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Anglo-Catholicism & the Bible

Ordinary Sunday 12, 22 June, 2014
Professor Dorothy Lee, Dean of Trinity College Theological School
University of Melbourne

I have been asked to preach this morning on the theme, 'Anglo-Catholicism is Biblical', as part of a larger series on what it means to be an Anglo-Catholic community within Anglicanism. Let me begin, therefore, by affirming that all forms of Christian faith and community are, or should be, 'biblical'. It is hard to imagine a church that has the three marks of 'holy', 'catholic', and 'apostolic' being anything but steeped in the Bible and committed to its theological vision.

The real issue here is that certain groups in the Church have laid claim to the Bible. They believe they're the only ones who really take the Bible seriously. They're the only ones who know it and who love it, and who follow passionately its teachings. These groups look down on 'liberal' approaches to the Bible and consider them less than Christian if not actually unChristian.

At the other extreme are Christians who see the Bible as problematical. They believe it is confined to its own cultural context, with values that need to be exposed as unhelpful and even discriminatory.

Ironically enough, both these approaches — the 'fundamentalist' and the 'liberal' approaches — have a good deal in common. Both read the Bible very literally. The one group deconstructs the Bible to show how racist, sexist, and homophobic it is; the other group takes certain texts out of context and gives them absolute moral power to support all kinds of discrimination.

Authentic Anglo-Catholicism, however, does not fall into either of these extremes. It does take the Bible seriously and doesn't dismiss it. But it understands the need for interpretation and it knows that interpretation is never simple or easy. There are a number of aspects to interpretation that are foundational for Anglo-Catholics.

An Anglo-Catholic approach to Scripture respects, for example, the diversity of the text. It does not take one biblical perspective, or worse still one text, and run away with it, to the exclusion of all else. The Bible needs to be read as a whole. That does not mean we ignore the Old Testament in favour of the New Testament: as if the God of one was a God of wrath and the other a God of grace. God is gracious, and God repudiates idolatry, hatred and injustice throughout the Bible.

What we do need to do is interpret Scripture by Scripture. We are to read one passage, one book, in the light of other biblical books and other passages. If we read in Paul that we are justified on the basis of faith, we need also to take note of other parts of the Bible which stress the importance of good works — works of mercy and justice. If we read of the centrality of personal spirituality in certain of the Psalms and the Gospel of John, we need also to be reminded by Amos, Isaiah and the Gospel of Luke of the summons to social justice.

Anglo-Catholicism, moreover, does not confine itself to reading Scripture in a literal or wooden way. The early church, particularly in Alexandria, did not necessarily read the Bible in a literal way. The Song of Songs, for example, was read as an allegory of God's love for Israel, God's love for the Church and the Church's love in response, using sexual imagery. Passages that seemed to condone violence were to be interpreted metaphorically rather than literally, in the light of Jesus' embrace of peace. They should not justify acts of violence on our part, but they expressed the awareness of the reality of evil and God's opposition to it, and the battle we wage against those forces of evil.

Furthermore, an Anglo-Catholic interpretation of Scripture reads it always in relation to the life of the Church. The Bible is the final authority for us, the inspired word of God. But it is also the 'Church's book'. It comes from the life of the Church. In the second century, when the canon of the NT was being formed — starting with the Gospels — the 'canon of truth' was in fact the received teaching of the Church embodied in its earliest creeds. The canon grew up alongside the Creeds and were, in a sense, inseparable from them. The Bible is the source of tradition but also arises from tradition.

What follows from this is that there is no such thing as an individualistic reading of the Bible. We read the Bible in the context of the Church's life. We read it together, in community: we study it, we stand beneath it, and we do so together, and in the light of the succeeding generations who followed in the footsteps of the earliest Christians.

Most of all, however, we acknowledge Christ as the final and definitive interpreter of Scripture. We see him, and the Gospels, as lying at the very heart of Scripture. The Gospels present the whole picture of Christ: his life and ministry, his death and resurrection. We read the Bible, in other words, from the centre outwards. If we are reading Matthew's Gospel, for example, as we have this morning, we will take seriously the ongoing significance of the Law but we will do so in the light of Jesus' own teaching — as set out, for example, in the Sermon on the Mount — and in the light of Jesus' own life and ministry.

Vatican 2 in its document on Scripture, Verbum Dei, 'the Word of God', begins rightly by stating that the Word of God (with a capital 'W') is first and foremost Jesus Christ. This statement might have come straight from the mouth of Martin Luther. The Bible is the 'word' of God in the sense that it bears witness to the Word made flesh. In other words, the Bible is the prophetic and apostolic witness to Christ. Together we interpret the whole of Scripture in the light of his incarnation, his ministry, the events of Easter.

These points emphasise the challenge that faces Anglo-Catholics to read and know their Bible. It means we need to know its contents and contours, its diversity, its riches and depth; and we need to learn how to interpret it carefully, responsibly and in community.

There is a further dimension, however, to our interpretation of the Bible. Anglo-Catholics believe that the Bible is not just to be studied but also to be prayed. We do, in the first place, in our liturgies. So much of the liturgy, so many of our hymns, are taken from Scripture. It would be an interesting exercise to look at the liturgy line-by-line and find the source for each sentence, each thought. In most cases, you will find these go back directly to Scripture.

When we gather for Morning and Evening Prayer, for Compline, we are praying the Scripture, allowing it to resonate within and around us. When we use the Mediaeval practice of 'lectio divina', 'sacred reading', in our own spiritual life, we are praying the Scriptures. We read the Bible slowly and carefully, opening our hearts to its voice. When we enter into biblical stories or biblical imagery imaginatively, we are praying the Scriptures. Anglo-Catholicism is biblical, therefore, because it not only studies the Bible, but also prays the Bible: in worship, in liturgy, in meditation.

One of the most powerful images of the Bible is the Orthodox icon of Christ Pantocrator, often called 'Christ the Teacher'. Here is an image of Jesus Christ, holding in his left hand the Book of the Gospels and raising his right hand in blessing on the viewer. In word and sacrament, in the reading and enacting of Scripture we come face-to-face with Christ himself.

Together, as the Church, we are blessed with his blessing, and the light of his face shines upon us. Christ the Word illuminates us through his word, giving us hope and courage, challenging our complacency and indifference, and above all radiating upon us the love of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.


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