The other day I re-read Understanding Anglican Worship (Grove, Nottingham 1999) in which the author, David Kennedy, wrote “Anglican worship gives a central place to Scripture”! In support of this contention he went on to quote John Wesley: “I believe there is no liturgy in the world, either in ancient or modern language, which breathes more of solid, Scriptural, rational piety, than the Common Prayer of the Church of England”. As a staunch Nonconformist of many years standing my immediate reaction was quite negative – ‘How dare this man suggest that the Anglicans take Scripture more seriously than other Christians!’
But then came the reality check. The sad fact is that in spite of Paul’s charge to Timothy to “devote yourself to the public reading of scripture” (1 Tim 4.13 NRSV, where, of course, the reference is to the law and the prophets of Old Testament), increasingly many of my Baptist minister colleagues appear to give “little time and effort” (GNB) to this task. Indeed, to my amazement on Easter Sunday of this year the Baptist church I attended had no Scripture readings. True, it was a ‘family service’ with many children present – but was reading a Gospel account of the story of the empty tomb really beyond these children? I then remembered another Baptist church I went to on holiday, where on an August Sunday morning the service was led by members of a Scripture Union beach mission team, but at no point was there a Scripture reading. I was astounded then – and still remain astounded. It is as if the more ‘Bible-believing’ Christians are, the less likely they are to read the Scriptures in public worship!
By contrast this morning I attended the ‘Parish Eucharist’ at Chelmsford Cathedral. As is always the case, after the opening ‘Gathering’ when a hymn was sung and prayers were said, we went straight into ‘The Liturgy of the Word’. We began with Acts 9.1-6; then sang a version of Psalm 30.1-5, 11-12; this was followed by Revelation 5.11-14; and climaxed with the Gospel reading from John 21.1-19. The preacher this morning would never have been invited to an evangelical celebration such as Spring Harvest – apart from anything else he doesn’t tell any jokes or funny stories – instead we had a solid exposition of John 21.
To be fair, Anglicans are not the only Christians to take Scripture seriously. My father, for instance, was a great believer in reading the Scriptures in the context of a Sunday service. In his church in Cambridge he created quite a stir when over a period of six evening services he read through the whole of the Book of Ezekiel! I vividly remember my father’s excitement when the New English Bible first came out – with such a ‘modern’ and accessible version, he would often read several chapters from a Gospel before preaching to the congregation. No doubt it was because of his influence that as a student for one year at an international seminary sponsored by the Southern Baptist Convention, at ‘morning chapel’ instead of preaching I read all four chapters of Paul’s Letter to the Colossians and reminded my congregation that originally this was a letter which Paul would have expected the church at Colossae to listen to at once sitting. In so doing I was protesting against the custom of ‘morning chapel’ whereby the preacher read a verse or two of Scripture – and then preached for the next 20 minutes. The reading of the Scriptures had been down-graded. Alas, this continues to be the case in many Baptist churches, where worshippers are blessed if they hear as many as twelve verses read.
The situation becomes all the more serious in so far as the Bible is no longer read in many Christian homes. What percentage of church families, I wonder, read the Scriptures together every morning or evening? Indeed, what percentage of Christians read Bibles every day? According to one 2008 survey 35% of British churchgoers claim to read their Bible every day. Frankly, I don’t believe that – it certainly does not tally with my experience as a pastor. I am more inclined to believe a 1997 Bible Society survey of regular churchgoers which found that 16% read something from the Bible every day; a further 9% read the Bible several times a week; 11% read something from the Bible about once a week; and 9% read the Bible about once a month. In other words in any given month, the majority of churchgoers never read their Bible. As a result we have increasingly Biblically illiterate congregations. All the more reason, therefore, to bring back the Bible in church.
Yes, let’s take Scripture more seriously, for – to quote Wesley again – “Although there may be chaff in the pulpit, there is always good grain at the lectern”!