicanism start with a Catholic named Henry VIII, who was the King of England. He was famous for having lots and lots of wives. He managed to have lots and lots of wives because he grew furious at the Pope for not allowing him to have a divorce, so he set up his own church.

This was Catholic in origin. Galileo annoyed the Catholic Church. It did not stop him being a Catholic; same with Henry VIII. Ironically, it got started with a divorce. It is now a Protestant faith, but it is also Catholic in nature sometimes.

The Anglican Church is where we get the phrase “broad church”, e.g. “you have a broad church.” It means that we have people who are more Catholic than the Pope and people who are more Protestant than the Puritans.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Mason: It is an enormously diverse church. I remember hearing that the average Anglican is a single mother in sub-Saharan Africa because there is a big Anglican community in Africa. All across the world, this church, so many different people and opinions.

I grew up in an Anglican church. Then the churches that I have been a part of while I moved around. I tipped toes in some charismatic ones. They [Anglican churches] are welcoming, friendly, lovely places, where it is pretty much written into the laws of religion that there will be tea and biscuits after every service or a pub if a late-night service.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Mason: It is often a welcoming place. There is lots of music and prayer. Lots of different activities, whether helping in the local community or the local church. I have done creative groups and weekends away from a very young age.

Jacobsen: Now, sometimes, religions can become mixed up with politics. How much does Anglicanism mix up with politics in the UK?

Mason: The Anglican Church is the established church in the United Kingdom. It is Anglican services that were involved in the coronation of the Queen. We will have to see whether they will be involved in the next coronation that we get, when that happens.

But we have the House of Lords in Parliament that involves members of the church. Although, not being into politics as much myself, I am not sure if it is entirely Anglican bishops or it might be, or if it may be the representation of other faiths as well.

But the Anglican Church is the established church. When people think Christian in the UK, they will think Anglicans, Anglican robes and speech, and Anglican churches, though it is by no means the only denomination. There are still Catholic cathedrals in certain cities. I believe that in order to be called a city [in the UK] that you have to have a cathedral. That is the technicality for making a city a city. Something like that.

Most cathedrals are Anglican. There are a few Catholic ones as well. The history has been “Now, we’re Catholic. Now, we’re Anglican [Or, Protestant more broadly..] Now, we’re Catholic…” [Laughing]. There is this sort of thing.

The Archbishop of Canterbury is the head of the church in the UK. You might get statements or news about scandals, or different organizations doing different things. For a while, there was a lot in the media about different groups arguing about advertising their beliefs, generally.

Everyone has gotten involved with that. In terms of politics, it is quite interesting. There is the sort of stereotype in the US. If you want to be a politician, you have to declare your faith and make it known that you are a believer.

In the UK [Laughing], if you known to be a believer, then you are seen as weird. Unless, you are Muslim. Then it is fine [Laughing]. In the UK, religion can be seen as a something that would rather be seen and not heard.

We have an interesting relationship with politics and religion. The Queen is really well liked by a lot of people and is an open Christian and is open about the role Christianity has played in her life. It [opinion on religion] seems to depend for a lot of people on what happened, who is talking, and what the situation is.

Yes, religion is still in politics, but I’m not sure how much Christianity is involved a lot of the time.

Jacobsen: When it comes to the articles of faith, what do you consider some of the more pertinent to daily life?

Mason: It is an interesting question. The Anglican tradition has 39 articles of faith, which are in a prayer book. For a long time, the 1662 prayer book was used in churches. Now, we have a more modern one. It lists out the key beliefs that hold up Christianity.

But, of course, that is a strong tradition in the Anglican faith, but we have to look to the Bible itself and go back to the key texts. For me, I think there is a lot of important things [pertinent to daily life]. I think there is a tendency of Christians and atheists alike to reduce the Bible to soundbites.

You get atheists saying, “Look at those Christians quoting the Bible, now, let me tell you about this one quote Christopher Hitchens said one time” [Laughing]. That sums it up. It is hard to sum up an entire library of knowledge.

In terms of importance for daily life, it is really important to be honest, to try and speak the truth as much as possible, but also to not speak harshly. There are a lot of things in the Bible about not letting your tongue be a sword, or that your tongue is a sword because you can speak the truth and do a lot of damage if you are not careful.

I think as well that there is a lot in the Bible about having your thoughts on the right things. There are a lot of things about not letting yourself being consumed with worry or thinking bad things about other people.

It is spending your mental energy on the wrong things, on conflicts, or remembering the old prayer “give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.” You cannot waste your time worrying about things that are done and out of your control.

