SCIENCE and religion aren’t often a good fit, but they are when they come in the shape of Rushen parish’s new vicar, the Reverend Dr Joe Heaton.
The 41-year-old is seriously clever. He gained his PhD by developing a technique for imaging the sun’s interaction with the upper atmosphere. His degree is in physics with planetary and space physics at the University of Aberystwyth, and he had a career at a company in Malvern, Worcestershire, whose work is so secret he can’t say much about it.
But sitting in Rushen Parish Church for the interview, his dog collar sits comfortably and his broad smile suggests the Reverend Doctor – or Joe as he wants to be known – will fit into the parish.
Joe’s unusual academic background has strengthened his faith, he said.
‘As I grew up I was conscious of the science-religious debate and I had to work out in my own mind the sort of things that I would believe,’ he said.
‘At times that called me to question my faith, which is a good thing. There’s an awful lot in life that causes you to question hard your faith, I think it’s a good thing – faith is only alive when it is interacting with daily things. It’s not something just for one hour on a Sunday morning, it’s something to work out during the week in life’s events.’
Uncomfortable with basing faith on seeing God in the areas of the universe that science can’t explain he said: ‘If we just put God in those bits of science we do not understand, our space for God shrinks. Theologians say this is the God of all the gaps. I’m more keen to see how God works in day-to-day life.
‘I see God most happening in people’s lives. I’m also awestruck when I look up at the stars and see the beauty of the universe and how awe-inspiring it can be.’
Born in Pudsey, West Yorkshire, he had a calling into the ministry from the age of 17.
‘I felt I needed to see a lot more of life,’ he said. ‘I was conscious I was still in my teens. I felt I needed to explore it more when I was 30. After much soul-searching, I went to Durham (Cranmer Hall, training to be a vicar) and was there for two years.’
He was ordained deacon at Worcester Cathedral in 2008 and ordained priest the next year. For the last three years has served as assistant curate in the parish of Ribbesford with Bewdley and Dowles in Worcestershire.
‘The church is at its best when serving the community in which it resides,’ he said.
‘I just wonder if a lot of people out there get switched off from the church just because the church has forgotten its ministry of service.
‘We need to make sure we are welcoming and inviting and that is a huge ministry in itself. If people turn up to a funeral and someone is welcoming them it means more almost than any deep philosophical discussion on faith. That would be one of my key things. Not only to make the building welcoming so that it might be somewhere people seek out.’
He added: ‘I’m keen to find out what makes the parish tick and to go forward with the parish. That might mean changes here and there.
‘One of the things church members said was there were not many young people in the church. They are very keen for that to be turned around. We are interested in people not just so fill pews. We should be reaching out to the local community so all might feel welcome.’
His wife Wendy was brought up in Kirk Michael. They were married at St Ninian’s Church in Douglas, and the island is known to the family – including sons Joshua, 16, Daniel, 14 and Isaac, 12 – from frequent holidays.
‘It’s people’s lives and the relationships I make in the community, not just those that attend church, that’s what I get a real buzz out of,’ said Joe. ‘I find that it’s a great privilege to meet people at some of their significant points in their lives, from baptisms to weddings and funerals. I’m excited about this new step in my ministry and to meet people, be that in church or in the local pub. I’m a firm believer that you meet people where they are.’
Any star-gazing won’t be just Joe indulging his hobby and this act has a metaphorical resonance.
‘I’m looking forward to being able to look up into the sky,’ he said. ‘Often people need to lift their eyes above the horizon. We are very good at looking at our feet. Sometimes we’ve got to look up and see the stars.’