At an Induction Service the other night, the acting rector made a comment that struck me “For us Anglicans, the reading of the Bible aloud in church is a very special moment”.

It got me thinking of a lecture given by Oliver O’Donovan in April this year, “The Reading Church: Scriptural Authority in Practice” which was a reflection on the clause in the Jerusalem Declaration that said

We believe that the holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the word of God written and to contain all thinking necessary for salvation. The Bible is to be translated, read, preached, taught and obeyed in its plain and canonical sense with respect for the church’s historical and consensual reading.


O’Donovan rightly noted that very few people have commented on these words. And, introducing his book of theological reflections on the homosexual crisis in our Church, (A Conversation Waiting to Begin: the Churches and the Gay Controversy’ SCM Press, 2009) he does just that in his usual, profound, if somewhat difficult to follow, way.

But it was the concept of the place of the reading of Scripture in church that got me. It can be easily be overwhelmed by the other elements: the music, the singing or, even more likely in our culture, the preaching. In fact, preaching the word of God, explaining the Bible, or giving a sermon (what ever it is called) is important but it is not quite the same as hearing God’s word read in the middle of a congregation gathered.

For O’Donovan the reading of Scripture is an expression of the authority of God in our church. In particular, the authority of God which limits and challenges our own ideas and piety and imagination and dreams. He writes,

All authority arises from mediation of reality. The free imagination and ranging purposes of the human mind are brought to heel by an interruption of something that simply and unnegotiably is the case. And the authority of Scripture is the moment at which the attested reality of God’s acts disturb the ideal constructions and zealous projections of human piety. Those who are anxious about the church’s weakening attachment to Scripture do not anticipate a loss of piety, but a rank growth of it; they fear the promiscuous multiplication of religious images in which history and fantasy are blended in equal measure, in which Star-Trek and Jesus are equally apt for our devotion.

In fact, in this particular contemporary culture, the public reading of Scripture in church, which is the way in which the authority of Scripture is acknowledged, is even more crucial as O’Donovan points out.

The practices that acknowledge the authority of Scripture in the church arm it against the greatest danger of a culture that declares itself “post-modern”, the loss of a sense of difference between image and reality.

Scripture is not just a matter of “private reading the Bible for yourself”. There is a sense in which it gives the church gathered (and also I suppose the church understood as the society over time) its identity. That’s the moment at which the nature of the church is more clearly revealed.

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.

O’Donovan notes that this is, as the acting rector at my induction service the other day had also noted, a crucial Anglican issue, although he regards, at least in England, something having gone wrong.

Here we are on classic Anglican ground. Fifty years ago Stephen Neill, in identifying the elements that characterised Anglican Christianity, named as the first of these “the biblical quality by which the whole warp and woof of Anglican life is held together...The Anglican Churches read more of the Bible to the faithful than any other group of Churches. The Bible is put into the hands of the layman; he is encouraged to read it, to ponder it, to fashion his life according to it.” That these words would be wholly impossible to write today ought to sober us.

Would these words be wholly impossible to write today about Sydney Anglicans also?

One of our problems is, of course, what to read. So often the sermon series is the quite lengthy large tail which waves the small Scripture-reading dog. And probably fair enough, although the lack of other readings and the submersion of the public reading of Scripture into simply serving the sermon should be a worry. One of the problems is that we don’t know quite what to do about consistent reading of Scripture given our contemporary church practices, as O’Donovan notes

To build a pastorally effective lectionary for congregations with more varied and haphazard worshiping habits is a difficult task, and I should have thought it deserved more of our common attention than it has in fact received.

However, for me one of the greatest problems is how poorly Scripture reading is done. O’Donovan notes ironically a rather sad, if well-intentioned, reason for the collapse of public reading of Scripture in church.

There is another requisite for the public reading of Scripture beside the lectionary, seemingly even less attended to, and that is a public reader. A task once confined to the clergy has now largely been made over to lay members of the congregation, but far from dignifying lay ministry, this has, on the whole, merely marginalised a task on which a great deal in the act of worship depends.

To be frank, I am uneasy about the common practice of reading from the Bible as well encouraging the listeners to follow on in a printed text let alone, having the text up in from of everybody on an overhead screen. It is well intentioned but probably counterproductive. I believe there is good scientific evidence that reading and hearing the same thing at once, especially on a long text, is much more difficult to understand and remember than just doing one or the other. (It has something to do with the small size of our short-term working memory.) When I draw attention to how distracting it is, especially having a large text on the wall in front of us, I am often told, “We had to do it”. Why? “Well, because it is the only way we can understand the readings.” How about reading it well in the first place?

I may just be overly grumpy, or old, or a bishop at this point, but I do think it is time to recover what we could call the catholic identity of our churches by making the public reading of Scripture the profound and effective moment as we are gathered together.

Bishop Robert Forsyth
October 14th, 2009