A People of a Book? - no thanks!

by Jean Mayland

from Signs of the Times, No. 17 - Apr 2005

Since 2003, three important reports have been published - two for the Church of England and one for the Anglican Communion. Each of these reports has laid great stress on the importance of the Bible for Anglicans. They have points in common as well as differences - subtle or more sweeping - but their general thrust seems to me to be disturbing. The thrust of these reports is to edge us forward to become more and more a people of a Book to which I want to say: 'No thank you!'

The reports to which I refer are

  • Some Issues In Human Sexuality - a Discussion Document by the House of Bishops' Group, 2003;
  • The Windsor Report, 2004; and
  • Women Bishops in the Church of England? A Report of the House of Bishops' Working Party on Women in the Episcopate, 2004.

Classic Anglicanism from the time of Richard Hooker onwards has appealed for its authority to a balance between Scripture, reason and tradition. In more recent years groups within the Church, for example women or black people, have pressed for experience to be included as well.

In the early stages of studying the Scripture many of us were brought up on varying editions of Peake's Commentary on the Bible . In my copy there is an article on the 'Authority of the Bible' by the then Archbishop of Canterbury , Michael Ramsey. He was no wild moderniser but he claims

It would be wrong to infer from the exalted place of the Bible in every form of Christianity that Christianity is the religion of a book. The central fact of Christianity is not a book but a person - Jesus Christ, himself described as the Word of God. The books of the Old Testament came to have authority within the Church because Jesus Christ set the seal of his own authority upon them ... The books of the New Testament came to have authority because the Church recognized in them the testimony of the apostles to Jesus [1].

He goes on to say that in interpreting the Scriptures we must be free to use our reason and consider the findings of historical criticism . So far as the Old Testament is concerned he comments that long before the Old Testament came into existence as a collection of sacred books it was the belief of Israel that God had spoken to her with authority in law and prophecy [2]. These books are the account of that revelation written by human beings.

In the Bishops' Group report on human sexuality they begin the chapter on 'The use of the Bible in sexual ethics' by stressing the importance that ' Anglicans have given and continue to give, to the Bible as a whole as pointing to Christ, through whom God has revealed to his people what he is like...' [3]

After this nod in the right direction they make some sweeping statements about Biblical interpretation but then they claim 'that these texts do have specific meanings expressed by the words of their human authors but, as biblical texts, bearing the inspiration and authority of God.' [4]

We have started down the slippery slope.

When it comes to the Chapter on 'Homosexuality and the Bible' the examination of the Old Testament teaching on the subject leads to the conclusion that 'the commandments regarding human sexuality are intended to prevent the violation of the boundaries between natural and unnatural laid down by God. ...the sexual injunctions of the holiness code ...reflect the basic perspective set forth in the creation narratives in Genesis 1-2 that God's appointed place for sexual intercourse is within a relationship of heterosexual marriage.' [5]

An examination of the New Testament evidence leads to the view that the majority of scholars still hold that St Paul rejects all forms of homosexual practice as sinful because they represent a rejection of the natural order of things rejected by God in creation .

They examine in a perfunctory way some of the attempts to explore the texts but soon come to the conclusion that 'the consensus of biblical scholarship still points us in the direction of the Churches' traditional reading of the biblical material.' [6]

This in its turn leads them to maintain that the 1991 Bishops' document Issues in Human Sexuality 'remains a valid summary of the biblical tradition' - ' Sexual activity of any kind outside marriage comes to be seen as sinful and homosexual practice as especially dishonourable'. [7]

They give little place to the issues of land, inheritance or survival, which made the family so important in the Old Testament. They have no time for the concept that Jesus and his followers established a radical new form of society where the family had little place. They recognize that Jesus said nothing about homosexuality but declare that he accepted the authority of the scriptures about marriage and morality.

When they do get round to experience they state categorically that 'the Bible has to provide the framework within which to interpret our experience rather than the other way around'. [8] They seem to have little knowledge of either liberation or feminist or womanist theology. They would have no sympathy for the view expressed at a Churches Together in Britain and Ireland (CTBI) Consultation by the Rev Alastair Hunter of Glasgow University that 'There are good grounds for the claim that the Bible has more in common with contemporary Afghanistan than with Britain or North America. We ought to reflect on that uncomfortable probability: the Bible's assumptions about women, gay men. ethnic minorities, blasphemy, slavery war and capital punishment are decidedly pre- modern, and must be offensive to every liberal, democratic, inclusive-minded Christian'. [9]

