By Bolly Lapok
The Bible in the Life of the Church has come at a significant period in the history of the Anglican Communion. The Church faces deep and divisive issues, which can create tension within, if not split, provinces, dioceses, and even church communities. At the same time, secularisation, particularly in the Western Hemisphere, threatens the authority and standing of the Church. Both of these hinder our sense of unity and commonality within the Communion, and undermine our confidence at the point of mission.
At the heart of our differences and difficulties lies the problem we face in interpreting the Bible, which should be our common starting point in discipleship (Article VI: “The Bible contains all things necessary to salvation”). For, as the Archbishop of Canterbury reminds us in his foreword to the report, Bible study is not just about pursuing scholarship and seeking moral guidance. It also needs to be undertaken to answer our need to be “judged and restored.” Because the majority of our people only meet the Bible through the lectionary readings at Sunday worship, the ACC’s stimulating exploration of Bible study amongst Anglicans and its potential value provides challenging material for the future.
The project had five aims. The group set out to explore how Anglicans actually use the Bible, by setting up a network of regional, facilitated groups to study two major issues (Statements 4 and 5 of the Anglican Communion’s Five Marks of Mission), using a selection of set texts. The reports from these groups would, they hoped, provide empirical evidence of the way in which regions engage with and interpret the Bible, and allow the distillation of some working principles for Anglican hermeneutics. The report includes resource materials for Bible study for all levels of Christian education, a review of the Bible in the history of the Church, and research into how Anglicans understand the Bible. Adding a guide to significant literature on this topic, the report’s aim is to stimulate further and deeper engagement with the Bible in the wider Church. The project’s findings, arising from this ambitious, worldwide programme, do not surprise, but are significant for those eager to further the unity of the Church and strengthen its capacity for mission across the world.
The breadth of the project is impressive. The worldwide regional groups were charged to bring together a diverse group for biblical study, not the like-minded, and their reports make interesting reading. Whilst some found a ready echo in the Malaysian experience, the forum’s synthesis provides a challenging and helpful platform for common future action. One would expect clear evidence of biblical engagement of churches across the Communion, but it is the challenging evidence for the value of deeper exploration that is valuable. Regional groups acknowledged the value of exploring issues not usually put under the biblical microscope, experiencing sections of Scripture not encountered before, and seeing familiar texts associated with the unfamiliar and the enormous stimulus of participating in communal study in a diverse group of participants. Such conclusions clearly endorse the project’s methodology but they should also challenge dioceses, encouraging them to be confident in suggesting the centrality of Bible study in community life and guiding them in providing a suitable and creative structure for it. The resources provided by the report will be a useful guide for those who take up this challenge. There are, however, a number of significant findings that need to be heeded.
The regional reports point to a remarkable diversity in the way churches engage with and interpret the Bible, underline the very different contexts from which the Bible is approached, and show the significance of the different experiences brought to the group by participants. The diversity of approach was clearly the result of bringing together those from different traditions. It is, then, clear that the success of the group and the value of the discussion relies on openness in the group, a willingness to share resources and value the views of others, and, above all, good facilitation. Equally, however, the report warns us that we must have the right expectations about the outcome of such work. The value, as the group from Aoteora, New Zealand, and Polynesia puts it, is not so much in changing the views of participants as in increasing respect for one another. Our unity, this group concluded, is only as good as “our ability to engage with our differences.”
The report places great emphasis on understanding the context of passages of Scripture and the personal and corporate contexts of the participants. In Malaysian society the recognition of the context in which we explore the Bible together is vital. There is a world of difference between those who come to the text in what the African Group calls “the primal context” and those who gather in the United Kingdom or North America. Further, the Malaysian context, in which our church seeks to further the kingdom and at the same time coexist with the strong presence of other faiths while being dominated by aggressive Islamisation, is different from that of a Western church working in an increasingly secular society in which the pursuit of equality and the importance of personal rights prevails. The church that seeks to promote unity and commonality between provinces may be helped by structured Bible study not just in regional groups but even with more widely drawn participants. Perhaps this is a challenge for the next stage of the Lambeth 1988 overseas partnerships, which have already made such a strong contribution to our appreciation of a worldwide church united in mission.
These conclusions are important for those leaders who, realising the value of communal Bible study, aim to strengthen the unity and witness of the Church and give disciples confidence to speak out in wider society. There may never be a single Anglican, let alone Christian, position and voice, but an increased sensitivity to informed personal and local views must surely strengthen the work of the kingdom. However, even this aim may be difficult to achieve because, as the report highlights, a number of gaps make our study together more difficult.
Two gaps that speak particularly to the Malaysian situation are the gap between the academy and the pew and that between the use of particular passages or verses and the wider witness of the Bible. The shared experience of meeting the text is all-important. Although “academic” input can hinder this engagement, a sensitive academic input is necessary if the Word of God is to be released from the text. Achieving this balanced sensitivity will be difficult enough in areas with a developed “Western” theology, but equally difficult for younger churches, where an imposed and much-valued, but not enculturated, theology is dominant. Similarly, for reasons of churchmanship or from limited study of the Bible, it may be difficult to be open to new understandings, which can arise in structured study such as that envisaged by the report. The provision of good facilitators for groups is vital, the report suggests, in recognising these gaps and minimising their hindrance.
We should be grateful that the ACC has sharpened our focus on a very significant issue facing the Church. The Bible has always been at the centre of church life, even if at times its interpretation has been divisive. It is surely to be hoped that the leaders of the Anglican Communion may feel not only challenged by the report but also encouraged to incorporate study of the Bible into their strategy for mission, and that in devising a strategic Bible study programme they will be guided by this perceptive analysis of the pitfalls and of the best practice which this long overdue report provides.
The Most Rev. Datuk Bolly Lapok is Archbishop of the Anglican Church of the Province of South East Asia and Bishop of Kuching.
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