The case of the disappearing Bible

A notepad its on a desk near a pen, laptop and phone
 on October 1, 2016

A word to bishops-elect: there is a world of discovery awaiting you on your Sunday episcopal visits. There will be surprises, and some of them will be unpleasant. Your challenge will be to discern which one of the surprises to take up and which to let go.

In 10 years as a bishop, I have not addressed the practice of removing the Bible from the pulpit before the sermon. I believe the motivation for this practice is entirely practical – to make room on a crowded surface for sermon notes. Since I print my notes on one page, I have never felt the need for much room. On the contrary, the optics of moving the Bible out of the way so that one can preach is profoundly troubling.

It is often said that the Anglican Church has no formal doctrine aside from the Creed, and that our doctrine is embedded in our liturgy. This is not entirely true. Our earliest practices and formularies subscribe to the supremacy of scripture, albeit interpreted by tradition and reason. But liturgy is important. This is all the more reason to be careful about ceremony – the largely unwritten parts that encompass movement, order and subtle hints that work on the subconscious. What focus one puts on the Bible affects worship, and by extension the life of the church.

The current arrangement in our Sunday liturgy is to have the lessons of the day printed in leaflets. In more churches than not, lessons and Gospel proclamations for readers are put in binders. Again, these are eminently practical arrangements: the average reader is not expected to know where the lesson begins or ends. Mistakes have been made, and I have some real knee-slappers to share.

Liturgical practices both reflect and shape theological thinking, particularly in a church like ours that relies heavily on symbols. The combined symbolic impact of loose-leaf lessons and the absence of Bibles on lecterns, pulpits or in pews, I would argue, profoundly changes our experience of the scriptures as a unified source of revelation. We encounter it episodically, each passage separated from another and definitely taken out of the fabric of the whole salvation story. It contradicts our insistence elsewhere that a Bible passage must be interpreted in context. Is it a coincidence that we find in our people a disjointed understanding of scripture? Since clergy choose the lesson they preach from, and they usually choose the Gospel reading, the rest of scripture is de facto closed. Should a parishioner wish to check out a reference, or a stranger wander in, will there be a Bible in the pews to read? It is said that our liturgy is chock full of biblical allusions, but would people be able to make the connection – and does that matter?

Before you dismiss me as a “fundamentalist” and ‘biblicist,” I hasten to say that I value all the findings of modern biblical scholarship and acknowledge that scripture needs to be read in context. Many passages are obscure and seem out of place to our understanding of the world. But the weight of theological development is not to downplay or dismiss the scriptures in favour of some more progressive foundation but to engage it, struggle with it, learn from it. You cannot do that if you are not even familiar with the material, the stories and the teaching. Before you dismiss a teaching as irrelevant, at least know where to find it.

That Anglicans do not value the scriptures has been a standard barb thrown at our church. I do not accept that criticism, at least relative to the practice of our critics. In many so-called Bible-believing churches, people are just as selective in their biblical exposure and knowledge. From the English Reformation onward, our spirituality is grounded in systematic reading and preaching from the whole Bible. (Archbishop Cranmer’s original preface to the Prayer Book underlines that; see BCP p. 715.) The daily and weekly lectionary, if followed, will allow our people to hear the entire scripture read, and not just the preacher’s favourite passages. I want to commend deepening this treasure, this insistence on reading the whole scripture systematically, to honour the spirit of the Reformers to help our people become biblically literate. It was reported that when the great Bible was put at the back of the church for the first time, people crowded around it to read it and some tore pages from it. Let us prominently display the Bible again and not the page ripped from it!

It is simple to fix the liturgy. Clergy, put the Bible back in the pulpit and lectern, don’t remove pew Bibles, and if your predecessor did it, at least put one Bible in each pew.  Print the page numbers of lessons in your leaflets. We already have a practice of processing the Missal. This is a great visual symbol to honour the Bible. Make the rest of the liturgy consistent with this intent and do not contradict it.

But fixing the liturgy is the easy part. We need to make biblical literacy a foundation in our discipleship-making strategy. I know that 20 minutes on a Sunday morning is not enough, but it has to begin there. I strive to give some biblical context in preaching and to endeavor to connect lessons from week to week out of the same basket of Gospel, Epistles and Old Testament. I deviate from the lectionary in thematic preaching from time to time. You can do this on a book or a character. Even if you stick to the Gospel lesson, there is plenty of room to put the lesson of the day in context – say, of Jesus’ journey from Galilee to Jerusalem.

My observation of those who still have a Christian memory is that people are familiar with some biblical stories but they do not know how they relate to each other and how they fit in the great story of God’s work in the world. To have a context – a backbone, if you will – that people can hang those stories and teachings on to will greatly advance people’s appreciation and understanding of those stories. In every church I have served, I have offered a Bible survey course that helps people read through the whole Bible in a year (it usually takes two.) This method requires participants to read large portions of scripture alongside a Bible dictionary or a handbook, and to engage in a question for each session. Only a small number of people will complete the course, but even so those who participate are introduced to a different way to read scripture. Those who complete the course move forward in leaps and bounds and normally go on to take up responsibility. The Rev. Don Freeman, who developed the course in the 1970s, has now improved it and calls it “Hiking through the Bible.” He is still offering it at St. John, Peterborough.

I assume that every church has a Bible study. Reading scripture together is characteristic of an Anglican approach to scripture and is universally found in all parts of the Communion. Can we multiply this by training Bible study leaders so that the parish priest is not the only teacher but a resource person for other leaders? If you do this right, Bible studies are wonderful small groups of mutual care, and they can also be units of evangelism to different circles of friends.

This is my last opinion piece in The Anglican before retirement. Now you know where my passion lies. Despite the provocative title, the Bible has NOT disappeared from all our churches. I am encouraged by churches that prominently display daily Bible reading material from the Forward movement and others to be picked up. I know of parishes that jump-start biblical literacy; some that challenge parishioners to read 100 biblical passages in 100 days; other churches with lively, multiple Bible studies.  I have actually preached from pulpits with Bibles on them. Yes, it may cramp the preacher, but I think it should.


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