Message from Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury


And this is effected by the way in which Scripture as read in the liturgy always connects passage with passage.  We are not left without guidance, wrestling with a text on its own and on our own.  What is read points to another scriptural moment; Old and New Testaments are set alongside each other, or gospel and epistle in the Eucharistic lectionary; seasonal emphases draw out further meanings.  The way in which scriptural reading is structured in the public liturgy is already an interpretation of Scripture, so that – despite the carping of Hooker’s Puritan critics – we are never talking about a bare and unreflective reading.  Preaching is a vital exercise in the Church, but we should not draw the false conclusion that Scripture without preaching is dumb or meaningless, because its reading is always embedded in a pattern of significant connection.  What is more, this pattern of significant connection is a pattern that includes us and our own immediate identity and experience through its tangible embodiment in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, as Donne says, confirming what we hear by means of a physical act of sharing.  If the point of Scripture is, as Hooker claims, that we may have wisdom, the wisdom that comes from believing in Christ and so having life in his name, then the understanding we are offered in the liturgy of the connections of Scriptural revelation becomes, concretely and specifically, life in Christ’s name as we are fed with the spiritual food of Christ’s Body and Blood. 

The assumption is that the reading of Scripture in and by the Church gathered for worship is supposed to be the beginning of a journey of transformation; a discipline of scriptural reading that does not focus on this will leave us with a seriously impoverished view of the Bible.  Hooker argues that the Puritan theology he is attacking ends up subordinating the Word of God to human words in the end because it insists upon the need for a reading that is controlled, not by the common life of the Church at worship but by an educated clerical elite, without whose expertise the transforming power of the Bible is absent.  The way in which our theologians approach Scripture in the liturgy might well be seen as just an articulation of what the entire tradition of using the Bible in church had assumed across the preceding centuries.  But the controversial context of the Reformation means that it is rather more original than this alone would suggest.  Given the desire of the Reformers, English as much as others, to witness as clearly as possible to the absolute sovereignty of the Bible in the Church, it is vital that liturgy itself should be woven around the theological reading of the Word – and, as Cranmer implies, woven out of the materials of the written Word; all else is distracting, at best decorative at worst misleading.  There is a real passion to make sure that nothing but the scriptural text shapes and decides what the common language of Christians worshipping and thinking should be, and all historical traditions are re-evaluated in this light.  Yet there is an equal insistence that the act of common worship should be both a celebration of the whole meaning of Scripture and a gateway to new life through the retelling and re-hearing of the scriptural narrative.  The primacy of the Bible is not to be imagined as something that reduces the worshipping community to a lecture audience, or as somehow competing with the sacramental activity that makes the Church what it is.  There is in all this a genuinely fresh attempt to understand that the Word of God is indeed a Word of transfiguring power, without supposing that it is a Word that can be heard and responded to as a text for mental exercise or legal argument.

Such a tradition has survived in the Anglican world up to more recent times; and I cannot do better than conclude by turning to the greatest Anglican intellect of the last century, the philosopher and theologian Austin Farrer.  ‘Why do I read the Old Testament?  Because it is the spiritual inheritance Christ received, it is what he filled his mind with,…it is the body of doctrine  which he took over and transformed.  So whenever I  am reading the Old Testament, I am asking, “What does this mean when it is transformed in Christ?” and whenever I am reading the New Testament I am asking, “How does this set forth Christ to us?”’(LRW 661).  Connections: we read and hear with questions in our minds about connections, how this passage may be seen transfigured in the light of Christ, how this passage promises our own transfiguration in Christ.  But in all this work, it is the Spirit of communion who is making the connections – within the text, between text and hearer, between hearer and Word, between one hearer and another.  And in the divine making of such connections lies the hope of abiding justice and wisdom, the righteousness and wisdom of the eternal Word.

? Rowan Williams
Archbishop of Canterbury

XIX International Ecumenical Conference
on Orthodox spirituality