Williams bemoans loss of listening to Scripture

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Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams delivers the Larkin-Stuart Lecture April 16 at the MacMillan Theatre, University of Toronto.

The Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has lamented what he called the lack of “rootedness” in the Anglican approach to Scripture and said “we’ve lost quite a bit of what was once a rather good Anglican practice of reading the Bible in the tradition of interpretation.”

He added: “We read the Bible less in worship. We understand and know it less…(we’re) either underrating it or misrating it, making it carry more than it’s meant to, as Richard Hooker says … We don’t have a very clear sense that we’re reading the Bible in company with its readers from the centuries and indeed, at the present moment.” Archbishop Williams made the observation in response to a comment about a seeming lack of theological tradition among Anglicans, following a Larkin-Stuart lecture delivered April 16 before an audience of mostly theology students from Wycliffe and Trinity Colleges in Toronto.

Archbishop Williams also said that he wished the current debate on sexuality that has bitterly divided the Anglican Communion would be framed in terms of “biblical justice and biblical holiness” instead of the prevailing conservative view of “biblical fidelity” and the liberal view of justice.

“I share the unease about simply opposing biblical fidelity and secular justice,” he said, adding that what was needed was a “proper theological discussion” of the issue.

In his lecture (named after Canon Cecil Stuart, long-time rector of Toronto’s St. Thomas’ Church, and its benefactor, Gerald Larkin), Archbishop Williams examined the current practice of reading the Bible and said Christians need to be reminded that, “before Scripture is read in private, it is heard in public.”

Those who assume that the typical image of Scripture reading is a solitary individual poring over a bound volume should remember that for most Christians throughout the ages and in the world at present the norm is listening, said Archbishop Williams. This, he said, “underlines the fact that the church’s public use of the Bible represents the church as defined in some important way of listening: the community when it comes together doesn’t only break bread and reflect together and intercede, it silences itself to hear something.”

Archbishop Williams also described the “fragmentary reading” of the Bible as “highly risky,” citing as an example Saint Paul’s use of same-sex relationships (Romans 1:27) as “an illustration of human depravity – along with other ‘unnatural’ behaviours such as scandal, disobedience to parents and lack of pity.”

He said: “What is Paul’s argument? And, once again, what is the movement that the text is seeking to facilitate? The answer is in the opening of chapter 2: we have been listing examples of the barefaced perversity of those who cannot see the requirement of the natural order in front of their noses; well, it is precisely the same perversity that affects those who have received the revelation of God and persist in self-seeking and self-deceit. The change envisaged is from confidence in having received divine revelation to an awareness of universal human sinfulness and need.”

There is a paradox in reading that Scriptural passage “as a foundation for identifying in others a level of sin that is not found in the chosen community, ” Archbishop Williams said, adding that this “gives little comfort to either party in the current culture wars in the church.”

It is “not helpful for a ‘liberal’ or revisionist case, since the whole point of Paul’s rhetorical gambit is that everyone in his imagined readership agrees in thinking the same-sex relations of the culture around them to be obviously immoral as idol-worship or disobedience to parents,” he said. “It is not very helpful to the conservative either, though, because Paul insists on shifting the focus away from the objects of moral disapprobation in chapter 1 to the reading/hearing subject who has been up to this point happily identifying with Paul’s castigation of somebody else.”

Archbishop Williams said the point he is making “is not that the reading I propose settles a controversy or changes a substantive interpretation, but that many current ways of reading miss the actual direction of the passage and so undermine a proper theological approach to Scripture.”

Before his lecture, the Archbishop of Canterbury received honorary doctor of divinity degrees from Wycliffe College and Trinity College during a joint convocation.

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Marites N. Sison
Marites (Tess) Sison was editor of the Anglican Journal from August 2014 to July 2018, and senior staff writer from December 2003 to July 2014. An award-winning journalist, she has more that three decades of professional journalism experience in Canada and overseas. She has contributed to The Toronto Star and CBC Radio, and worked as a stringer for The New York Times.

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