Introducing James Watterson, our new Operations and Development Manager

Rev James Watterson

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in science and natural history. It started with the typical little boy’s love of dinosaurs (thankfully toys and careers are a lot less gendered now than they were back then) and continued with David Attenborough’s groundbreaking Life on Earth series which utterly captivated me when I first watched it on the little black and white TV in my bedroom at the age of eight. My early career choices were not train driver or footballer but palaeontologist (although at the time I didn’t know the word) and then, for a while, marine biologist. I took as many sciences as I could at school, geology plus the usual suspects, then studied physics at Liverpool University.

My time in Liverpool saw two major turning points in my life. I met my Corinne, my wife, and the Christian faith which I had held in a fairly low key way since childhood came to the fore. After university I worked for a time for a Christian Charity, the Shaftesbury Society and then trained for Baptist Ministry, taking a Masters in Theology at Spurgeon’s College in London.  My dissertation looked in part at the work of Irenaeus of Lyon whose distinctive approach to the doctrine of creation continues to shape my own thinking. Irenaeus wrote to combat Gnostic ontologies which conceived of a vast chain of being descending from a high God of pure spirit through a multitude of lesser emanations down to a corrupt and changeable material world. For Irenaeus there is no chain of being, but an absolute distinction between that which is God and that which is not, between Creator and created. Far from denigrating material reality this distinction actually serves to elevate it, the world is not intrinsically corrupt and distant from God but the good creation of God himself made and held in being by means of “his two hands” the Son and the Spirit. For Irenaeus the world and humankind formed in God’s likeness are created perfect, not in the static sense of a golden age from which there can only be unchanging continuation or fall, but dynamically, a perfect beginning to God’s creation project. Adam and Eve are likened to children, perfect as children but destined to grow up into the likeness of Christ who is the goal of their being. As image-bearers they are God’s vice-regents in creation, its growth, its life and fate, is tied to theirs, and to ours.

European hoverfly (Helophilus pendulus)

On leaving college I entered ministry at Carey Baptist Church in Preston where I served for twenty years until May this year. During my time at Carey I retained a passionate amateur interest in science and the environment, I loved being out in the countryside near my home, running, walking my dog and photographing the landscapes, birds and bugs around me. And I continued to keep up to date with scientific news and read popular science books and writers who seek to build bridges between scientific and theological understandings of the world, an area in which I have continued to find Irenaeus a valuable conversation partner.

As I look back on ministry, I now have a role with Christian Aid besides my work for JRI, I reflect on a mixed picture: Disappointment at those whose narrow view of the gospel has no place for a fleshed-out doctrine of creation or any real willingness to think deeply about what it means for Christians to care for the world which God has entrusted to us. But also encouragement at those who have begun to get it, to make the connections, and in the face of ongoing environmental catastrophe, to take action. I was pleased to help my church to attain its bronze Eco Church award and to know that there are those there with the passion to take that work forward.

In taking on this new role with JRI I feel a similar mix of emotions. Partly, of course, a sense that I cannot possibly take the place of Martin – a real scientist, who together with Margot wrote the book (or one of them) on Christians and the environment. Beyond that though, I see a mixed picture. On the one hand almost daily bad news stories about the environment. The week I began thinking about this blog I read of record levels of logging in the Amazon and a piece of research that suggested that current rates of emissions would lead to four degrees of warming and that this would trigger ocean deoxygenation and acidification on a scale last seen during the end Permian extinction,  the cataclysm, known as the “great dying”, which led to the loss of up to 96% of the planet’s marine animals. On the other hand, I see reasons for hope, partly because the environment is now, at last, a mainstream political concern, but more than that because I see the passion of a younger generation for real action to halt global warming, to protect biodiversity and to reduce pollution. I was pleased to see the creation of a new Natural History GCSE and I trust that will not only help inform a generation of young activists but also lead some of them into further scientific study. And I was encouraged to read Tearfund’s Burning Down the House report which surveyed over six hundred young British Christians and found that nine in ten are concerned about the climate crisis, eight in ten think Christians have a specific duty to respond to it and that only one in ten think the church is doing enough at present.

I believe that this sea change presents JRI with fertile ground for growth. I am excited by the growth of CRES (which Martin will continue to lead), I am encouraged by the engagement of many theological colleges with environmental issues; by the growth of A Rocha’s Eco Church scheme; and most of all by the passion of Christian young people keen to bring their faith in God together with sound environmental science to transform the world. I am honoured, at this difficult but exciting time, to have the opportunity to serve JRI’s mission to engage and to educate, to bring serious environmental science together with deep theological reflection so that we might better honour our Creator God and fulfil our mandate as his image-bearers in the world that he has entrusted to us.

Rev James Watterson (JRI Operations and Development Manager)

Image: European hoverfly (Helophilus pendulus). One of James’ hobbies is natural history photography, so this is a taster of what is to come!