I’ve always believed there is no discrepancy between science and faith. 

Before training as a minister I went to Queen's University, Belfast (QUB) to study Medicinal Chemistry, followed by a Masters in Chemical Enzymology (I know, a horrible name, and nobody ever knows what it means!).

I was a research scientist for QUILL in Belfast, Proctor and Gamble in London and Merck Chemicals in Darmstadt, Germany.

I worked on projects including creating possible new anti-cancer medications, making pharmaceuticals in a more environmentally friendly way, and designing electrochemicals some of which may well be in your OLED TV.

Today I am Rector of Trory and Killadeas parishes, a member of the Society of Ordained Scientists, and the representative for the West on the Royal Society of Chemistry NI committee.

But you can’t be a clergyman and a scientist? Why did you turn your back on science? I often hear that in daily life, so I’m assuming you are saying it.

I hope these columns will show how I can, and I love living in both camps. You won’t see the usual debates (fights) between science and religion here, but rather over the next few months, I hope to highlight not just some of the many overlaps and similarities there are in science and faith, but also how having a scientific background helps me in the daily life of being a rural Church of Ireland Rector.

Today’s overlap. Applied problem solving.

When I taught in the School of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at QUB, I often said the key to passing my branch of chemistry was similar to solving a sudoku puzzle. (You know the ones, where the numbers one to nine have to fit into every row, column and three-by-three box.)

I was asking the students to look at problems like a logic puzzle. You look for clues, and working with the data provided, you end up with a solution, but you must take into account what is going on in all directions.

Life is a bit more complicated, but I’m going to say it is also like solving a sudoku puzzle. All seems to be going well at work and with your family. The numbers one to nine seem to be in the right order for the row, and the three-by-three box fits too.

Then something else, maybe money worries crop up, and this affects the family and work too. In the sudoku analogy, the rows and boxes worked, but the columns of numbers didn’t fit.

We need to think again to make the rows, columns and boxes of our life work together. An oversimplified version of life I’ll admit, but all models are simple compared to what they represent.

For me finding balance in all parts of life comes down to faith.

In the life of faith, it is often prayer which leads us to the answers we seek. Prayer, even for a non-religious person is time to stop and think, working through life’s problems one at a time.

One of the advantages I’ve found of having both a religious and scientific background is being able to bring the problem-solving ability from the lab into daily life, alongside a prayerful demeanour. The result, I hope, is calm, applied problem-solving for everyday community life.

On another level, moving to Fermanagh almost four years ago has been a bit like trying to solve a complex sudoku puzzle.

I arrived from Bangor, Co. Down during the middle of the first lockdown of 2020.

Bangor had a city-speed internet signal and everything went online. Everyone lived in housing estates with numbers on the doors, and there were footpaths to visit them by standing at the end of their garden path. Navigating the rules of the time with this infrastructure was dare I say easy (but I wouldn’t have said so at the time.)

After moving to Trory and Killadeas I soon discovered the patterns I had for urban Bangor didn’t work for rural Fermanagh. I was spread over a much larger area, no footpaths along the main roads to walk between parishioners, and houses were known as ‘near where the post office used to be’ or ‘near so-and-so’s old house. The Post Office having closed before I was born, and so-and-so having moved in 1950, and the house demolished in 1978 or a house name with a townland instead of a road name and a number, and Google Maps wasn’t forthcoming with directions based on these instructions.

Perhaps the missing numbers on houses were a more direct link to finding the missing blank in a sudoku puzzle than I thought (I jest!).

Approaching the move like a sudoku puzzle, the role I was ordained to has not changed, but geography and infrastructure have, meaning finding new solutions, and rooting into a new community, and different way of life.

One or two numbers had moved around, so the rest had to move to get solutions which worked once again. Thankfully, lockdown days subsided. Now old solutions and patterns are working once again.

Going back to the sudoku analogy one last time. I sometimes think of the rows as my science life, the columns as my ordained minister life, and the three-by-three boxes as my rural life. When these all align I hope and pray you find me as a person of value to my parishes and wider community, striving to lead by example in a life of faith, hope and love.

Life works better when finding similarities and solutions rather than fights. Not all scientists wear white coats and work in city tower block labs. Some wear dog collars and love rural life. For me, science, faith and rural parish life are the solutions which daily excite me in the sudoku of my life.

Over the coming months, I look forward to taking you through some local examples of how an approach from a joint science and faith perspective benefits all parties involved. Keep your eyes peeled for thoughts including working with schools as an external visitor simultaneously as a minister of religion and bringing in Chemistry resources from the RSC, the history of and continuing the Christian Culdees monastic traditions of scientific learning and finding ways to lead communities in a digital age in need of the human touch.

Reverend Mark Gallagher is a trained research scientist, and the Rector of Trory and Killadeas Church of Ireland parishes.

I look forward to our time together in next month’s column.