“Who knew that Episcopalians read the Bible”? Twice in the last month, someone has said exactly these words to me, in contexts that now have me wondering. Both conversation partners were people who have been excited to find that you can read the Bible faithfully without taking it literally (indeed, a new book by Christian Smith that I’ve just started reading has suggested that “Biblicism” as we know it in American Protestant tradition actually undermines the enterprise of Evangelism -- but that’s for another post). One was a young adult raised in a progressive, pluralistic household, who is curious about the Bible, and has become more interested in reading Scripture because conversations with an online Episcopalian friend. The other was a priest raised in a deeply conservative Evangelical tradition, who told me he was drawn to the Episcopal Church partly through a “Disciples of Christ in Community” (DOCC) class. “I was raised to think that Episcopalians knew nothing about the Bible, he said, and here were people animatedly engaged in learning about Scripture: Who knew that Episcopalians were readers of the Bible?”
I wonder now whether some of the efforts in the 1980’s and 90’s to promote Bible Study among the laity -- the development of DOCC and EFM, the teachings of people like Verna Dozier and the adult Bible studies she designed -- are actually beginning to “take” among a critical mass of Episcopalians. Certainly it is true to our tradition to take Scripture seriously -- part of the “three-legged stool” of Scripture, Reason and Tradition, but taking a place of priority in many ways. At the consecration of Bishop Mariann Budde I noticed again that one of the things every ordained person must say publicly (in addition to accepting the “doctrine, discipline and worship of Christ as this church has received them”) is “I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary for salvation” (BCP, 538). And the next morning, in church, we offered this collect -- which comes around every year just at the end of the long season of Pentecost:
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 Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. (Proper 28, BCP p. 236)
“For our learning,” Verna Dozier emphasized: We read Scripture, the record of how men and women experienced the work of God, as our way of learning who God is calling us to be, in our time and place and lives. And each generation is invited to this practice of reading, marking learning, taking in Scripture. When I read recent books by former evangelicals promoting “new ways of reading Scripture” I find that I recognize the way that I have been taught to read Scripture, first in a fairly liberal Presbyterian church in the 1960’s, but then beginning in the 70’s, in Bible studies and conversations with fellow Episcopalians. In our effort to distinguish ourselves from literalist and fundamentalist approaches to Scripture and doctrine, we may well have ceded too much ground in the public conversation about and use of Scripture to guide and inform our account of ourselves. “Who knew?” What would it be like, if people knew Episcopalians as people who were faithful, creative, thoughtful and open-hearted readers of the Bible, and who do regard it as the Word of God for us, in each succeeding generation, using all the resources of reason and tradition to “hear read, mark learn and inwardly digest” what the Scriptures contain?