LONDON – The Church of England owes Charles Darwin an apology for its hostile 19th-century reaction to the naturalist's theory of evolution through natural selection, a cleric wrote on an Anglican Web site launched Monday.
The Rev. Malcolm Brown, who heads the church's public affairs department, issued the statement to mark Darwin's bicentenary and the 150th anniversary of the seminal work "On the Origin of Species," both of which fall next year.
Brown said the Church of England should say it is sorry for misunderstanding him at the time he released his findings and, "by getting our first reaction wrong, encouraging others to misunderstand [Darwin] still."
The Church of England said Brown's statement reflected its position on Darwin but did not constitute an official apology.
The church's stance sets it apart from fundamentalist Christians, who believe evolutionary theory is incompatible with the biblical story of the Earth's creation.
Darwin was born into the Church of England, educated at a church boarding school and trained to become an Anglican priest.
However, his theory that species evolve over generations through a process of natural selection brought him into conflict with the church.
The Church of England did not take an official stance against Darwin's theories, but many senior Anglicans reacted with hostility to his ideas, arguing against them at public debates.
At an Oxford University debate in 1860, the bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, famously asked scientist Thomas Huxley whether it was through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed to be descended from a monkey.
Critics included the Rev. John Stevens Henslow and Adam Sedgwick, both scientists who had taught Darwin at Cambridge.
Sedgwick wrote that he found some of Darwin's ideas "utterly false and grievously mischievous."
Brown said that from a modern perspective, it was hard to avoid the thought that the reaction against Darwin was based on what would now be called the "yuck factor ... when he proposed a lineage from apes to humans."
Brown called for a "rapprochement" between Christianity and Darwinism.
The bishop of Swindon, Lee Rayfield, who also is an immunologist, said religion and science were not mutually exclusive.
He said he opposed Christians for whom "evolution is equated with atheism" as well as Darwinists who felt ideas about evolution "completely undermine any kind of credibility for God."
"That's completely wrong," he told British Broadcasting Corp. radio. "It's a false polarization."
This is not the first time a cleric or a church has been pressed to apologize for past actions. In 1992, Pope John Paul II said the Roman Catholic Church was wrong to condemn astronomer Galileo Galilei for maintaining that the Earth is not the center of the universe.
The Church of England said sorry two years ago for its role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Still, a descendant of Darwin's said the Anglicans' latest bout of soul-searching served little purpose.
"Why bother?" the scientist's great-great-grandson Andrew Darwin was quoted as saying by the Daily Mail newspaper. "When an apology is made after 200 years, it's not so much to right a wrong, but to make the person or organization making the apology feel better."