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Why is it fitting that Charles Darwin is buried in Westminster Abbey?

Westminster Abbey Nave where Charles Darwin is buriedIt may seem ironic that both Charles Darwin and Charles Lyell are buried in the nave of Westminster Abbey, formally known as London’s Collegiate Church of St Peter at Westminster. They are there, honored in particular for their  accomplishments in science. It is fitting, for they have had as so much influence on modern Christian theology just as they have had on modern science.  Nature, in an editorial (October,  2009), commented on reactions to Darwin.

In England, for example, the Church reacted badly to Darwin’s theory, going so far as to say that to believe it was to imperil your soul. But the notion that Darwin’s ideas ‘killed’ God and were a threat to religion was by no means the universal response in the nineteenth century. . . . [F]rom Egypt to India, China and Japan, many religious scholars embraced Darwin's ideas, often showing how their own schools of thought had anticipated the notion of evolution.

-Editorial from Nature, Volume 461 Number 7268

It is true: some in the Church reacted badly. This was particularly so in the Church of England, part of the Anglican Communion. This is "the Church,” in particular, to which the editors of Nature were is seems referring. But the editors of Nature overstated what happened. Darwin’s theory was more of a culture shock than a religious shock. The distinction is important.  It was more about resistance to change than an inability to accommodate evolution within Christianity.

Darwin, after a choral funeral service in the Abbey,  was buried in a prominent place in the church’s nave at the request of William Spottiswoode, the president of the Royal Society, Britain’s academy of science. The suggestion was warmly welcomed. Darwin, truly a humble agnostic, was very much admired, and his theory accepted by many in the church including, Harvey Goodwin,  the bishop of Carlisle, who on the Sunday following Darwin’s funeral in a sermon preached in the abbey, said:

It would have been unfortunate if anything had occurred to give weight and currency to the foolish notion which some have diligently propagated, but for which Mr Darwin was not responsible, that there is a necessary conflict between a knowledge of Nature and a belief in God….

 

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