Monday, October 19, 2009

The Problem With Bible Reading II

A Question of Authority

Coincidentally after my previous post which quoted John Blanchard on the power of public Bible reading, Anglican Bishop Rob Forsyth has also written on this issue: The Marginalisation of Scripture. Rob quotes Oliver O'Donovan's lecture in April (mentioned on hebel here) to describe the place of scripture within our churches, and particularly how it has been sidelined in recent years. Rob argues that: "It can be easily be overwhelmed by the other elements: the music, the singing or, even more likely in our culture, the preaching."

Several years ago I heard a sermon that said that the most important of church is hearing the bible read out loud. How can the public reading of the Bible be central to our church gatherings? According to O'Donovan and his friend and contemporary Tom Wright, it comes down to authority. O'Donovan's account on this authority is superb. According to Wright:
"...[I]n public worship where the reading of scripture is given its proper place, the authority of God places a direct challenge to the authority of the powers, not least those who use the media, in shaping the mind and life of the community. But the primary purpose of the readings is to be itself an act of worship, celebrating God's story, power and wisdom and, above all, God's son. That is the kind of worship through which the church is renewed in God's image, and so transformed and directed in it's mission. Scripture is the key means through which the living God directs and strengthens his people in and for that work. That, I have argued throughout this book [Scripture and the Authority of God], is what the the shorthand phrase 'the authority of scripture' is really all about.

Indeed, what is done in the classic offices of Morning and Evening Prayer by means of listening to one reading from each Testament, is to tell the entire story of Old and New Testaments, glimpsing the broad landscape of the scriptural narrative through the two tiny windows of short readings. To truncate this to one lesson, or to a short reading simply as a prelude to the sermon (and perhaps accompanied with half an hour or more of 'worship songs'), is already to damage or deconstruct this event, and potentially to reduce the power and meaning of scripture, within this context , simply to the giving of information, instruction or exhortation. Equally, to have a reading that lasts about 90 seconds, flanked by canticles that last five or ten minutes (the practice in some 'cathedral-style' worship), conveys the same impression as a magnificent sparkling crystal glass with a tiny drop of wine in it. The glass is important, but the wine is what really matters." - NT Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God.
Or as O'Donovan argues:
"It is simply that without a proper value assigned to the corporate exercise of public reading of Scripture, private reading must look like an eccentric hobby. No collective spiritual exercise, no sacrament, no act of praise or prayer is so primary to the catholic identity of the church gathered as the reading and recitation of Scripture. It is the nuclear core. When Paul instructed his letters to be passed from church to church and read, it was the badge of the local church’s catholic identity. This is not to devalue preaching, praise, prayer, let alone sacramental act; these all find their authorisation in reading." - Oliver O'Donovan, The Reading Church: Scriptural Authority in Practice.

The reading of the bible at church is a means through which God speaks to his gathered people. Not only is it meant to be a transformative and profound moment, is it an act of worship by Christians to our God. Which is why we should strive to do it well. Not because we are professionals, but because we value excellence in our ministry, because we believe that it honours God and inspires people. I'll be blogging on this later in the week...


Alison said...

Amen, brother!

Church would look so different if the bible readings went for as long as the sermon did.

Although there are other ways of incorporating the bible into the service. We can have more songs that are just scripture put to music, and we can pepper even more quotes scripture throughout our prayers and what the service leader says. Just some ideas.

Nice picture, by the way.

Matthew Moffitt said...

And Wright goes on to talk about the power of scripture during communion.

byron smith said...

Yes, with you all the way here.

Last week in chapel, we had a very interesting experience. The reading followed the sermon. Or rather, the "sermon", which was delivered by a guy here studying preaching, who has spent much of his life as an actor and mime artist. His "sermon" consisted of a mime performance titled "Sermon with three points" in which he played the part of a preacher who delivers what he believes to be a powerful (and judgemental) sermon, only to be personally encountered and overcome by the crucified Christ. Sounds like it would be impossible to do effectively as a mime, but it was. But then the reading was Hebrews 4.12-16, which, following the "sermon" did exactly what the reading itself said: it was powerful and active and cut to the heart of the matter. A powerful lesson about the power of reading and the necessary humility of preaching.

Matthew Moffitt said...

Thanks Byron. I picked up Preach or Perish yesterday because of the chapter on Bible Reading. It's written by a current CMS Missionary who trained as an actor at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art before going into parish ministry in lecturing in 'Public Bible Reading' at Moore. He has some great ideas.