Baron Harries of Pentregarth: Can the bishop get the monkey off his back?

It's almost 150 years since the famous Huxley-Wilberforce debate was won by supporters of evolution. This week, the combative lord challenges the atheist Richard Dawkins to a replay. Cole Moreton meets... Baron Harries of Pentregarth

Is he mad? You just have to ask that of a retired clergyman who not only dares to take on the most ferocious atheist of his age in a high-profile debate about evolution, but also casts himself, in advance, as the loser. "Yes, it is a challenge," admits Richard Harries, once a combative bishop but now a life peer. He's ready. "My opponent has billed this as a friendly conversation. We shall see."

The opponent is Richard Dawkins, who of course pulls no punches in The God Delusion (book sales in excess of two million). But then neither does the noble lord. "Dawkins is one of the attack dogs of fundamentalist atheism," says Lord Harries, describing the biologist's belief that evolution is incompatible with Christianity as "total nonsense". And there's more. "The old atheism was content to say that Christianity was untrue. The new attack dogs also say it is dangerous. Christopher Hitchens calls it a poison in the system. That's fighting talk."

Seconds out, then. But Lord Harries will start on the back foot on Thursday, when he meets Professor Dawkins at an Institute of Biology event to recreate a confrontation from the Victorian age. The former bishop of Oxford will be taking the part of one of his predecessors, who famously lost a debate that came to be seen as a key moment in the development of the modern world.

The bishop versus the scientist. The monkey row. Every schoolboy and girl learns about it, but if the details are a little blurry to you now, they will surely be much clearer at the end of this week's celebrations marking the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin. More than 300 events will be held across the country, and it will be hard to miss someone exploring the legacy of the man who discovered evolution. Few will neglect to mention the breakthrough moment for his theory, widely held to have come in June 1860 during a no-holds-barred intellectual knockout contest between Bishop Samuel "Soapy Sam" Wilberforce and the scientist Thomas "Darwin's Bulldog" Huxley.

A thousand people watched them clash at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, with hundreds more unable to get in. Darwin was too ill to attend, but many of the great scientific minds of the day were there. The Bishop – also a scientist – was expected to wipe the floor with the new theory that had been outlined by Darwin in On the Origin of Species only seven months earlier. He blew it. Over-confident, Wilberforce demanded to know whether it was through his grandfather or his grandmother that Huxley was related to an ape. The crowd was shocked and offended. Huxley, apparently, leaned over to his neighbour and whispered: "The Lord hath delivered him into mine hands."

He rose to say he would not be ashamed to have an ape in the family, but he would be ashamed to be related to a man like Wilberforce who used his great gifts to obscure the truth. Game, set and match to evolution, which subsequently conquered the scientific community and the world. Or so the story goes. Lord Harries doesn't quite buy it.

"This great encounter has come down to us through history and achieved almost mythical status," he says, preparing to stand in for Soapy Sam. "The fact of the matter is that nobody quite knows what went on in that meeting." That is true. There is no verbatim account of the dialogue. "The great story that Wilberforce had experienced a devastating defeat because of his rudeness and flippancy was put out 40 years later by Huxley and friends of his in The Gentleman's Magazine. It's a wonderful story, but it's spin."

Will he be asking if Professor Dawkins's grandfather was a gorilla? "No. He won't get that from me." Lord Harries does not seem likely to crack jokes, but nor will he suffer from the hubris that hurt Wilberforce's case.

He is courteous when we meet in the gloomy entrance to the House of Lords. In episcopal purple, with swept-back hair and eyebrows like little wings, he suits the grandeur of the Palace of Westminster. Before being made a life peer at retirement on his 70th birthday, two years ago, he was one of the Lords Spiritual – the bishops whose presence in the upper house is a relic of the influence the Church of England used to have. No other faith group has an institutional presence like it, and Lord Harries knows it can't last. He was part of a commission on Lords reform that completely failed to bring about anything of the kind, but he does believe change will come. "If it is to be an entirely elected house, then the Lords Spiritual will disappear. Their position is untenable."

That's the thing about Lord Harries: he works in a dubious, anachronistic setting but he's a modern at heart. He opposed Section 28, for example, and proposed the openly gay Jeffrey John should become Bishop of Reading in his diocese in 2003. That was abandoned after the Archbishop of Canterbury lost his nerve in the face of opposition from abroad, the first indication here that homosexuality would be the issue to split the worldwide Anglican communion. "I don't regret it for one moment," Lord Harries says. "He was the best person for the job. I was absolutely gutted at the time, but I don't blame Rowan Williams."

He has grappled with some of the most urgent contemporary issues, as chair of the Lords select committee on stem cell research and the ethics and law panel of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. Classic Church of England men like him make useful chairs, because they are outside politics and happiest on the fence. Anglicans have a special gift of the spirit of their own, he says: "Fudge."

Lord Harries of Pentregarth ("a row of cottages in Ceinewydd, where my family originates") was going to be an army officer until he became a priest. "I was in Germany, waiting to go up to Cambridge to read science at the Army's expense, and suddenly the thought came into my mind, 'Well, when I retire as a successful general with a fat pension, what a lovely way to end my life: become a country parson.' Smack bang after that came the thought: 'If that's what you're meant to be doing, you'd better do it now.'"

He resigned his commission, shocking his parents, and "went up to Cambridge, with no money at all, to read theology." There he met his wife Josephine, now a retired paediatrician.

He is an opponent Dawkins appears to respect. The scientist has posted a video of the two of them in conversation on his website, which Lord Harries says he has not seen. "I have never bothered to watch it. One has so little time for these indulgences."

Ouch. Under his usual civility and elegance lies the conviction that Dawkins is pushing a false divide between religion and science, as Thomas Huxley did before him. "Huxley was anti-clerical," he says. "People forget that the church very quickly accepted the theory of evolution." He finds it "extraordinary" that some people are seeking to teach a literal interpretation of scripture in British schools. "Creationists totally misunderstand the Bible. Genesis is in the business of story, myth, poetry, metaphor."

Creationists make it possible for atheists like Dawkins to be extreme, he says. "They feed off one another. The debate has an unreality about it. Those of us who are not fundamentalists can't find a place."

So let's be clear: does he believe that his God is working out His purposes through evolution? "Yes. Absolutely. God makes the world make itself. God is undergirding the whole process." Would that be the wild, bloodthirsty deity of the Old Testament? "I hope not. That's a bit of a caricature. The Old Testament has at its heart a God of loving kindness and faithfulness. Though there are pictures of God in there that strike us as horrifying. Yeah."

The history of the church is pretty horrifying, too, isn't it? "The record is a mixed one," he insists. "All right, you can point to the Inquisition and to anti-Judaism as two of the most horrifying aspects." There are many more. "Yes, but look at the other side. Until the late 19th century, groups of Christian people were the major inititators behind schools, universities, hospitals, hospices, work for the poor. That needs to be taken into account."

We have been talking for an hour. I have put it to him that his faith is under siege, his church is marginal and his debating chamber looks ridiculous, but Lord Harries refuses to give in, or even raise his voice. He's not mad, he just doesn't think he has anything to be afraid of. Perhaps he's right.

"It is important to tackle Richard Dawkins. His slant is misconceived in a number of ways. He thinks that the theory of evolution and belief in God are completely incompatible. This is total nonsense. I don't mind saying so at all. I'm looking forward to it."

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