By Greg Jones
Episcopalians are people of a common book. Whether we worship in the Churches of England, South Africa, Sudan or the Episcopal Church – all Anglicans share a common book of prayer, worship and wisdom. It predates the American Revolution, the Enlightenment, and, yes, even the Bard himself. Our common text of life in Christ was finished before Henry VIII got married the first time – and before Thomas Cranmer said the Eucharist in English. Yes, our truly common book is the Bible. Quite by itself, the Bible is the inspired text of our Church. The Bible constitutes the sacred vocabulary of the Body of Christ, through which the living and active Word of God continues to breathe its transformational power. The Bible describes our common life in Christ, the incarnate Word of God, and it informs our every song, story, and prayer.
The Book of Common Prayer and Hymnal which form our twin expressions of Episcopal doctrine are themselves as good as they are because they are the fruit of deep engagement with Scripture. As the Prayer Book says, "Lord Jesus ... kindle our hearts, and awaken hope, that we may know you as you are revealed in Scripture." Indeed, our liturgical life is a lived engagement with the Word of God in the Bible – and not much more. Thus, in our spiritual and worshipful encounter with the Word of God in the Bible, Christ is made manifest in us, to us, and through us – who by baptism have become members of Christ's body. The way I see it, the Bible is the utterance of the Body of Christ to the Body of Christ.
In her prophetic work The Dream of God, the late Verna Dozier offers a reflection on the following collect from the Book of Common Prayer:
"Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life; which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ."
Dozier says that it is "exciting beyond telling" that God caused the Scriptures to be written, not just to inspire us, or comfort us, but to teach us.
"[The Scriptures] are written for our learning (sic). There is something we need to learn, and the only place we can find the subject matter for that learning is in the Bible. We need to know the story, the story the Bible – and only the Bible – tells. The climax of the story is Jesus Christ...[and] you will never understand the answer to the question of who Jesus is unless you know the story the Bible tells."
In a nutshell, we believe that the Word of God in the Bible was uttered, edited and published in and by the Body of Christ at the instigation of the Holy Spirit – for the purpose of delivering to hope, assurance and learning. And not just a general hope, assurance or learning – but the kind which only comes from life in Christ Jesus.
Just as Christ has caused the Church to be His body, the Church believes God has caused the Bible to be, and that in our engagement with it, God will grant us the gift of hearing his Word – not only with our ears but with our minds and hearts. And the aim of all this is transformation into Christ. The purpose of all this is that we might 'put on Christ,' and live into fuller, deeper, truer lives.
We believe that in our reading of the Word of God in the Bible, the Holy Spirit will write this Word in our hearts, that in our active "marking and learning," in our searching the Scriptures, we will incorporate this Word into the very makeup of our selves, souls and bodies – just as food disintegrates and then becomes the body which consumes it. We believe that Christ wants this for us.
Dr. Ellen T. Charry is professor of systematic and historical theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, and an active Episcopal laywoman. Charry believes the first priority of Christians is to seek a living and active relationship with the God who transforms lives. She says this enterprise of inquiring after God, listening to God, and heeding God's call to transformation, is what the Bible is all about – and is how the Bible came to be in the first place. The Bible is the story about a people's journey into God which has itself become a journey into God. Charry writes, "The biblical documents were written to disclose to readers the God they discuss." She says, "the purpose of reading [the Bible] is to be enlarged, not simply informed."
The Rev. Greg Jones, rector of St. Michael's Church in Raliegh, North Carolina, blogs at fatherjones.com