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Big-time reading

19 October 2010

After the success in the north-east of the ‘Big Read’, there are plans for the programme to go nationwide. Ed Thornton reports

WHEN the former Bishop of Durham, Dr Tom Wright, attended a meeting of the Roman Catholic Synod of Bishops in Rome in October 2008, he was taken aback when the topic of conversation moved to the “Word of God”.

“Lots of [Roman] Catholic bishops were saying: ‘Isn’t it great that the Bible is one of the ecu­menical instruments?’” Dr Wright recalls. “A lot of people, including Catholics, are very frustrated that they aren’t allowed to share the eucharist. But there is no embargo on reading the Bible together.”

On his return to the diocese of Durham, Dr Wright told colleagues what the RC bishops had been saying, and the genesis of an idea was born: for churches of different denom­inations, across the north-east, to come together to read the Bible for Lent.

The Bishop of Jarrow, the Rt Revd Mark Bryant, whose job it was to implement the vision, raised the idea at an ecumenical meeting of church leaders, all of whom were enthus­iastic. Eighteen months later, in Lent this year, the “Big Read” took place.

Dr Wright put together Lent for Everyone, which contained a reading from the Gospel of St Luke, and a reflection or prayer for each day of Lent. Lay people across the dioceses of Durham and Newcastle bought copies, gathered in home groups to reflect on the readings, and turned out to hear Dr Wright speak at different churches — Anglican, Roman Catholic, Method­ist, United Reformed — on an intro­duction to Luke’s Gospel, Christ’s Passion, and Christ’s resurrection.

LEADERS of the study groups, which Dr Wright describes as “the real heart” of the Big Read, received training from the Lindis­farne Regional Training Partnership, an ecumenical training centre based in the north-east.

There was “a high level of enthus­iasm and excitement” for the groups, Dr Wright said. “I was delighted at the fact that it was not just the usual suspects turning up to Lent groups, but also ‘ordinary’ people, the sort of people who don’t usually read com­mentaries. In many cases, people were saying, ‘I’ve never really read the Gospels properly for myself.’”

Bishop Bryant says that the groups took an Ignatian, experiential ap­proach to reading scripture, encour­aging people “to imagine themselves into a situation” rather than posing a series of questions that had to be answered. This approach went down particularly well with inner-city, “non-book” churches, who told the Bishop it was the best Lent course that they had ever done.

Durham Cathedral hosted a “Bible Read” — a public reading of the Bible over a period of 12 days, inspired by St Paul’s instruc­tion: “Pay atten­tion to the public reading of scrip­ture.”

Patricia Francis, a retired lay hos­pital chaplain, drew up a schedule of readers, each of whom were allo­cated times at which they would read aloud from the New Revised Stan­dard Version.

A total of 506 readers, of different denominations, took part. The young­est was aged five; the oldest was 91.

A total of 506 readers, of different denominations, took part. The young­est was aged five; the oldest was 91.

Between 9.30 a.m. and 4.30 p.m., people filed in and out of the cathedral, some stopping to listen as the Bible was read aloud. Cathedral vergers counted 928.

Mrs Francis has many stories of how the reading affected people, including a group of men from a Salvation Army hostel for homeless people, who had the opportunity to read aloud in the cathedral. And a man who passed by the cathedral after a job interview in Durham “was completely overawed by being present whilst the Bible was being read aloud”.

MRS FRANCIS says: “Lots of people remarked how dif­fer­ent it sounded to hear the Bible. Those who go to church hear scripture being read, but only a portion. Here, they were hearing whole chapters and stories.

“We had one reader who made the names in the Old Testament so poetic. The geographical areas that were being mentioned are in the news today; so there were connec­tions people could make.”

After a successful first year, pre­para­tions are under way for another Big Read in Lent 2011. The Bible will once again be read in its entirety, but this time the readings will take place at different locations throughout the diocese.

A copy of the King James Bible will journey around the diocese, in an attempt to capture the spirit of the original aim when it was pub­lished in 1611 — to make the Bible accessible to the people. It will be placed in each of the diocese’s three archdeaconries for one week at a time.

Mrs Francis is thinking of imag­inative ways to transport the copy of the Bible between archdeaconries. Ideas include transportation by bikers, ramblers, schoolchildren on foot (one mile at a time), and even on horseback.

FOR Lent 2011, the Big Read will go national. The pro­gramme is being adopted by the Methodist Church and by Biblefresh, a “move­ment of churches, agencies, organis­a­tions, col­leges and festivals” launched ear­lier this year with “a vision to reignite and re-enthuse the Church in its passion for the Bible”.

Churches across the country will be encouraged to read Dr Wright’s forth­coming edition of Lent for Everyone, this time based on St Matthew’s Gospel, to which he is putting the finishing touches from his office at the University of St Andrews Divinity School.

Churches and home groups will also be encouraged to make use of the internet for the Big Read 2011. Dr Bex Lewis, who is overseeing the project, says: “We are saying the central thing is still the [Dr Wright] book and the house group, but we are trying to give churchpeople more confidence in using new media.

“We have said, if you want to do it in a home group, that’s fine, but you have the same people and the same comments. If you take it to an online forum, you can widen the conversa­tion and debate.”

THE success of the Big Read, and its forthcoming national presence, is part of a wider drive to increase know­ledge and un­der­standing of the Bible among churches.

The Biblefresh movement is asking churches “to come on a one-year journey” in 2011, the year that also sees the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible. Churches can sign up through the Biblefresh website, where they can download resources such as Bible maps, study aids, and teaching materials.

Individual churches have also been thinking of innovative ways to encourage people to read the Bible. Chris Juby, the director of worship at the King’s Church, in Durham City, has been putting his version of the Bible on Twitter, condensing one chapter a day into fewer than 140 characters (News, 20 August).

Church leaders can take heart that there seems to be no lack of desire among church members to read the Bible. As Elaine Storkey says on the Biblefresh website: “I don’t think it’s a challenge at all to get people engaged in the Bible; you just have to read it. You just have to let them see how exciting and dynamic it is.”

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