7 May 2017
St Paul’s Church, Byron Bay
St Columba’s Church, Ewingsdale
This is the second in a series of sermons that are seeking to explore some of the attributes of spiritually confident faith communities.
We began the series by thinking about what “spiritual confidence” might mean.
Now we can look at several attributes of a local church that has some degree of spiritual confidence. We begin by looking at the way such churches encourage all their members to engage deeply with the Bible.
Taking the Bible seriously
The Bible has a very special place in our faith as Christians.
While it is not the focus of our faith, the Bible exercises an extremely important role within the life of the church and without own our lives as people of faith.
Sometimes people use the analogy of a telescope and the moon. A good telescope is an essential tool for anyone who wants to study the moon. But no-one mistakes the telescope for the moon. We look through the telescope to see the moon. Likewise, we read the Bible in order to deepen our faith, but we do not mistake the Bible as the object of our faith.
Interestingly, at least in the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches, one does not need to believe anything about the Bible in order to be a member of the church. People wishing to serve as clergy and lay leaders need to assent to some very general statements about the Bible, but beliefs about the Bible are not core elements of our faith.
The same applies to beliefs about the church, or about the sacraments. Such matters are important, but they do not lie at the heart of our faith.
Despite that odd gap, in the Anglican Church the Bible is taken very seriously and given a place of great significance. For example, unless a particular belief can be demonstrated as having a solid basis in Scripture, it cannot be required of any member of the church. If it is not in the Bible then it is not mandatory.
Our Prayer Book is heavily influenced by the Bible. The whole of the Psalms are included in an Anglican Prayer Book, but almost every page has either direct quotations from the Bible or words that evoke a biblical passage.
I love the classic Anglican move to encourage lay people to read the Bible at the time of the Reformation. For the first time, a Bible in English was to be placed near the front of every church and anyone who could read was encouraged to read sections of the Bible out aloud for their neighbours unable to read the words for themselves.
That nicely captures the Anglican commitment to making the Scriptures available to people in their own language, and encouraging every member of the church to read the Bible as best they could.
Developing biblical literacy
“As best they could” is a key phrase in that last sentence.
Not everyone in England could read in the days of Henry VIII. So making the Bible available in English was not enough, by itself, to ensure that people were able to read the Bible.
That remains a serious challenge for the church, and a spiritually confident church is one that has found a way to overcome that challenge.
It is not so much that people cannot read these days, although that may be more of a problem than we realise. It is more than people lack biblical literacy skills to read well.
A spiritually confident church does not just talk about the importance of the Bible. It also takes steps to assist people develop the skills needed to read the Bible, and to read it well.
Research in the Diocese of Brisbane a few years ago showed that Anglicans there lacked the confidence to read the Bible themselves. I suspect we would find similar results if we did the same research here in this Diocese.
One response to that research finding was to develop the BIBLE360 project, which it was my privilege to design and implement across the Diocese for a couple of years.
The idea was simple but challenging.
In a single one-day program, we wanted to make a difference so that:
- people felt more confident about reading the Bible;
- we helped them choose a Bible and a reading plan that suited them; and
- they would join—or start—a small group in their parish to read the Bible together.
The Bible is different from almost any other book we will ever pick up. But with the support of friends who join us in a small group to read the Bible together, we can find immense spiritual support from reading this ‘book of books’.
The key seems to be forming small groups of people committed to getting together every week to read the Bible together, and reflect on its meaning to our context here and now.
This is not an academic exercise, even if it can be enriched by some access to the work of Bible scholars, historians, and theologians.
We avoid teaching information about the Bible—and the world ‘back then’—so that we focus on what God has to say to us about our context here and now.
To do that we need (1) some basic biblical literacy skills, (2) access to a Bible suitable for our needs, and (3) the company of a small group of friends to share the journey with us.
For a church to be healthy and spiritually confident, it needs to be deeply grounded in the Scriptures. That means not just the priest or the Parish Council, but the entire congregation needs to be skilled at using the Bible and actively engaged in small groups where they can help each other “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest” the words of Scripture.
Listening to God is the quintessential hallmark of a person of faith.
Reading the Bible in the company of other people is simply the best way to do that.
The Bible is not a magic pudding of spiritual knowledge, but reading the Bible puts us into a mindset where we are more attuned to discern what the Spirit may be saying to the churches.
While we are primarily seeking wisdom rather than gathering information when we read the Bible in this way, it is also true that the Bible is our primary source for information about the beginnings of our faith. This is especially true for our knowledge of Jesus. Without the Gospels we would know almost nothing about Jesus.
I like to think of the Bible as a marvellous collection of memories from the earliest days of our faith, stretching deep back into the religious history of ancient Israel. It is a bit like finding a shoebox full of photographs and other memorabilia from our grandparents.
Its most precious attribute, and the major reason for taking the time to develop good biblical literacy skills, is as a catalyst for spiritual wisdom. When a small group gathers to study the Bible, God blesses us with wisdom. This is true even when our questions are not ones found in the Bible itself.
We gather at the Table of the Lord to feed on his life, and we gather around the Bible to find the wisdom we need for our daily lives.
Reading the Bible is a skill worth developing, and a habit worth forming.
As always, the focus stays on the present. We are not seeking to find out what the Bible can tell us about the past, but exploring how the Bible can shed new light on today and tomorrow.
Developing healthy Bible reading habits
If we were a movie club, we would share tips from movie critics and develop the skills of watching a move with a deeper appreciation of the film maker’s craft. If we were an art school, we would offer classes on art appreciation.
Since we are a church, we need to help our people develop their Bible reading skills.
In all of this our goal is to form disciples, not train scholars. We are reading for wisdom, not offering a master class in ancient history.
As a church we need to cover a range of issues, including:
- Choosing the right Bible for our needs
- Making best use of the reference tools that come with our Bible
- Choosing a Bible reading plan
- Forming and sustaining healthy small group to read the Bible
- Mastering different types of spiritual reading disciplines
- Developing a strong preaching ministry, including making sermons available in digital and print forms—maybe even live streaming
- Engaging with the Sunday lectionary texts as the basic diet of Scripture for the church
- Offering occasional workshops to deep our knowledge of the Bible
This all takes time, and certainly cannot be achieved during a brief locum ministry. But some of it we can do, and indeed some if it we have already been doing.
It is also something we can build into our planning for the future. As we prepare our strategic plans in the next few weeks, let’s be sure to include specific plans to develop the biblical literacy skills of our church members.