Half-way down Edinburgh's Royal Mile, John Knox's house looks down with dour disapproval at the lawyers, bankers and intellectuals of the medieval Auld Toon. Here, in the very cradle of Calvinist Scotland, from a first-floor room reached by an outside stairway, the Church of Scotland has outstripped every other denomination in attempting to make sense of the modern world and in finding the appropriate place for religion in an age of science.
No atheist has managed so considered, profound and well-researched an analysis of the age of biotechnology as Engineering Genesis. Arising out of the work of the Society, Religion and Technology (SRT) project, which the Scottish Kirk has been quietly developing, it is simply the best available exposition of what is going on in plant and animal biotechnology and of the rights and wrongs of what is being done in this sphere.
The SRT's official purpose is to open questions of technology and social change to Christian ethical examination, seeking to engage those involved in technology with the ethical and social implications of their work through expert working groups. It also acts as adviser to the Kirk on a range of technical and environmental issues. To say that the SRT project is unique is to measure the failure of the other denominations and other religions. Ever since Galileo, certainly since Darwin, and urgently since Watson and Crick, science and technology have been posing questions to which the religions must find their answers.
Why then, one wonders, has only the Kirk realised that there is more to morality than sex? The Anglican communion is distracted by gay priests; the Catholics by divorce, contraception and abortion. The developments of science and technology, all the social changes of our times - and they are still pruriently obsessed with what individuals do with their genitalia. It is as if they have been in denial for most of the 20th century and remain so at the start of the 21st. The Kirk, in contrast, thinks that there are moral issues in genetically engineered food, in cloning, in genetically engineering animals for human organ transplants. Is patenting genes and animals, for instance, simply a fulfilment of the injunction in Genesis that humanity was given dominion over the natural world? This is a church that is engaged with the world, that is grappling with the dilemmas of modernity.
Perhaps it could only be done in a comparatively small country such as Scotland. The SRT project was able to set up a working party which contained figures as diverse as Ian Wilmut, a member of the team which cloned Dolly the sheep, and John Eldridge, professor of sociology at Glasgow University. Abstract problems are given concrete form by case studies of the application of modern techniques of genetic engineering. The pros and the cons are spelled out. As one might expect, there is no withdrawal from the world into a blanket condemnation of new technology. Neither is there a naive acceptance that all will be for the best in the new world opening up for us. The arguments on both sides are lucid and cogent, and where the book does have its own position, there is no shirking from controversy. There is Christianity here, but it is gently stated and all the more effective for that. Precisely because there is neither sermonising nor pronouncement of dogma, it should reach a wide readership.
John Knox, famous for his preaching and an advocate of education, would approve of what has been done in his house.
Tom Wilkie is head of biomedical ethics at the Wellcome Trust