For daily life, there is so much. Speaking the truth, walk in the light, don’t get in fights [Laughing] if you can help it. There are lots, especially in the Proverbs. There are idioms for daily life and for how to behave.

Jacobsen: What does the Christian faith emphasize?

It is all about, basically, “If you are smart, you will listen to people who know than you. Do not go back to making the same mistakes.” It is quite interesting as well because wisdom is more than intelligence in the Christian religion.

It is something above intelligence. We sort of recognize that in the secular world. You certainly get these phrases like “intelligence is knowing a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.” It is applying the knowledge cleverly.

Wisdom is a person. It is a real force in Christianity. It is not an abstract concept. Wisdom is about almost following the correct path through life, for getting yourself back on the right path. It is sort of about, in that sense, avoiding sin because sin, and this is something that has been mentioned by other people:“Sin” comes from an archery term, which I am not going to try and pronounce. It comes from an archery term, which means to fail to hit the bullseye, to fail to hit your mark – being less than you could be.

Wisdom is about knowing the path you need to take to do the things to make sure that you don’t feel regret or that you miss your mark or that you feel less. Actually, in Proverbs, it said Wisdom was there in the beginning of the creation of the world.

I like a verse, which says, “I Wisdom dwell with Prudence and seek out witty inventions” [Laughing]. It is an interesting phrase. It is interesting in terms of human behavior. We as a species like seeking out our witty inventions.

There is a thing [in that verse] about wisdom being linked with prudence and self-control. They call it “temperance” in the King James version. It is being wise with yourself and with your knowledge. As Christians, we should seek out knowledge. The Vatican has an Astronomy department, which studies space.

In my church, we have a layperson who is the Chair of the Education Committee of the Royal Society, who is becoming the Chair of Natural Philosophy at the University of York. Natural Philosophy is the original term for “science.”

The wisdom or love of nature, finding more out about nature. I come from a family of academic Christians [Laughing]. It is all perfectly natural to me.

Jacobsen: What do you think about the original distinction between natural philosophy and moral philosophy, as you noted the original term “science” came from “natural philosopher” or “natural philosophers” or “scientists,” in other words, the people of science are natural philosophers, so become applied philosophers.

Some have argued that science is not philosophy or that science does not need philosophy, which is not, by definition, or its historical use correct. It is a branch of philosophy, which is applied philosophy. Its functional utility comes from the great wonders we get from it, but I think that obscures that fact that it is a branch of philosophy.

In particular, the functional descriptions of the natural world. What do you make of this heavy emphasis on science or natural philosophy now? How do you square that with metaphysical understandings of the world through traditional Abrahamic religions such as Christianity and its theology?

Mason: I think there is quite a lot to unpack with that question [Laughing].

On Science and Philosophy

You can go down the rabbit hole of applicability. All science is applied maths. That sort of thing. You have to be careful with that. Science and philosophy talk to one another.

But, in general, there is interdisciplinary work because it is important to get different views on things. In terms of the education side, it is important science does not lie inside an ivory tower or a bubble and just talks to itself.

If you want to change the world, you have to tell people about your results and disseminate your findings. If you only talk to scientists and only talk like a scientist, then, frankly, it is very dull for everyone who is not a scientist and is not a good way of going about things.

There is a man named Randy Olson who was a biologist of some sort. He left science and went into Hollywood. He wrote many books and gave Ted talks about the problem of scientists not even knowing how to talk to scientists.

During my undergraduate or bachelor’s degree, I did a course that was about the philosophy of the environment and learned about things like the Tragedy of the Commons and the ethics of food aid. For example, people do not starve anywhere in the world because there is not enough food.

They starve because there is not enough access to food. The government could not buy it. Or with the Potato Famine, the food was being grown in Ireland but being sent to the British. That was the single most important course that I did.

It is something that I want to learn more about. So, I that think part of the trick in talking science, in my own country at least, you learn a subject and get trained in a subject, but in places like America you do courses in different things.

You have to do all sorts of credits and do all sorts of different things. You get quite a broad education at their universities. I did Biology and learned about Biology. That was all that I learned. When you don’t have an interdisciplinary approach to things, one discipline does not know the methodologies and quirks of another discipline.

I have no idea how a philosophy paper is written. I imagine it is different than a science paper. What we now call science started as Natural Philosophy, but we have science also diverging from philosophy; it is applied philosophy, but very applied philosophy in such the way that it has drifted quite far from the original.

It does not mean there are no similarities or history. Chemistry started with Alchemy. It is important to know how they thought and how we took things from there and to know what history there is. You cannot do Chemistry with Alchemy anymore.

