Read, mark, learn…

By Will Scott

Scripture, Tradition and Reason, the Via Media, the three sources of authority in the Anglican/Episcopal tradition — Hooker’s three legged stool. Yes, we Episcopalians are a complicated bunch. In recent years, I have become a strong advocate of knowing the good book, not only for defensive purposes but also for growth and inspiration. In the first week of seminary I still remember how Dean Martha Horne read that colorful collect from the Book of Common Prayer calling us to “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest” the words of Holy Scripture — so sensual and earthy, as though one was about to sip a fine wine or taste a nice piece of meat.

The truth is that we Episcopalians could stand to learn a thing or two from our evangelical Bible thumping brothers and sisters. Even when we know quite a bit about what’s upon those pages, we are bashful about sharing our knowledge in a way that communicates strength, agility and comfort with these strange stories in which our faith is rooted. This is not to say that our approach to scripture needs to lack sophistication or nuance, but rather than castigate literalists we would do well to engage the narrative and offer more varied interpretations that are accessible to all. There are likely lots of reasons why we Episcopalians are so often accused of not knowing the Bible, some of which are completely unfair, but as the late Tammy Faye Messner said, “if life hands you lemons, make lemonade.”

Tammy Faye’s advice resonated particularly strongly for me about three years ago when I started my first parish position. The parish was located in Northern Virginia, and we worked in the shadow of a large, conservative mega-church. We weren’t a tiny church at all by Episcopal standards, but like many of our mainline neighbors, the parish I served as Associate Rector sometimes felt like a tiny fresh vegetable market next to a Super Wal-Mart. Almost everyone I spoke with in our congregation, it seemed, had been invited at some time or another to attend a Bible study at the mega church. I’m sure the offer was extended by concerned and well-meaning neighbors. Some attended, some refused the hospitality; others wished we had more to offer ourselves. When it came to Bible study, the mega church had a thousand different varieties, like the cereal aisle at the grocery store— one for Dad, one for Mom, one for singles, one for people with green eyes, one for people with green eyes who want blue eyes, and so on. Our vegetable market church didn’t have quite the quantity or the variety, but with sincerity and commitment, we began hosting an assortment of discussion groups, many of which focused on Scripture.

One group read Acts of the Apostles, while another did an overview of the themes and stories of the Hebrew Bible, while another read through the gospel of Mark, then flipped back to Amos, and forward to the Book of Revelation. A group of young fathers wanted in on the Bible study bandwagon and so they started at the beginning reading the Book of Genesis. We hosted these gatherings at various times for accessibility and, having added further groups for parishioners interested in the arts and sciences, soon found ourselves with a busy calendar. Many of us were encountering the story of God’s Salvation for the first time, and all of us were deepened by our studies and conversations. Sometimes the groups were tiny, comprising just 4 to 8 people, but at other times the rooms were packed. Regardless of the size of the gathering or the nature of he texts we read, community was formed, prayers were offered and the Spirit of God was present– “whenever two or three are gathered together.” I’m convinced that what made each of these gatherings so important was that despite some initial awkwardness, we opened the good book and discovered a feast (including lemonade). These gatherings helped fuel existing local and global service initiatives and inspire new ones as well.

This fall I encourage you to sign up for a Bible study if your church has one, and if it doesn’t, I encourage you to start one (or two or three). What has your experience with the Bible and the Episcopal Church been? If you were to attend a Bible study, which book would you most like to explore? What themes, characters or topics interest you the most? How have you learned from your Bible thumping brothers or sisters?

The Rev. Will Scott, is associate pastor at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, Calif. Raised by a school teacher and a social worker in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, he is drawn to intentional community, the pursuit of global justice, and the church’s witness for peace. He blogs occasionally at Yearns and Groans.

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