The place of the Bible in today's Church
The Rectory - November 2003
About a year ago, I wrote a piece for this column about our identity as people and parishes, and commended the idea that we hold on to and explore further what it means to be open, and the need to ensure that we did not allow that right and good tradition in turn to become our own version of narrowness and exclusivity; and I referred to the Incarnation (well it was the December mag!), and the figure of the Christ child, a figure of no power, no influence, no standing in the community. That child is the source of our faith and the source of our practice. At least that is what we proclaim.
Of course, in two thousand years, we have overlaid the faith with lots of other stuff. When people claim that we must 'get back to the Bible', I am not sure they understand what they are saying. It simply is not that simple, and it is no good people shouting ever louder about it, because, just as non-English speakers are bemused by those who think they will be understood better by shouting , so the world is even more bemused by Christians who try to make all things simple by claiming all the answers for the world today are there in Scripture.
What is certainly true is that there is a great deal of wisdom in Scripture. We cannot ignore it. A church which turns its back on the Bible is no church at all. It is the visible foundation of all that we are as a community. But it is in danger of being terribly misused - as of course it has been in so many contexts throughout history. I challenge you to look back through history and count up the number of appalling incidents that have been justified on the basis of Christian interpretations of what is in the Bible. It will not be a happy exercise! All reading of what is between those covers is an exercise in interpretation. It cannot be anything else. What we have to search for is how to engage in that exercise with integrity. There is so much in both Old and New Testaments that we simply cannot accept today. And once one has cast doubt on the veracity of any one sentence, or the applicability of any instruction today - be that Paul on women reading in public, or covering their heads, or Leviticus on dietary restrictions - then the whole volume must be open to such investigation.
Surely what we are searching for is the Spirit that infuses both our written heritage and also the life of the church and the world today. That is the living strand of God's grace that binds us together vertically through history and horizontally across our modern world with all its humanly-constructed divisions. Surely the message of the Gospels that we most need to reflect on and act on today is that the waters of baptism that unite us in God run deeper than the blood of 'tribal' loyalties that threaten to drive us apart.
The roots of the Anglican tradition are showing themselves to be very tender and superficial. As you receive this magazine Gene Robinson will be being consecrated as Bishop of New Hampshire. The prospect of this one appointment has cast such a shadow over the Communion - a shadow which grows from nothing but irrational fear. Yet Scripture records God's message over and over again, in Old and New Testaments, as 'Do not be afraid. Have faith. You shall be my people and I shall be your God'. And over and over again that covenant is renewed. But over and over again, God's people become fearful. They lose faith, and the result is disaster. That is the message we need to hear. 'Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house there are many dwelling places... I will not leave you comfortless.'
Wherever we stand on that issue, we must surely be united in our prayer for Gene Robinson as he becomes Bishop of New Hampshire. With so much attention focussed on him from all over the world, it will hardly be easy for him to begin his ministry, and nor will it be easy for his diocese. Let us pray that, whether we agree with his consecration or not, that he and those who receive him will be richly blessed. And let us pray too for those places and peoples whose communion with the American church will be impaired as a result, that in the spirit of truth, unity and reconciliation, we may be led by God to understand afresh the calling which is ours. And let us remember that in the face of our God, we are all laid bare, body, soul and mind, just as he was. We have nothing on which to rely but the grace and love of God for all whom he has made.