Limited Success
  • Friday, August 23, 2013

Catholic Voices

Third in a series on The Bible in the Life of the Church

By Michael Cover

If one is to judge by the importance of subject matter, the quality of the contributors, and the potential for strengthening biblical authority in the praxis of the Anglican Communion, then The Bible in the Life of the Church project certainly earns an A for ambition. But a careful reading of this five-year project’s report, Deep Engagement, Fresh Discovery, reveals that its fruits are mixed.

The study comes as a response to The Windsor Report (§§61–62), which calls the church to “re-evaluate the ways in which we have read, heard, studied, and digested scripture.” Commissioned by the Anglican Consultative Council and directed by the Anglican Communion Office, the project aimed not only to undertake such a reevaluation, but also “to go further” and “to look at how we actually use the Bible now by exploring scripture together and reflecting on the experience.” Many things were done well in this study, and I will mention some of the highlights in passing. Due to limitations of space, however, my comments will primarily be focused on questions or misgivings about its format, methodology, and conclusions.

One should not judge a book by its cover, but in this case it proves illuminating. It depicts a young boy in cuffed pants and sneakers peering cautiously into a cracked bedroom door, out of which floods an eerie, supernatural light. (It’s an odd image for both Church and Bible, strangely reminiscent of a Stephen King film.) Readers may feel similarly overwhelmed by the sheer length of the 674-page document, which can render it nearly inaccessible.

The report comprises the first 67 pages, followed by abundant resources. If these 67 pages were sufficient, one wonders why the additional material, which is constantly cross-referenced in the report, was included in the main document. The problem of length is exacerbated by the absence of a comprehensive table of contents and continuous pagination. Adding these is a desideratum if the report and its appendices are to serve as a useable toolkit for the Communion.

How is one to evaluate the successes and limitations of so large a document? Let us consider the project’s first two stated goals.

Goal 1: (a) “To explore how we, as Anglicans, actually use the Bible” (b) “by sharing experiences of using the Bible to explore two major contemporary issues.”

The project organized Contextual Bible Studies in six regions: (1) Australia, (2) Cuba/Latin America, (3) East Africa, (4) North America, (5) Hong Kong/Philippines, and (6) South Sudan. The studies were orchestrated largely through seminaries in each of the regions. Drawing on the last two of the Five Marks of Mission, these groups considered economic injustice, unjust gender structures, and environmental stewardship. Each group was encouraged to look at the same set of passages, although this may not have happened (e.g., many in England, considering gender inequality, apparently avoided 1 Timothy).

The narratives and results of these studies are fascinating and provide a window into how Anglicans around the world responded to a Western-style participation-based Bible study on particular social and environmental issues. Unfortunately, the clearest description of what happened is not to be found in the Regional Reflections but in the Regional Reports, written by the coordinator of each region and included in the additional materials. I commend in particular the reports from Hong Kong/ Philippines and Professor Ellen Davis’s report from South Sudan as clearly documented and potentially fruitful for further discussion.

The project’s method involves some serious limitations. (For a more comprehensive list of misgivings, see those listed at the beginning of the North American Regional Report, as well as the difficulties of implementing a group in Hong Kong.) The project did not attempt a sociological or theological study of how the Bible is engaged in local congregations. Nor did it report comprehensively what issues and methods are typically addressed “using” the Bible in the various regions. (One might question the “use” of this verb in the goal as well.) Rather, participants were presented with a Western-style Bible study on preset passages around a fixed theological agenda. In a kind of external audit included in the report, Joseph Crockett of the Nida Bible Institute (a branch of the American Bible Society) noted that the methodology closely approximates “action research”: “Action research is unapologetically agenda-driven. It has as its aim improving of social conditions by structured collaborations between participants and those designated to guide, facilitate, analyze and interpret the work.”

In light of Crockett’s assessment, it seems reasonable to ask whether the project’s chosen method actually achieves anything like a description of “how we as Anglicans actually use Scripture.” To be fair, the authors of the report readily admit this limitation of the study. In their own words, the report

  • “is not a total picture of what happens across the Communion — but a series of snapshots”
  • “is not a set of answers to the question, ‘How do Anglicans engage with and interpret the Bible?’ — but a mirror or checklist, a set of questions and encouragements to challenge us, as Anglicans, to think further”
  • “is not a prescribed programme or way forward — but a toolbox or collection of ideas.”

The authors are to be commended for their transparency. Such admissions, however, seriously call into question whether the report is equipped to address Goal 2: “to distil from and develop these explorations [sic] the principles of Anglican hermeneutics.”

To be sure, the report has compiled a very helpful, if provisional, bibliography of classical and modern Anglican statements of the Anglican view of Scripture, including sections on Roman Catholic and World Council of Churches documents, with articles by authors across the theological and political spectrum (e.g., Rowan Greer, Cynthia Kittredge, Dale Martin, and John Stott). This is a good starting place. But what the report makes clear is that we are still a long way off from a comprehensive description of the hermeneutical principles, let alone a theology of sacred Scripture, that characterize the unique genius of various Anglican provinces.

Particularly absent from the study was any discussion of the relation of Scripture and patristic exegesis in Anglican interpretation, another “gap” that future studies of this subject would be well-advised to consider. It is also regrettable that the Rt. Rev. Michael Fape, Bishop of Remo, Nigeria, resigned from his role as the project’s third theological consultant at the project’s standing committee meeting in 2012, significantly decreasing the diversity of the board in a post-GAFCON Communion.

All these limitations notwithstanding, the project has clearly set the stage for future studies of Communion-wide Anglican hermeneutics and the report deserves continuing consideration and discerning reception.

The Rev. Michael Cover is a Lilly postdoctoral teaching fellow at Valparaiso University and a member of the Living Church Foundation.

Image courtesy of mimicry/morgueFile


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