The Windsor Report on issues of Communion is the report of a commission with membership drawn from the Anglican Communion and not just from the Church of England. Perhaps that is why it gives a larger place in its introduction to the importance of reason and tradition. It is also very careful to stress that the common phrase 'the authority of scripture' is misleading. It points out that ' Scripture itself, after all, regularly speaks of God as the supreme authority' [10]. It also points out quite clearly that for Jesus and the early Christians, 'authority' was not conceived of as a static source of information or the giving of orders (as the 'word' authority has sometimes implied), but in terms of the dynamic inbreaking of God's kingdom' [11] Yet after this more hopeful start reason gets short shrift over against Scripture and Tradition, and respect for experience is virtually non- existent . Although the Report is concerned with communion and not the issue of homosexuality, it comes to the conclusion that the Episcopal Church of the USA and the Diocese of New Hampshire should repent of their actions and may be invited to withdraw from decision-making bodies. These suggestions have been endorsed by the Primates' Meeting and gay and lesbian people are left to bear the pain of this, although many of us are also grieved that the Anglican Communion has moved nearer to being a communion of a Book and not a communion of a personal God, the creator of diversity and of Christ, who condemned the scriptural literalists of his day.

With the report of the Rochester Commission, Women Bishops? we are back to an all-English cast. Here once more great emphasis is placed upon the authority of the Bible, the text of scripture and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit which was given to those who wrote. A few quotations illustrate this

Christians down the centuries, Christians of the Church of England included, have insisted on the authority of the biblical witness as the norm for all Christian theology and hence for the discussion of particular theological issues such as whether it is right for women to be bishops [12].

Furthermore it has also been the belief of the Church down the centuries not only that the Spirit inspired the writing of the Bible but that through the biblical writings God continues to speak to his people through his Spirit today [13].

In terms of the debate about women bishops this means learning to see how this debate fits into the overall biblical story about women and men and the relationship between them and then deciding whether in terms of that story, ordaining women as bishops would be an act of obedience or disobedience' [14]

There is absolutely no admission here that a lot of those views were the views of men! As Richard Bauckham says in his little book Is the Bible Male?,

Is not the Bible, like most of the literature produced by the patriarchal societies of the past, a book written by men, reflecting male experience, adopting a male perspective, supporting, implicitly and explicitly, the male dominated social structures by which men oppress women? Is it not one of the most dangerous of male books, since it has been accorded such authority, and allowed such influence over the thinking of both men and women? [15]

The Rochester Report does admit that the Bible must be read in a responsible fashion and admits that reason and tradition play an important part in this but insists

This is not because Anglican theology is a 'three-legged stool' with Scripture, tradition and reason being equally fundamental. As we have already explained the norm for Anglican theology is the revelation of God in Holy Scripture [16].

The Report concludes that in terms of the debate about the ordination of women as bishops, this means that the proposal to allow women to be bishops can only be permissible if it

  • has explicit or implicit support in specific biblical texts
  • enables us to make coherent sense of the overall biblical picture of the role of women in the purposes of God
  • takes the logic of the biblical material relating to women and applies it in a new cultural and historical context [17]

To which I want to reply

  • I do not know what specific biblical texts there are about male bishops let alone female.
  • There is a counter-cultural gem in the creation stories about the equality of women and men made in the divine image but most of the rest of the biblical record shows how that was completely ignored - except by Jesus.
  • Sometimes we have to reject completely what the Bible says about women because of its complete cultural bias. We cannot mess about or pretend it has a different meaning. It just has to go.

The Bible is a rich treasury and we want to claim and reclaim this treasure as our own. It is, however, a treasury to be wrestled with, checked out against our experience, reinterpreted by our reason, and used not as an end in itself but as a means to show us more of the living God. This is the God whom we experience in life, love, failure and success, the God who breathes in the beauty of the earth and suffers alongside us in the world tragedies. I do not want to be a person of a book but a person of a living God who is close to us through the Spirit.


  1. Peake's Commentary on the Bible , Matthew Black, ed., Nelson, 1972 [back]
  2. Ibid. [back]
  3. Some Issues In Human Sexuality: A Guide to the Debate - A discussion document from the House of Bishops' Group, Church House Publishing, 2003. [back]
  4. Ibid. [back]
  5. Ibid. [back]
  6. Ibid. [back]
  7. Ibid. [back]
  8. Ibid. [back]
  9. Growing into God: Exploring our Call to Grow Into God's Image and Likeness, Jean Mayland ed ., CTBI 2003. [back]
  10. The Lambeth Commission on Communion - The Windsor Report, ACC, 2004. [back]
  11. Ibid. [back]
  12. Women Bishops in the Church of England? A report of the House of Bishops' Working Party on women in the Episcopate, CHP, 2004. [back]
  13. Ibid. [back]
  14. Ibid. [back]
  15. Is the Bible Male? Richard Bauckham, Grove Books. [back]
  16. Women Bishops in the Church of England? [back]
  17. Ibid. [back]

Jean Mayland is a retired priest. Until recently she was Co-ordinating Secretary and Assistant General Secretary at Churches Together in Britain and Ireland.