Saturday, October 27, 2012
N. T. Wright on the Public Reading of Scripture
The primary place where the church hears scripture is during corporate worship. ... This is itself a practice in direct descent from the public reading of the law by Ezra, Jesus' own reading of Isaiah in the synagogue at Nazareth, the reading of Paul's letters in the assembled church, and so on. However different we may be personally, contextually, culturally, and so on, when we read scripture we do so in communion with other Christians across space and time. This means, for instance, that we must work at making sure we read scripture properly in public, with appropriate systems for choosing what to read and appropriate training to make sure those who read do so to best effect. If scripture is to be a dynamic force within the church, it is vital that the public reading of scripture does not degenerate into what might be called "aural wallpaper," a pleasing and somewhat religious noise which murmurs along in the background while the mind is occupied elsewhere.
It also means that in our public worship, in whatever tradition, we need to make sure the reading of scripture takes a central place. In my own tradition, that of the Anglican Communion, the regular offices of Morning and Evening Prayer are, in all kinds of ways, "showcases for scripture." That is, they do with scripture (by means of prayer, music and response) what a well-organized exhibition does with a great work of art: they prepare us for it, they enable us to appreciate it fully, and they give us an opportunity to meditate further upon it. The public reading of scripture is not designed merely to teach the people its content, thought that should be a welcome spin-off. (The word "lesson" in this context originally meant simply "reading," not "teaching"; its modern meaning throws the emphasis in the wrong direction.)
More, in public worship where the reading of scripture is given its proper place, the authority of God places a direct challenge to the authority of the powers that be, not least those who use the media, in shaping the mind and life of the community. But the primary purpose of the readings is to be itself an act of worship, celebrating God's story, power and wisdom and, above all, God's son. That is the kind of worship through which the church is renewed in God's image, and so transformed and directed in its mission. Scripture is the key means through which the living God directs and strengthens his people in and for that work. That ... is what the shorthand phrase "the authority of scripture" is really all about.
Indeed, what is done in the classic offices of Morning and Evening Prayer, by means of listening to one reading from each Testament, is to tell the entire story of the Old and New Testaments, glimpsing the broad landscape of the scripture narrative through the two tiny windows of short readings. ...
There has been a tendency in some quarters, no doubt stemming from a desire to keep services from going on too long, to prune the length of the readings - and to use that as an excuse for cutting out parts which might not serve as the kind of aural wallpaper people are used to, but might instead shock them into listening with alarmed attention. Many debates within the church have been seriously hampered because there are parts of the foundation text - a verse here, a chapter there - which have been quietly omitted from the church's public life. There is simply no excuse for leaving out verses, paragraphs or chapters, from the New Testament in particular. We dare not try to tame the Bible. It is our foundation charter; we are not at liberty to play fast and loose with it.
The sermon, which from early in the church's life was seen as primarily an expression of or reflection on scripture, belongs of course very closely with the public reading of scripture - not ... that scripture is read only to be preached upon, or that there is only one style of scriptural preaching. ... Precisely when scripture is read in the way I have described, all kinds of opportunities will arise for fresh words to be spoken, illuminating passages that have been heard and reverberating with them, but also moving forward to suggest what fresh meanings they might bear for today and tomorrow.
Finally, of course, the reading of scripture during the Eucharist, at the very center of the church's life, witness and worship, is the crucial thing that forms God's people as God's people a they come together solemnly to "proclaim the Lord's death until he comes." Within that, it becomes a vital part of the personal formation of each individual communicant. Scripture forms God's people, warming their hearts as with the disciples on the road to Emmaus, so that their eyes may then be opened to know him in the breaking of the bread.