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Lambeth bishops wrestle with Scripture

Conference also grapples with perceptions of limits to interpretation

[Episcopal News Service, Canterbury] Before Anglicans can talk about the biblical texts surrounding homosexuality, they first need to find some common ground about the use of the Bible.

That was the premise of the work asked of bishops on July 30 at the Lambeth Conference on the day when the theme was "Living Under Scripture: the Bishop and the Bible in Mission."

As bishops and others talked about the work of the day and the challenges of biblical interpretation, metaphors and exegetical lingo abounded. Houses and dances, among other images, competed with terms such as "hermeneutics" and "ecclesio-theological framework" as ways to describe both engagement with Scripture and the challenges of that engagement.

"We're trying to build a large house for the way we use the Bible, inhabit the Bible, come and go from the Bible," said Archbishop David Moxon, bishop of Waikato and co-presiding bishop in the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia. "What you want is a good, big, strong house."

Moxon, speaking to reporters at a news briefing, explained his work in New Zealand to build such a house by bringing together "as many people as possible for as long as possible, as carefully as possible, as deeply as possible and as respectfully as possible" to consider the issues that arise in biblical interpretation.

"The Anglican Communion has never tried this before across the world at the same time in the same way," Moxon said, adding that there has been a call for a worldwide study of hermeneutics (the methods of interpreting scripture). The Hermeneutics Project was called for in the Primates Meeting's communiqué from its February 2007 gathering in Dar es Salaam.

In addition, the second of three "preliminary observation" papers released at the Lambeth Conference by the Windsor Continuation Group pointed to the Hermeneutics Project, along with other projects aimed at building common communion-wide understandings, as "urgent and vital if we are to regain a sense of common values and mutual understanding."

Moxon said he thought that the conference's final "reflections document" would contain a similar call. (A second draft of that still-incomplete document does not mention the project by name.)

The New Zealand project resulted in four accepted principles, Moxon said, explaining them with the metaphor of a house. First, he said, Jesus Christ is the floor or foundation because "the Bible reveals Jesus Christ as the living word" and contains "inspired words which reveal the living word." The entrance -- the way into the Bible -- comes, Moxon said, by asking what the world of the biblical writers was like "and what does God say to that world."

The walls of the house are the current world and, Moxon said, they represent the effort of relating this world to the world of the Bible. Finally, the roof is the church, which Moxon said includes tradition and is "the overarching shelter."

In working for agreement on the four principles, he explained, "what you want to emerge out of all this is high ground, that is to say high moral ground, high spiritual ground." That result "will give us a way of beginning to address the issue of homosexuality in the Bible," he added.

"We want to see what the Spirit says to the church under the authority of a scholarly use of the Bible," Moxon said.

Gerald West, the leader of the committee that designed the conference's daily Bible study process and a self-described "biblical scholar in the Anglican Communion rather than a bishop," summarized for reporters four elements of biblical interpretation that "are shared by the Anglican Communion.

"Each one of them can be emphasized in different ways," he said.

West, who teaches at the University of Kwazulu-Natal's School of Religion and Theology, called these elements "common commitments."

The first, he said, is that "Anglicans would agree that scripture does, in some way, shape us."

"The problem phrase is 'in some way'," he said.

Second is Anglicanism's "long history of being interested in the details of Scripture," West said, listing three methods for detailed study of the Bible. One is "socio-historic," that is, asking whether an issue like homosexuality existed in the world of the Bible in the same way it exists in the current word.

Another is literary analysis that considers "shape of the narrative in the Bible," West said. He suggested, for instance, that such a technique would consider what happened just before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and proposes that the story is not about homosexuality but about the consequences of violent inhospitality.

A detailed look at the Bible, West said, might also search for themes running through it, such as sexuality. He cautioned that the resulting interpretation would depend upon what details the interpreter included in the theme, asking, for instance, if marriage, rape and incest would be included.

The third "common commitment" among Anglicans, West said, is to bring one's current context into engagement with Scripture. "What you privilege -- what you think is important in your context -- shapes how you engage with Scripture," he said.

Finally, West said, there is an "ecclesio-theological framework" that holds all the other work together, and this framework is not the same all over the communion.

"In Africa, it matters whether you were mission-ized and colonized by the evangelical CMS (Church Mission Society) or whether you were mission-ize and colonized by USPG (United Society for the Propagation of the Bible) [which was] a more liberal ecclesio-theological formation," West said as an example.

At this Lambeth Conference participants are "allowing the historic and theological framework … to be interrogated by the theological framework that evolved in the churches of the missionary project," West said. Conference participants "are being able to share with each other where they stand in each of these four areas and to begin to understand how they approach Scripture and why they come up with different things from it."
 
"The Anglican Communion is not longer what it was; it's something else and this Lambeth Conference is taking that seriously," he added.

Asked how the Bible can be applied as moral guidance if there are differing interpretations, West said he didn't think biblical interpretation is widely different across the communion. "Everybody in the Anglican Communion has got their own process of making sense of the Bible," he said. "People who claim their way of making sense is taking the Bible more seriously than someone else, I think, [are] just trying to talk more loudly or stamp their foot more firmly."

West noted changes in biblical interpretation and applications over the years. "If you take the South African context, the Bible was used to support apartheid -- to perpetuate apartheid -- and the Bible was used in the liberation struggle," he said. "We have inherited a particular way of engaging with Scripture, recognizing its ambiguity, that the meaning of the Bible is not self-evident and that therefore we have to contend and struggle together to find ways in which the Bible can be living-giving."

Later in the day, Diocese of Springfield Bishop Peter Beckwith cautioned that bishops are "called and ordained to guard the faith," but that a bishop cannot say "this is the meaning of Scripture."

Beckwith said that while not all of Scripture is clear, "there's a goodly amount of Scripture that's very clear."

Meanwhile, Diocese of Kansas Bishop Dean Wolfe said biblical interpretation is a Christian tradition.

"Historically, Christianity has interpreted Scripture based on the context in which people were living and what they felt God was doing, what the Spirit was doing in their time," he said, calling such work "an on-going kind of dance."

"We're always in a dance and there's always tension in a dance; there's resolution, too," he said.

"I would rather live in that kind of community of faith than in a community of faith that just opens a box and out pops the answer," Wolfe added.

Saying he was proud to be an Anglican, Diocese of Southeast Florida Bishop Leo Frade repeatedly noted his rejection of efforts to centralize biblical interpretation in the Anglican Communion. He said Martin Luther tried to reform the Roman Catholic Church "mainly because he didn't want a magisterium from somewhere else beginning to tell you how you are going to interpret. For that we have the Holy Spirit."

"As long as the Holy Spirit is active in this world, we’re going to have different interpretation," he added.

"That doesn't mean we take Scripture any less seriously or less intensely," Wolfe said.

A video version of Wolfe's and Frade's remarks is available here.

-- The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is Episcopal Life Media correspondent for Episcopal Church governance, structure, and trends.

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