The Bible can put new zest into ecumenism
N.T. Wright on how we can make the quest for unity exciting again
Three months ago I had the privilege of being the Anglican Fraternal Delegate at the Synod of Bishops in Rome. The topic was "the word of God", and it quickly became clear that it carried enormous ecumenical implications.
The synod was, in effect, inhabiting more fully the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, particularly the document Dei Verbum. Many bishops at the Synod spoke excitedly of the effect of Bible reading and study on their congregations, and of the sea-change that this represents compared with the time, not long ago, when the Bible was quite literally a closed book to ordinary lay people. More than once bishops declared, as though it was a new discovery, that the Bible (and not just prayer and the liturgy) can bring people into a living personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ.
In particular, the synod emphasised the priority of translating the Bible into the world's many vernacular languages. Every man, woman and child among the faithful should own a Bible in their own language and be encouraged to read and study it for themselves.
If someone had said all this in, say, 1525, the entire history of the Church, and with it of the western world, would have been totally different. This was all that William Tyndale (for instance) was asking for. Let ordinary people read the Bible in their own language, and the Holy Spirit will produce whatever reformats may be needed.
One of the most striking things I heard in Rome was that there are two signs and means of unity which we already possess, namely baptism and the Bible. How do we make that a reality?
One answer is shared Lectio Divina - a reading of scripture which takes time to pray, to ponder, and to allow the text to soak in at every level. What is to stop Christians from every tradition coming together in each locality to share this simple but profound practice? Nothing except our nerves. I hope that Pope Benedict will now send out the message that this should be attempted. Certainly many of us non-Romans will welcome such initiatives eagerly. What will happen, though, when Christians discover that they differ not only on what they think the text is saying but on the framework within which they read it? Well, that will generate many layers of discussion; but it will do so in a healthy context. We all have our traditions, whether acknowledged or not, which condition how we read the text and what we find there. Sitting down with the text itself open in front of us is a great way to find out what we really think and why. And, more important, to catch an inkling of what God thinks, and why.
Of course, there are problems to be faced. What about "historical criticism"? Many have bad experiences of being told "you can't believe this" or "that's now been disproved" - when, often enough, the "disproof" consists merely of the sneer of the sceptic, pretending to be "objective" while we Christians are "prejudiced" (as if atheists are not prejudiced as well). But there are ways through. The Pope himself insisted, during the Synod, that we must study the Bible historically, since our faith is not a gnostic fantasy but is rooted in the historic reality of the Word becoming Flesh. Equally, he said, the Spirit who inspired scripture in the first place enables us to read it afresh. It isn't just a book about the past, but about our own present and future as well. There is such a thing as good, genuine history. Again and again its fruits are positive.
To my surprise, the synod gave little attention to the task of the Church in the world. You might have thought that attention to scripture would compel us to tackle that. It is precisely Roman Catholic writers, by and large, who read scripture afresh and generated the last generation's liberation theology. Modern western culture has regularly tried to stop the Church speaking out in the public sphere. "Devotional" and "historical-critical" readings alike can, by themselves, collude with this pressure in a way which falsifies the message of the Bible itself.
What's the alternative? A scriptural reading in which heart, mind, soul and strength are brought together. We need the devotional, the academic, the rehumanising and the missional readings of scripture, each in its proper way and all in their proper balance. Mary's song, the Magnificat, is a central biblical statement of God's turning the world the right way up at last. We need that today more than ever. If scripture is indeed God's word, what might it say not only to us but through us? What might it mean for our day to recapture the meaning of Ephesians 3, where Paul says that it is precisely in the unity of the church, across traditional barriers, that the manifold wisdom of God is made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places? When we can address that question together, sitting down and reading scripture side by side, we will be finding the way forward into a new epoch of ecumenical relationships.
---The Rt. Rev. Dr N. T. Wright is the Bishop of Durham and a leading New Testament scholar
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