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Lively Oracles of God, edited by Gordon Jeanes and Bridget R. Nichols

26 May 2023

Edward Dowler reviews essays about the Bible in the Church’s worship

IN THIS stimulating collection of essays, a group of distinguished authors reflects on the different ways in which scripture is used in liturgy. Modern liturgical texts, such as those in Common Worship, take for granted the fact that readings from the Bible have a central place, and direction is often provided about which passages are appropriate to be read on different occasions. Less clear is the work that scripture is expected to perform in worship. Moreover, the scriptures do not simply accompany the liturgy, but also profoundly inform and shape it. As one author writes, “The Bible in liturgy is not only about teaching but is embodied celebration.”

The collection falls into three sections: the first provides a wide-ranging set of reflections on the way in which scripture is presented to worshippers and how it is heard. The second section focuses on the particular use of scripture at different times in the Church’s year; a third focuses on the use of the Bible in the Occasional Offices; and a final section is on the way in which the relationship between scripture and the liturgy is tested by new challenges and priorities, with contributions on subjects such as the environment, gender and identity, and disability.

As is often the case with multi-author volumes, it is difficult to detect an overall argument: as the preface states, “the ongoing encounter between Scripture, liturgy, and the Christian life . . . is a journey with no predeterminate path.” The book might be seen as a series of variations on a central theme. This, as Bridget Nichols helpfully explains in her stirring contribution on Bible, liturgy, and doxology is the way in which scripture speaks in a variety of different, but intertwining, ways in different contexts.

Central to this is the proposal by Paul Bradshaw (author of the foreword) that, within worship, reading the Bible has a purpose that is sometimes primarily kerygmatic (proclaiming the gospel), sometimes anamnetic (recalling the sacrifice of Christ in a eucharistic setting, or more generally the themes of the Christian year), sometimes paracletic (encountering human life and seeking the help of the Holy Spirit at times of profound sorrow and joy — for example, at the Occasional Offices), and sometimes doxological (as the inspiration for liturgical praise).

An advantage of the overall argument’s being not too tightly drawn is that there is a diversity of views, which is welcome in these polarised times. As a small example, the article on the role of the Bible in Anglican marriage rites contends that marital imagery in the scriptures is not easily able to be mapped on to same-sex unions, while another contribution, on liturgy, gender, and identity, seems to endorse bolder models for the blessing of polyamorous relationships, in which declarations of consent, the exchange of symbols, etc., are “repeated as needed”.

Several of these essays were written during the Covid pandemic: a period in which any sort of “in-person” liturgical celebration was seriously curtailed and, for a time, forbidden. Some of the reflection on this now seems eccentric: for example, John Baldovin’s assertion that “preachers who do not regularly work to incorporate concern with the coronavirus . . . are being irresponsible.” The association, however, of this volume with this particular and, I hope, exceptional period gives a sense of lament to some of the contributions and, more positively, a heightened awareness of the value of the Church’s biblically rich liturgical life.

For better or worse, such enthusiasm is not universally shared, since in much of the Church of England (as well as, for example, in the shift towards Pentecostalism in South America), many people now regard liturgical worship — of whatever type — as the “heritage” of the Church, but not necessarily its future. Although this theme is occasionally touched on in these essays, I would have welcomed analysis of this trend, and of the way in which scripture functions in these apparently non-liturgical settings.

The Ven. Dr Edward Dowler is the Archdeacon of Hastings, and Priest-in-Charge of St John’s, Crowborough, in the diocese of Chichester.


Lively Oracles of God: Perspectives on the Bible and liturgy
Gordon Jeanes and Bridget R. Nichols, editors
Liturgical Press £27.99
Church Times Bookshop £25.19

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