Introduction to a series on The Bible in the Life of the Church
By Robert MacSwain
In the Autumn of 2009 the Very Rev. William Stafford asked me to participate in the Anglican Communion’s Bible in the Life of the Church project. His request followed an inquiry from the Rev. Canon Kenneth Kearon, secretary general of the Anglican Communion, on whether our seminary would act as the base for the North American region of the project. If so, Sewanee would then nominate a faculty member who could serve as a member of the project’s steering committee and coordinate the regional group’s investigations.
Canon Kearon sent similar invitations to theological institutions or individuals in Australia, East Africa, South Africa, and the United Kingdom. Cuba, South Sudan, the Philippines, and Hong Kong were eventually included as well. The steering committee met three times — twice in England and once in South Africa — and the members of the North American Regional Group met twice in Sewanee to share the findings from their locations. After three years of study (2009-12), the final report — Deep Engagement, Fresh Discovery — was presented to Anglican Consultative Council 15 in New Zealand (the names of the steering committee and members of the regional groups appear on pages 66-68).
My understanding was always that the primary goal of the project was descriptive rather than normative. While the final report does conclude with some suggestions on how Anglicans should approach the interpretation of Scripture, its main interest is in how Anglicans do in fact approach that interpretation. We wanted to find out what Anglicans around the world had in common regarding this enterprise, and how they differed. We were also interested in discovering the latent or implicit assumptions that we brought to the study of the sacred text in our respective regions.
To this end, we engaged in two case studies during this three-year period. One focused on the Anglican Communion’s fifth Mark of Mission (“To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth”), while the other focused on the fourth Mark of Mission (“To seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation”). The case studies considered passages drawn from the Old Testament, Apocrypha, and New Testament, with accompanying questions. Members of each regional group were asked to coordinate these Bible studies in their respective locations (parishes, chaplaincies, seminaries, etc.) and to record not so much the substantive issues discussed (ecological or gender justice, for example) but rather the extent to which looking at these specific issues within the chosen biblical texts revealed hermeneutical commitments.
After assembling and discussing all of these studies from around the world, the steering committee attempted to find both common threads and distinctive emphases. Deep Engagement, Fresh Discovery consists of our assessment of the project’s results, as well as links to a wealth of documentary evidence, including official Anglican Communion statements on the authority and interpretation of Scripture. We also offer ten themes that we believe are characteristic of contemporary Anglican interpretation of the Bible (p. 41), and seven principles that gesture toward more normative proposals to guide this essential enterprise (p. 42).
It remains to be seen how this project and report will be received by the Communion. I thus welcome this public engagement by The Living Church and hope that others will follow its example, both in North America and around the world.
The Rev. Robert MacSwain is assistant professor of theology and Christian ethics at the University of the South’s School of Theology.
Image courtesy of mimicry/morgueFile