Geneva feels the right place to be writing this lectionary blog for next Sunday, which, according to the Common Worship lectionary, can be observed as ‘Bible Sunday’.
Back in the days when the BCP shaping of the liturgical year held sway in the Church of England, ‘Bible Sunday’ was kept on the Second Sunday of Advent. I understand this date was selected by Cranmer as a mark of the importance of the Bible – and so the Sunday on which it was particularly honoured deliberately came near the very beginning of the Christian year. I can see the arguments for the shift to where it is now, although as it happens remembering the importance of the Bible in the first half of Advent does work well, as we think of the prophets who foretold the coming of the birth of Christ:
‘Whom the voices of the prophets
Promised in their faithful word’.
I am sure that part of the reason for choosing the end of October as the date when modern lectionaries draw specific attention to the Bible is linked to the fact that October 31st has for a long time been commemorated as ‘Reformation Day’. The link between the Reformation of the 16th century and an increased importance given to the Bible in the life of the Church is widely known and accepted.
One of the ways that the importance of the Bible was made clear was the insistence that people should be able to read the Bible in their own language. And that copies of the Bible should be available and accessible for many people to own – rather than as had been the case previously locked up in churches. And this is where Geneva played a vital role – even or especially for the English speaking world. Because it was the English-speaking community in Geneva, who had fled to the city to escape the persecution of Protestants that was taking place in England during the reign of Queen Mary who translated and initially published ‘the Geneva Bible’, the first really wide-spread translated version of scripture in English. It is difficult to realise now, due partly to the influence of the King James or ‘Authorised Version’ since the middle of the 17th century, just how dominant was the Geneva Bible for the first century after its initial appearance. Even when the Authorised Version arrived in 1611 it was still far from certain that it would succeed in ousting ‘the Geneva Bible’ from its place of pre-eminence among English speakers. One of the features of the Geneva Bible that made it especially popular was its size – comparatively small and designed so that families (at least of moderate income) could expect to possess their own copy. But there was another feature of the Bible that also marked it out, namely that there were a considerable number of ‘explanatory notes’ offered by the translators to guide its readers to understand the text in a particular way. It was in essence the first ‘study Bible’. It has been remarked how these ‘notes’ encouraged the reading of the biblical text in what was seen as a more Protestant direction – more overtly critical of institutions like kings and bishops! That of course reflected the standpoint of its originators in Geneva.
The beginning of the Book of Acts from an early published copy of the Geneva Bible.
Initially it seems that these ‘notes’ were one of the Bible’s selling points. But gradually I think they became viewed as rather problematic, and were perhaps part of the reason why the Authorised Version eventually won out. (Though it has to be said that the support given to the Authorised Version by the powers-that-be in England, also must have helped its progress.) But I think this tells us something important about the nature of scripture, and our understanding of it as the word of God. Certainly for me the actual inspiration of the Bible is to be found in the text itself and the text’s interaction with the response of the worshipping listener or reader (you or me), rather than in ‘notes’ provided by earlier students of the text, however eminent, learned or holy they might be.
I see this pattern in the Gospel passage the lectionary suggests for this coming Sunday, the account of Jesus’ sermon in the synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4.16-24). Jesus quotes a biblical text – the words of the prophet Isaiah, and then addresses it to the situation of his day, beginning with the telling word ‘Today’. It is out of this interaction that the ‘power’ of the original biblical text – Isaiah – is realised. That for me is a model of ‘inspiration’ in which both text and the contemporary worshipping community have a part to play.
I think that Cranmer’s collect for the original Bible Sunday, with its wonderful line which suggests that in respect of the Scriptures we should, ‘hear, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them’ offers us permission to reflect on the Bible in this way. Both the verbs ‘learn’ and ‘digest’ require actual and active participation on the part of the listener and reader. Inspiration comes in the interpretive process in which scriptural text and faithful believer engage in mutual dialogue.
In my travels around the diocese a few months ago I participated in Sunday worship in one of our chaplaincies where the reading of scripture in worship was concluded by the reader saying, ‘Hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches’. That profoundly biblical affirmation – it occurs several times in the early chapters of the Book of Revelation – gets to the heart of the matter. It has just the right amount of quizzical ambiguity about it. We are affirming that through our listening to the texts we have just heard read we expect to hear the Spirit of God speaking to us. We are not saying that every word which has just been read is authoritative for us today. We are however confessing our faith that in the meeting between this reading and this listening we believe that the Spirit of God is truly present.