By Joe Carnes Ananias
Christians are busy, and we’re increasingly busy with activities and commitments that crowd out churchgoing. Any pastor can tell you that regular attendance used to mean four Sundays a month, but it now means two or three. The general wisdom in many parishes is to multiply opportunities for involvement and lower the level of expected commitment. I won’t presume to say such wisdom is necessarily wrong or misguided, but I do think that it can leave unaddressed the reality that, even amid our cultural shift of priorities and commitments, we are as spiritually hungry as we’ve ever been.
One year into my first parish, I wondered if some of my people might not be hungry for something more than the short-term Bible studies or monthly small groups to which they were accustomed. So I decided to try something different. Inspired by a sometime United Methodist mentor, I decided to offer a 34-week course on the whole Bible, from Genesis to Revelation. I knew that I wanted the group to commit up front (“Plan to miss no more than four sessions”) and agree to stay the course (“You’ll read most of the Bible and come to a 90-minute session every Wednesday”). Aware that this might be a fairly hard sell, I summoned my rookie-priest zeal, and I made phone calls and lunch appointments to invite people directly.
I was delighted to find that many of the people I asked were hungry for an experience like this. They had been in church for some time, but wanted an opportunity to gain a more comprehensive sense of what Christianity is all about. They wanted to know the Bible better as a whole. They wanted a grasp of God’s saving action that went beyond the familiar stories. More to it, they were hungry for an encounter with the Word of God. Many were happy to commit, and others who weren’t able looked forward to a future opportunity when their schedule would allow it. The previous fall, I had taught a course on the sacraments and the Christian life, with an average attendance of six to eight. On the first night of the Disciple Bible Study, we had 20, and there were 18 who committed to the whole year.
We used the videos and workbooks of the Disciple Bible Study materials published by Abingdon Press (of the United Methodist Church), but we didn’t adhere to them slavishly. Most nights we gathered in a circle and began our time with the weekly Disciple video, which was a ten-minute introduction to the past week’s reading, the presenters being a veritable Who’s Who of late ’80s biblical scholarship. (We used the original series filmed in 1987. The dated quality of the videos injected some welcome levity into the beginning of each session.) We’d then spend 20 to 30 minutes discussing general issues raised by our readings in the past week, another 20 minutes working through the text in small groups, and a final 30 to 40 minutes with questions and some ad hoc lecturing.
In every session, without fail, we began with Cranmer’s collect on Holy Scripture:
Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ: who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
In this collect we see Cranmer’s insight that the central purpose of Scripture is to set forth the good news of everlasting life in Christ, alongside his conviction that the surest means of spiritual nourishment is the “inward digestion” of Scripture (see also Articles VI and VII, with the first of the Book of Homilies). These two are related: Cranmer knows that the gospel is the means of spiritual vitality, and he knows that feasting on Scripture is the way we absorb the gospel.
In our 34-week Bible study, I imagine Cranmer’s collect steadily and inconspicuously kept us on track, as if to remind us: We are here to discern in Scripture the story of God’s redemption of the world in Jesus Christ, and in so doing, to find spiritual nourishment.We came to find and have our fill of Scripture’s gospel feast. And most of the time, that’s what happened.
In the two years I led this course, I was witness to God’s power at work through Holy Scripture. I saw my people find God in silence with Elijah in 1 Kings 17. I saw them grasp the unity of the testaments and their joint witness to God’s faithfulness. I saw a man’s eyes well with tears when he came to grasp the beauty of the incarnation (in a discussion of Philippians 2, I think). I saw a member of the class re-evaluate the way she spoke about people of other faiths. I saw another re-evaluate the way he spoke about conservative Southerners. I saw a number who had confessed the creed for years come to understand, and find hope in, “the resurrection of the body” as we discussed it in 1 Corinthians.
Together we read, marked, and learned. Together we inwardly digested the Word of God, and together we were nourished. We acquired a taste for Holy Scripture, and we went away hungry for more. As one of the members of the class later wrote: “For me, the course gave me a way to know God, not just know about God. … The more we learned, the more we hungered for more knowledge.”
As Cranmer and other Anglican forebears were eager to stress, the prayerful reading and study of Scripture is one of the surest and most crucial means of spiritual growth. And here’s the thing: there is no substitute for the time and commitment it takes to read Scripture well. We may be tempted to despair of the time, energy, and desire of the people in our congregations when it comes to serious and sustained engagement with Scripture. But I would contend that many are up for the challenge — perhaps many more than we realize. In moments when it seems our churches could be characterized by Amos’s “famine … of hearing the words of the Lord” (Amos 8:11), our hunger for God’s Word is as urgent as ever, and we will be nourished only by regular, prayerful, and attentive engagement with Holy Scripture.
The Rev. Joe Carnes Ananias is associate director of the Anglican Episcopal House of Studies at Duke Divinity School.