There is an interesting thing there. It is very important. I work in Ecology. Of course, it has a lot of work on conservation. When you are trying to conserve species, there are so many ethical and moral and political and historical and cultural aspects that matter to that process.

It is very important for it to be a communication between the sciences and humanity, and philosophy. There are lots of places where science and philosophy rub up against one another. We have these now famous arguments:  people like Sam Harris who argue that science can tell us what moral values should be.

In those kinds of cases, science and philosophy are actually treading on each other’s toes. Those sorts of case studies will be interesting.

On Science and Religion

If you believe the world was created, and you also certainly in the Christian tradition where Creation or the world is a gift from God for humanity by and large, why wouldn’t you want to learn more about it? It is pretty amazing. It is there to found more out about.

There is a huge Christian tradition about the wonder of nature. It comes down to natural human curiosity as well. I find it confusing and also very sad when people are not curious about the world and the universe and everything in it.

Part of science studies is because I was exposed to that sort of question and curiosity at a young age like nature documentaries – simple things like this. I would be watching bird migration. My mum would say, “How do they know? How do they know where to go?”

It is that sort of questioning. You hang around young children to teach them things. They are full of those questions. There is a lot of that going. In the Christian tradition, it is a part of it. There is this big sort of celebration of nature and the wonder.

Lots of Christian poets have used nature as a topic to talk about. I would like to see a survey of all Christian scientists and see what disciplines they ended up in. I have seen many in Biology and Ecology, but there are many Christians in Physics as well.

It does seem to attract a lot of people, not only the universe and the cosmology, but also the other aspects of Biology and Physics as well. I think certainly history-wise it is always hard to unpack religion and culture because in many cases the religion was the culture.

In my country, there was a strong culture of being interested in nature and naturalism. We had Charles Darwin, but lots and lots and lots of people. There is a famous children’s author named Beatrix Potter. There is a film coming out about Peter Rabbit – her character.

She was an amateur naturalist. She had a paper submitted to the Linnean Society, by a male friend because as a woman, she couldn’t attend proceedings: ‘On the Germination of the Spores of the Agaricineae’. It was common for people to collect fossils and paint birds, and paint animals. If you look at her books, all of the artwork was hers because she would paint everything she saw in nature in watercolors.

It was very common for your small village English vicar to be preaching one day and bird watching the next day. It was in the culture. In terms of putting the two together, especially in Anglicanism, I think it was like 60 years or something.

It was not long for the Anglican Church to accept evolution as a fact. The idea of being a Christian and a scientist has never been an issue in Britain. It is never an issue. I meet lots of scientists who are atheists. But in England, we have such an attitude of do whatever you want and do not bother me with it.

Personal beliefs are not a big issue. Then having grown up in a family of Christians, especially in my parents’ case with social science as their area and dealing with medical and scientific data. It has never been an issue. Now, I am in a situation, where I am in a family where three people have PhDs. One person started and quit. One person might do a PhD by publication.

Another is getting a PhD. Everyone has dipped their toes in PhD waters [Laughing]. That might make me quite unusual [Laughing]. I can appreciate. People talk about compartmentalizing and the Non-Overlapping Magisteria. All of these sorts of things.

I was probably about in my early 20s when I first heard the concept of a conflict between science and religion. I just thought, “What conflict?” That isn’t to say there isn’t any conflict. Obviously, there are people who believe in literal truths of some of the events in the Bible.

The thing is there are contradictory events in the Bible, so they do not select those. So, they are selectively literal. They do not want to believe [certain scientific results] and want to restrict the teaching of science because it is in favour of what they believe.

It is not the beliefs, but the actions those lead to that are the problem. I think it is “How does anyone juggle anything in their life?” You’ve got your job, your family, your friends, your activities, your things. For me, science is not my life.

It is my job. It is a job that I think is very important and I am very passionate about it. Religion is my life. People sort of say, “How do you bash these two things together?” It is that science is something that I bring into my religion because my religion is my life.

I enjoy teaching people. Science is very important, but it is an activity. I hate the word ‘enterprise’ (which is used to define science). Science has the scientific method. Then there is the ‘enterprise’ of people doing all sorts of activities to drive this engine of science forward.

Science is a very nice catch-all term. But there are a lot of things going on in science. The same thing goes for religion sometimes [Laughing] as well. I do not think it is as clear cut as “I have object A, which is science, and object B, which religion, and I have to fit them together.”

In a way, it is more complex, but it also more simple at the same time. It is different things. People do different things that other people think are conflicting all of the time.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Suzie.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen founded In-Sight Publishing and In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal.

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