I AM fascinated by the window displays in secondhand bookshops. They represent the store’s key opportunity to tempt the passer-by inside. I was, therefore, intrigued when a local bookshop filled its display with religious books. There were Bibles, and guides to the main world religions, and then there were “fruitier” texts: books on prophecy, Bible codes, and St Mary Magdalene as Jesus’s wife.
The crotchety old priest in me wanted to rush inside and say, “Religion is not simply a version of esoterica, you know,” or some such pomposity.
Perhaps part of the issue is religious literacy. Certainly, fewer people study religion at GCSE and beyond. There is arguably a lack of biblical literacy among many committed C of E members. The Bible is no longer part of the texture of people’s lives.
It can feel cathartic to moan about this lack of literacy, but it doesn’t change anything. A little honesty, however, might. Most of us know that Christianity, let alone the C of E, no longer sets the tone of public discourse, if it ever did. We live in a culture that writes religion off as either an awkward cultural inheritance or just weird: it has become the oddball relative who turns up to every family gathering and whom few people want to talk to.
To remind ourselves that, for all our Establishment privileges, the C of E is culturally oddball, however, might be liberating. It may, ironically, indicate rich paths for honest approaches to mission and discipleship. The death of priggish and supercilious certainties about our message might generate space for humble and nuanced evangelism that is full of hope.
So, for example, consider how we handle our biblical texts. I wonder what our preaching and teaching might look like if we were to be properly honest about the Bible’s complexity and contradictions. What happens to the authority of St Paul’s Letters to Timothy, for example, when we accept that he didn’t write them?
If we want our society to be biblically literate, we need to sort our own house out. So many of our existing church members have been sold a childish take on the Bible. As I’m sure you know, that very word means “library”, and we must wrestle with the fact that it is a library of wonder, terror, and hope, and not an instruction manual with a univocal position.
Thomas Cranmer rightly called the Bible “the fountain and well of truth”, but wells can stagnate. Educated honesty about this library’s messy origins, gambits, and redactions may help more people to live Christian faith in the post-modern world rather than fewer.
Canon Rachel Mann is the Rector of St Nicholas’s, Burnage, Manchester.
Canon Angela Tilby returns next week.