A major inter-church organisation in the United States is urging people of faith join the debate on stem cell research in a constructive way, to raise necessary questions about human "enhancement", to affirm the human purposes of biotechnology, and to press for adequate regulation of the companies shaping the future of this crucial industry.
The National Council of Churches USA, which gathers together denominations and agencies with some 45 million members, has adopted a policy which challenges the idea that only representatives of the scientific community and the government "ought to control the discussion simply by virtue of their expertise."
But unlike lobbyists on the religious right, the NCC recognises differences within the Christian community and wider society on biotechnology related issues, and is seeking a way forward through reasoned debate and education, not sloganeering and political manipulation.
Clare Chapman, an executive with the US United Methodist Church Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns, led the committee that developed the policy, allowing the churches to jointly "bear witness to their beliefs in an age of emerging technologies."
Ms Chapman, who will become the NCC's chief financial officer in January 2007, attributed the successful adoption of 'Fearfully and Wonderfully Made: A Policy on Human Biotechnologies' to a "stellar committee" and diligent attention by delegates at both the 2005 and 2006 National Council of Churches General Assemblies.
Two resolutions - on cloning and on biotechnology and national security - also were approved by the 2006 General Assembly. The cloning resolution calls on Congress "to enact federal legislation that would attach criminal penalties to the creation of human reproductive clones" and asks worldwide governmental agencies "to regulate and oversee laboratories with the capacity" to create such clones.
The resolution on biotechnology and national security calls for the creation of a National Science Advisory Board for Bio-Defense within the US Department of Health and Human Services. The board would oversee and regulate bio-defence activities within the government and private sector.
The National Council of Churches USA is asking its member communions to study and implement the biotechnologies policy and has developed a curriculum and study guide. The guide grew out of "a request to the committee from last year's first reading" for a hands-on, easy-to-read curriculum, explains Clare Chapman.
The authors stress that 'Fearfully and Wonderfully Made' does not represent complete agreement on biotechnology concerns among NCC members. The section on stem cell research recognizes the divisiveness of the issue within the Christian community.
"There are places in ecumenical life when you agree it's not possible to come to agreement on an issue," Clare Chapman commented to the UMNS News Service this week.
In this case, the policy compares the lack of agreement to a similar lack of consensus regarding abortion more than two decades ago. "As with the abortion debate, much of the stem cell debate turns on the differing views we hold on the moral status of human embryos," the policy notes.
While the policy "neither endorses nor condemns experimentation" on human embryos or the use of embryonic stem cells for research, "We are, however, in agreement in our recognition of the irreducible sanctity of human life, as well as the intrinsic moral and ethical good inherent in efforts to reduce human suffering through medical science."
Among the policy's various recommendations are that National Council of Churches members identify scientists who are church members to interpret biotechnologies; recruit clergy and lay members who have the health care background to serve as resources on the issue; and develop worship materials "that address the emerging needs created by the new biotechnologies and the issues they present."
On the congregational level, priests, pastors and others are encouraged to "recognize that genetics and bioengineering raise a number of pastoral and theological questions with which they, as clergy, are frequently and traditionally involved."
The committee's work is done, but Clare Chapman says the NCC is teaming with the World Council of Churches to sponsor an international consultation on biotechnologies sometime in Autumn 2007.
The idea for such a consultation occurred after representatives of the NCC committee met in Toronto with their counterparts in the Canadian Council of Churches "and found a great agreement on much of this work," Ms Chapman said.
More information about 'Fearfully and Wonderfully Made: A Policy on Human Biotechnologies,' including downloadable versions of the policy and study guide, can be found at http://www.ncccusa.org/biotechnology/