Message from Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury


Hooker has a very high doctrine indeed of the effect simply of reading the Bible in the liturgy.  Once again responding to opponents, who have criticised him and others for not giving enough emphasis to preaching, he insists that only the Bible is to be called God’s Word and only the Bible communicates life (V.21.3).  The text in itself impresses on us what is needed for eternal life, even before any preacher has opened his mouth; indeed just reading Scripture was called ‘preaching’ in the early Church, says Hooker (ibid.4).  ‘We need for knowledge but to read and live’ (ibid.15): we must not imagine that God’s grace, convicting us of sin and opening to us the way of life, has to wait until some human voice has explained how it works.  Of course preaching is a gift and charism in the Church, not least because no human intellect can ‘sound the bottom of that which may be concluded out of the Scripture’ (I.14.2).  But we should not confuse the way in which the Bible makes clear the way to life with what we can deduce from it.

It is not that Hooker has some kind of superstitious belief that the words of the Bible answer our questions without any human intermediary.  His point is that we have to be careful not to give too much power to the individual interpreter, since the Word of God has to be accessible to all.  But that accessibility is something that happens as the Bible is read in community.  What he has in mind is neither what he thinks of as the tyranny of individual preachers with enormous axes to grind nor the chaos of lots of individual readers coming up with their own ideas about the Bible: it is a situation where the Bible is the common ‘space’ where Christians meet, the language they share as they hear the narratives and poems and laws recited to them as a group.  It is the Bible as delivered in common worship like that of the English Prayer Book that will change lives.  The reading of Scripture in this context will help us see its meanings and internal connections, will help us interpret it as a Church, and so will lead us to a shared repentance and renewal – a conversion to each other as well as to God, so that the community of faith is built up.

Hooker looks for a balance between the extreme Protestant position of his times, in which every problem is solved by the Bible and anything not commanded in the Bible is forbidden, and in which also the authority of the properly educated preacher to tell you what is important becomes enormous, and the mediaeval position in which there is no special grace attached to Scripture alone, but it is always presented wrapped up, so to speak, in human memory and custom.  He wants it to stand out in its uniqueness – but to stand out where it belongs, in the life of an actual worshipping congregation who are at the same time as hearing it also singing psalms and making their prayers.  Beware, he says, of separating Bible-reading from all this, as do some of the European churches admired by his opponents: ‘the reading of Scripture in the church is a part of our church liturgy, a special portion of the service we do to God’ (V.19.5).  Reading the Bible is, we might say on this basis, an aspect of our self-offering to God in prayer: we come to hear the Bible read so that we may be open to God’s call to repentance and his promise of eternal life.