Visiting bible makes an impact

Dr. Betsy Moss points to an illumination in the Saint John's Bible while people look on.
Dr. Betsy Moss guides people through The Saint John’s Bible Heritage Edition after a service at St. John the Baptist, Norway.
 on April 2, 2024
Michael Hudson

Church embraces manuscript

A volume of a beautiful bible is enriching the spiritual life of a parish in Toronto’s east end.

Thanks to a small area council grant, St. John the Baptist, Norway is leasing a volume of The Saint John’s Bible Heritage Edition. The book includes the four gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, told through vibrant illuminations and exquisite calligraphy. It is at the church until the end of April – or possibly longer – and available for public viewing.

The Heritage Edition, as it is commonly known, is the fine art version of The Saint John’s Bible, commissioned by Saint John’s Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minnesota in the 1990s. The Saint John’s Bible is the first illuminated, handwritten bible of monumental size to be commissioned by a Benedictine monastery in more than 500 years.

Made with traditional materials such as calfskin and ancient inks, and written with quill pens fashioned from goose, turkey and swan feathers, the bible contains all 73 books from the Old and New Testaments using the New Revised Standard Version, presented in seven volumes of about 1,150 pages. It is housed at Saint John’s University in Minnesota.

The Rev. Yohan Dumpala (left) holds the bible while subdeacon John Quaggin reads during the proclamation of the gospel.

The Heritage Edition was created so that people around the world can see this great and rare work of art. Limited to 299 seven-volume sets, the Heritage Edition is true to the scale, beauty and artistic intent of the original manuscript. It can be purchased in its entirety or, as in the case of St. John the Baptist, Norway, one of the volumes can be rented by the season.

“The mission statement of the Heritage Edition is ‘igniting the spiritual imagination of believers around the world,’ so I thought maybe this is how we could ignite the spiritual imagination of our parish and also our neighbours and be a gift to my clergy colleagues and their parishes,” says the Rev. Molly Finlay, incumbent of St. John the Baptist, Norway.

Ms. Finlay has been captivated by the Heritage Edition ever since she got a close-up look at it at a conference in Florida last March. “The illuminations are breathtaking and the handwritten script is consistent throughout,” she says. “When I look at it, I feel like I’m almost stepping back into time. I feel very close to the people who wrote those first gospel accounts.”

In addition to displaying it in the chancel, the church uses the bible in its worship services. Weighing 22 pounds, it is carried up the aisle by two people and placed on its stand on the altar. It is processed into the congregation for the proclamation of the gospel and is used at the church’s Tuesday night bible study group. When not in use, it is placed on a table near the lectern, where it often draws a crowd after a service.

The bible has led the church to reach out to its surrounding community. It recently held an ecumenical Taize evening prayer service with the priest and some parishioners from a nearby Roman Catholic church. It planned to hold an open house in March and a calligraphy workshop in May. A workshop was also held for the Toronto East deanery clericus.

Ms. Finlay says the bible is empowering the gifts of the laity in the parish. Four lay leaders have been trained as docents to walk people through the bible, turning its pages and helping people explore it. She is hoping the bible will also spark creative endeavours. “We have artistic people in our parish and I’d love to see how their gifts in the arts can be used to bolster the spiritual life of our community.”

Although the volume is due to go back to Minnesota at the end of April, she is hoping to negotiate a month’s extension. Ideally, she’d love to see a church in the Diocese of Toronto buy a full Heritage Edition, where it could be displayed here permanently and shared with other churches.

She says it would be well worth the expense. “I see it as a tool for offering radical hospitality. This is an opportunity to swing our doors wide open and invite people to come in and look at an incredible piece of art. It’s not just come in and join our church – it’s come in and discover something for yourself.”


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