A world-famous church in the centre of Edinburgh will hold a Festival of Science, Wisdom and Faith as part of their celebrations marking 400 years as a congregation.

Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh, known around the globe for the story of Greyfriars Bobby, the loyal Skye terrier, will commemorate its ties to scientific figures with a series of talks and discussions by experts on the weekend of 22 – 24 October.

The event is being supported by the Royal Society of Edinburgh and was inspired by the church’s connections to people such as James Hutton, known as the father of modern geology, who is buried in the graveyard.

The church first opened its doors on Christmas Day in 1620 and had planned a programme of events throughout last year to mark their special anniversary, but instead rescheduled the Festival of Science, Wisdom and Faith to this year.

Allan Edwall wearing a suit and tie
Rev Richard Frazer, Greyfriars Kirk

Rev Richard Frazer, who is the minister at Greyfriars Kirk, said: “When scientific truths appear to challenge our settled ideas we shouldn’t bury our heads, but find the ways in which truth and faith come together.

“Over these last 400 years, the Greyfriars community has been committed to holding our developing understanding of the world alongside faith.

“James Hutton, buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard, introduced the concept of ‘Deep Time’ which challenged settled understanding of the age of the earth.

“There has been a strong movement in the Church of Scotland not to denounce such insights, but instead see developments as opportunities to be enriched by scientific endeavour.

“There are those who say that science supersedes religion, rendering faith redundant. But reverence for the natural world, restraint of destructive appetites and finding answers to sustaining the earth community are spiritual and moral challenges too.

“Indeed, many scientists say that the challenge of the current Climate Emergency cannot be answered by science alone but must be an effort of collective moral will.

“This Festival, on the eve of COP26 in Glasgow, is a contribution to what we see as the urgent need to find the wisdom for survival in a fragile world under threat.”

The programme will feature experts speaking on universal themes:

  • Geologist Professor Stuart Monro FRSE, who was instrumental in establishing Dynamic Earth, will speak about James Hutton’s incredible legacy and how it shapes our present.
  • Witches of Scotland, a group who are seeking an official pardon and a national monument for more than 2,500 people convicted under Witchcraft Acts in Scotland, will explore how the events from hundreds of years ago still shape us now.
  • Dr Rebekah Widdowfield, Chief Executive of the Royal Society of Edinburgh will chair a panel looking at how different forms of knowledge and expertise can come together to help address the big issues facing society, particularly in a post-pandemic world.
  • Professor Wilson Poon FRSE, who is the University of Edinburgh’s chair of natural philosophy, will discuss the perception of a historical tension between science and religion, and the need for wisdom in education in the 21st century.
  • Professor Liz Grant FRSE, Director of the Global Health Academy at the University of Edinburgh, will speak on the science and practise of compassion and how it impacts society.
  • Environmental campaigner and spiritual activist Alastair McIntosh will weave climate science and exploration of its nature into a developing narrative illustrated by real-life and mythical stories.

Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, President (interim) of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, said: “This year’s Festival offers online and in-person experiences that will connect audiences with experts and practitioners in different fields working together to explore perceptions.

“We all have a part to play in finding a sustainable future for the world to flourish and I urge everyone to get involved.”

On Sunday, there will be a special service at Greyfriars themed around the Bible quote ‘We cannot do anything against the truth’ (2 Corinthians 3:8).

Parish Associate Gillian Couper said: “We are really excited to be welcoming people to enjoy these events both at the Kirk and by live stream to enjoy these events.

“Greyfriars is a place for hospitality and service, strongly committed to social enterprise and community action.

“We’re grateful to our ecumenical partners, Augustine United Church and St Columba’s by the Castle, Church of Scotland’s Society, Religion and Technology project and many others who have encouraged and inspired us in the development of this festival.

“We hope the events will be thought-provoking, interesting and fun, and perhaps help each of us to think about how we can contribute to the debate and action, in some small way.”