Message from Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury


One of the images Hooker uses for Scripture is that it offers ‘many histories to serve as looking-glasses to behold the mercy, the truth, the righteousness of God towards all that faithfully serve, obey and honour him’ (I.14.3).  And that same image appears again in another of the great writers of classical Anglican devotion a generation later, George Herbert, in the first of his two sonnets on ‘The Holy Scriptures’.  ‘Ladies, look here; this is the thankful glasse, / That mends the lookers eyes: this is the well / That washes what it shows.’  Rather mischievously, he pretends to be appealing to female vanity: if any woman wants a mirror in which she will be able to see herself as more attractive, this is what the Bible offers.  We look into the Bible and see what our renewed selves might be; or, we see our reflection in the water at the bottom of the well and discover that this water will also wash away our blemishes. 

And in the second of the sonnets, he spells out a little how this works.  Scripture here is like a starry sky; and we have to try and discern the shape of the constellations, ‘Seeing not only how each verse doth shine / But all the constellations of the storie’.  We see that one bit of Scripture seems to point to another, then another which completes a message, a sense of new possibility for the believer: ‘These three make up some Christians destinie’, just as, varying the metaphor, different herbs make up a healing medicine.  We come to recognize ourselves in the Bible: our lives become the proof and illustration of what is in the text, and in this process our picture of who we are is revolutionized.  ‘Such are thy secrets, which my life makes good, / And comments on thee; for in ev’ry thing / Thy words do finde me out, & parallels bring, / And in another make me understood.’  We discover who we really are in the ‘otherness’ of the biblical story, and in that encounter we become a living commentary on the text.  As I discover the meaning of who I am in engaging with the Bible, the meaning of the text itself is shown to others.

It is a further development of Cranmer’s picture of a scripturally based liturgy in which we are drawn to repentance – to self-knowledge and renewal – leading ultimately to a better and more honest receiving of the sacrament of Communion.   The relation between Scripture, repentance and sacrament is taken up also by the other great Anglican poet of the early seventeenth century, John Donne, in an Easter sermon of 1628 (Booty 1990, pp.143-4), where he draws an unusual distinction between how the Holy Spirit works when we read the Bible privately in the family and when we hear it in church: at home, the Spirit is a ‘remembrancer’, bringing to mind what we have learned in other contexts, while ‘Here in the Church he is with thee as a Doctor to teach thee.’  It is in the context of the corporate worshipping life that we learn what the Spirit is actually saying – not because the Church is more important than the Scriptures but because it is of more authority than the individual.  And having learned the substance of what Scripture teaches, we must have this evidence of God’s purpose ‘sealed’, ratified in the sacraments, which are the contemporary embodiment of what Scripture is talking about, and ‘delivered’ through preaching, made applicable to this moment in our lives: ‘sealed and delivered to thee in the presence of competent witnesses, the congregation’.  Thus the community has a pivotal position in the reception of the Bible: the shape of the liturgy – to coin a phrase – determines what counts as Scripture and what the unified and coherent sense of Scripture is, making individual stars appear as constellations, in Herbert’s wonderful metaphor; it is this that forms the subject of meditation and discussion in a private context (but still, crucially, a corporate one, of course, on a smaller scale); and the pattern of Christlike, renewed life that is opened up in all this is affirmed and secured by preaching and sacrament in the congregational assembly once again.  The common life of the worshipping community is what gives an intelligible shape to the biblical revelation, making the connections that show it to be one revelation; and so it becomes possible to see how it can be a coherent source of understanding and self-knowledge for a unified life, a life, in Hooker’s terms, embodying something of divine Wisdom.  Donne and Herbert alike echo one of the themes flagged a couple of decades earlier by Bishop Lancelot Andrewes, one of those most closely involved with the planning and execution of the new translation of Scripture in 1611: in a Pentecost sermon of 1606, one of two significant sermons on the cloven tongues of Pentecost, he speaks of the Spirit as habitually present in the whole of the Church and thus bringing about a unity in multiplicity that can make the diverse tongues of human speakers – within Scripture and among the readers of Scripture – pronounce truth univoce, with one voice.  The Spirit is understood in all these contexts very plainly as that which connects the elements of scripture as it also connects the readers and makes possible a ‘connected’ life of discipleship.

The writers we have been listening cannot just be read as elements in a single theological synthesis; but it is possible to trace in these passages a number of convergent themes which add up to an impressively consistent theology of scriptural reading.  The last point, from Andrewes, about the Spirit’s presence and work in the whole Church over time, a presence deliberately contrasted with occasional and passing visitations of inspired wisdom in individuals, is a key here.  If we understand scriptural reading as always something done in the context of the Church as a whole, not first and foremost a private or individual exercise, we understand it as an activity in which the Spirit in and through the entire Body of Christ opens the eyes of the individual to who he or she is in the purposes of God.  We cannot properly read the Bible first as ‘individuals’ because we shall not know who or what we are as unique persons if we do not read in communion, read together, so that the great shared defining lines of Christian teaching shape how we see ourselves and each other.  In this way, Scripture becomes the mirror that Herbert describes, showing us not what we are as isolated subjects but what we may be in the Spirit and the Body of Christ.