The Right Revd David Walker has held the position of Bishop of Manchester since 2013. Prior to that he was Bishop of Dudley from 2000, following 17 years in assorted parish ministries and industrial chaplaincy in the Diocese of Sheffield.
David is Chair of the Advisory Council on the Relations of Bishops and Religious Communities (ACRBRC) – the body which is currently working with new monastic communities as they emerge across the Country. He acts as International Visitor for the Society of Ordained Scientists. He is Deputy Chair of the Board of Governors of the Church Commissioners.
David’s most recently published theological writings are grouped around the phenomenon of occasional church goers, and includes his recent book God’s Belongers. He also retains a longstanding involvement in Social Housing.
David is married to Sue and they have two adult children. He is a member of the Third Order of the Society of St Francis.
Describe something that has recently amazed you and how it made you feel.
I am often amazed by the simple beauty and ordinariness of the creation. A sunset over Salford (admittedly there’s lots of days when it’s too cloudy to see it) or a fox walking past my study window whilst I’m working.
How would you personally define wonder, awe and curiosity? And how do they relate to each other?
Awe and wonder are like love, you know them when you feel them but they are awfully hard to define. They are an immediate and instantaneous reaction from the very depth of the soul and often experienced as a sense of wellbeing and the gloriousness of things. Curiosity is different in that it is the desire to discover more about something rather than to simply experience it fully in the here and now.
Where do you think our sense of wonder comes from and what can we do to cultivate it?
I first trained as a mathematician, and discovered through that that maths is about the recognition of patterns (whether they be patterns of numbers, shapes or abstract constructs). And indeed mathematics itself has produced many moments of wonder in my life, for example when a hugely complex formula suddenly resolves into something very simple (E=mc² for example). So I think wonder comes from seeing how something fits in to the overall pattern and shape around us.
We can go and cultivate it not least through seeking to understand more and better. The more I understand about the nature of the universe, the more I wonder that the light of the stars that has been travelling so many millions or billions of years to reach my retina.
Is there a theology of wonder?
Wonder is, as I have said, something to do with the pattern of things. God is the one who creates that pattern and he above, and beyond all, understands patterns at their deepest and fullest level. There are many patterns in the Christian story, not least in the ministry of Jesus.
Earlier this week I was working at The Manchester Grammar School, which I know you attended. The school motto of “Sapere aude” (dare to know) caught my eye. Is this something that strikes a chord with you? And how do you think God views humanity’s thirst to know?
I have just myself been back to Manchester Grammar School in order to address a group of sixth-formers who are studying R.E. The school blazer looks indistinguishable from the one I wore 50 years ago. The motto “Sapere aude” (dare to be wise) the school emblem of an owl completes the pun and pattern that connects it both to the aim of the school (producing not simply intelligence but wisdom) and the name of the original founder (Hugh Oldham – Bishop of Exeter). The notion that the search for wisdom requires a degree of boldness (even daring) is one that that inspired me from the very beginning of my time there. It still does. I do believe that God has created us to know and be known by him, and to seek to know as much as we can of the creation around us. In our thirst for knowledge we echo his own creativity and sense of wonder. So I think he delights in it.
You’re now the Bishop with oversight for the Society of Ordained Scientists. What prompted the switch from physics research to train as a Church of England priest? How does scientific training shape and challenge church leaders?
My research was not so much in physics – nothing quite so practical – but in ways of making measurements on infinite dimension spaces. A little bit abstract, though it’s often the most abstract notions that later pop up as crucial in the physical world a generation or two later. I remember a fellow student at the time when I was thinking of becoming a clergyman, saying that surely science had disproved religion. Given the number of scientists in Cambridge churches at that time, it was clear that he hadn’t really grasped the connections. I was drawn to ordained ministry principally out of a sense that God was already using me to help pastorally friends and colleagues. Whilst I loved maths and the research I was doing it seemed that the wonder of engaging with people at the highest and lowest points of their lives, as well as in the ordinariness of their days, was something far richer, far more wonderful. But a very experienced clergyman told me at the time that God would not give up on my maths and indeed my PhD in 2015 was largely based on statistical studies of people who go to church, their motivations and what they get out of it. I think that my scientific training has given me a real desire to go beyond the anecdote and surmise that can too often dominate discussions about religious matters. A colleague said of me a couple of years ago, “David isn’t like a normal bishop; he really believes in evidence”. I’ve had to take that as a compliment, even though if I’m not entirely sure it was meant as one!
In the past you’ve said: “The opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is certainty.” Can you tell me more about the interplay between faith, doubt and certainty?
Faith is often used as though it is a set of propositions – much like the axioms that I would have worked with as a mathematician. One of the Church of England’s baptismal rites very helpfully locates faith as the combination of belief and trust. The two are not the same; I am far more ready to believe that there is a bus due at my local stop in five minutes than to put my trust in it! Even a scientist who believes in a particular hypothesis and trusts that in specific circumstances his experiment will yield the expected results, has to be open to the fact that something different may happen. The theory may be incomplete; there may be some element of the hypothesis that is incorrect and it requires improvement. Very occasionally an entire hypothesis has to be rejected. I think it is the same with religious faith. I do not yet know everything and God may reveal something to me (miraculously or naturally) which requires me to revisit anything from a trivial to a radical level my understand of the universe and of my creator.
Again you’ve said: “good science and good theology always recognise that the new thing will break in, unexpected, inexplicable.” Where today is theology being shaped by the inexplicable and unexpected?
Theology and science are both constantly being shaped by the inexplicable and the unexpected. In particular there are some very interesting questions at the moment around artificial intelligence. The big bang theory (initially postulated by a Belgium monk) has challenged areas of traditional science as well as theology. Yet I find the more I discover about the beauty and complexity of the universe, the more I gaze in wonder at it and in awe at its creator.
Continue reading interviews with:
What stood out for you? Any questions? Things you disagree with? Write a comment and join in the discussion.