Angela Tilby: The Bible is not a mere footnote

26 July 2019

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IN HIS recent presidential address to the General Synod, the Archbishop of York made an important observation about the use of the Bible in today’s Church (Synod, 12 July).

Commenting on the ongoing disagreements about gender and sexuality, he indicated that the sometimes acrimonious quality of debate suggested that: “The old habits of reading the Bible consistently and thoroughly, as part of a liturgical pattern or a pattern of private devotion, have broken down. . . The expectations we have of biblical literacy — not only of laity but of clergy, too — would strike most earlier generations of Christians as sadly low.”

The “old habits” have, indeed, broken down. The result is that many clergy and laity seem content to coast along with only the sketchiest knowledge of scripture. The loss of biblical literacy not only makes debate on contentious issues less grounded, it also impoverishes spiritual life and worship.

For years, using Scripture Union notes, I ploughed through un­prom­is­­ing parts of, say, the Book of Numbers. The struggle was worth it in the slow familiarisation with the varied “voices” of scripture that I would then encounter in church. Later, I substituted the daily Office for the “quiet time”. Both helped me to cope with long scripture readings in the course of worship, and to attend to sermons which could last for up to 25 minutes. Personal scripture reading fed liturgical worship, and biblical preaching fed back into personal prayer.

I find increasingly that congregations struggle with scripture. It is often badly read, of course. But, more worryingly, we have simply lost the discipline of listening. Instead, we are hard wired for emotion and immediacy. We sit impatiently, waiting for the next bit of music or the joke that starts the preacher’s talk. Scripture is often treated as a mere footnote to the preacher’s views on Brexit, the Church, sex, the state of the planet, or whatever else is supposedly important.

The result, as the Archbishop suggests, is that our conversations with one another lack depth and nuance. And this matters, particularly when those conversations are difficult. Scripture is difficult, because we are difficult. It is only through patient engagement that we realise that scripture is composed of many divergent voices.

Scripture is always commentary on scripture — with the arguments never wholly resolved. The obscurities, hostilities, even the atrocities, of scripture matter because these reflect human reality, and it is only in and through them that we discover God’s judgement and mercy. Without such recognition, we are just shouting at one another.

At a time when educational standards are supposedly being driven up, it is sad that the Church often chooses to stay in the kindergarten.

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