Monday, June 18, 2007

Running out of the Bible

At that rather significant PCC meeting the other week I recommended changing the Bible that we used in our worship. I had thought this was going to be a simple and straightforward process but I was blindsided by a critique of the proposal, which made me think that a) it wasn't anywhere near as straightforward as I had expected, and that therefore b) I needed to be much clearer about what I was recommending and why. The PCC, rather sensibly, agreed to defer a decision on the matter. My thoughts haven't reached a settled stage as yet - I am still pondering what the right way forward would be - but prompted by reading this post I thought it would help (help me at least!) to set out my present thinking on the subject. Click 'full post' for text.

The presenting issue needing to be addressed was literally that we were running out of the Bible in our 9:30 service. One of the few changes made to the 9:30 since its inception was introducing a corporate reading of the Psalm set for the day, which change seems to work well. However, we have only some 40 copies of the NIV in church, and given that we are now regularly attracting 70 or more worshippers, we need to have more bibles to use (or more psalters - see below). I explored a little bit about what corporate advice was given on the subject of purchasing Bibles and discovered that a) the NIV is not authorised for use at BCP services (of which we have several), and b) that the Church of England recommends using a Bible that contains the deuterocanonical books, and makes provision for reading from those texts in its lectionary. From my point of view this led quite strongly to shifting from the NIV to (probably) the NRSV; in part my attitude was conditioned by a tacit sense that the NRSV was the 'officially approved' text, that is, in terms of wider material and usage the NRSV seems to be the one chosen by the hierarchy - so, for example, the Revised Common Lectionary is available in NRSV and (so far as I can tell) not in any other translation.

As I say, I was blindsided by wider issues being raised at the meeting. In part these were issues about the importance of 'literal translation' and so on, but more substantially it was pointed out that the provision of NIVs had been made some 15 years or so earlier, by a dearly loved curate, and that the worshipping community had now become accustomed to the NIV, not simply through use in church but also through the purchase of their own study bibles. This is by no means a trivial point, and the weight of it is what I am presently spending time pondering! I don't believe it to be absolutely conclusive, but it is certainly enough for me to believe I was wrong in considering this a straightforward question for the PCC to resolve rapidly. Hence these further thoughts, as I think out loud on my blog...

So there are various issues to explore.
The issue of translation itself: there are (simply speaking) two concerns in translation - a 'word for word' rendition, and a 'meaning for meaning' rendition. Some translations will concentrate more on the former; some the latter. Translation is very much an art, not a science, and requires judgement in order to work effectively. It's also something that is perpetually necessary, especially with regard to the Bible, because even if the original texts don't change, the language use in the receving community does - and so preservation of one translation in perpetuity leads to an ever-increasing loss of intelligibility (though that point can and does need to be qualified further). So the choice of translation as such is a judgement call, and partly a matter of taste. I don't personally like the NIV very much - but that's probably because I am less used to it, having been trained using the RSV. (NB That preference is by no means sufficient for changing the Bible being used.)

One substantial concern about the NIV, as opposed to other versions, is the absence of the Deutero-Canonical literature. This is one way in which the NIV's nature as a 'Protestant' Bible becomes clear, and this becomes a source of contention. However, I do take seriously the authority of the church on this question (something I tend to do in any case) and I therefore see it as a serious lack that we don't have use of this literature for our edification, either in worship or in private study. As an example of why this might matter, consider this (taken from here)
I would expect to use Sirach to elucidate the Fourth Gospel. Put these texts side by side:
Come to me, you who desire me, and eat your fill of my fruits. For the memory of me is sweeter than honey, and the possession of me sweeter than the honeycomb. Those who eat of me will hunger for more, and those who drink of me will thirst for more. (Sirach 24:19-21, NRSV my emphasis)
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. (John 6:35 NRSV)
I don’t know how to expound the second text doctrinally or spiritually without referring to the first. I’m not sure that this is to ascribe “derivative” (John’s term) authority to the deutero-canonicals. It seems to me that it is more than that, because in this case the canonically disputed text of Sirach has been caught up in the canonically undisputed text of John.

It seems to me that it would be a good, positive development to be able to use the deuterocanonical literature in this way - and it certainly ties in strongly with some other theological points - but given where West Mersea is as a whole this is not a sufficient argument in and of itself.

A wider question related to translation is the thorny one about inclusive language. The NRSV, amongst other amendments to the RSV, 'inclusivises' many of the texts, in such a way that where gender-specific language is not consciously intended the translation is changed to make the 'whole of humanity' aspect clearer. Whilst my instincts are to prefer a translation which 'tells it like it is' (because where do you stop if you start adjusting!) this seems to be more a matter of translating 'meaning for meaning' being given proper prominence. Treating women as second class citizens is no longer seen as acceptable, and where a text raised up and emphasised in worship is HEARD as advocating that injustice, then the translation needs to alter. That's simply a reflection of the different cultural context within which the text is received. Given that West Mersea is a church which embraces women's ministry in various forms (including having a female ordinand currently in training) it is a little bizarre to hold on to a translation which runs against that practice.

As well as these issues about 'which translation to choose' there is the more profound aspect concerning what form of spirituality is being fostered and developed. Why have a Bible used in church at all? After all, faith comes by hearing, and the use of the Bible in worship is historically through a relationship and human communication - the speaking of the Word and the hearing of the Word. Reading of the Word came in only after the invention of the printing press and is tied up with the individualising of worship that is responsible for so much spiritual poverty in the Western world today. (Sorry, I'll try not to rant). I don't expect that point to be accepted, and in fact I do think there is a strong case for saying that use of the Bible in worship encourages a sense of easy familiarity with the text which is devoutly to be encouraged.

The thing is, there is (with some noteable exceptions) a profound ignorance of the Bible within the church (not just this church, but the church in general). Even where there is knowledge of the Bible, it can be a 'flat' knowledge, rather that the proper engagement with Scripture that is transformative. Perhaps I'm dreaming a little here, but I do think an essential task of a church is to foster lectio divina - the new bible groups are a step towards that, but so much more is possible.

A central part of such a project would undoubtedly be a more widespread use of the Daily Office - for that to be seen and accepted as simply a normal part of Christian discipleship. I am greatly encouraged when I see the emergent community embracing this ancient practice; the issue seems to be 'evangelicals of a certain age' for whom any form of corporate liturgical prayer is anathema (for it offends the great idol of individual relationship with God). This saddens me, but I'm certain that the Spirit is moving on this topic. I'm certainly greatly blessed whenever people join me in prayer, and I think the Office is irreplaceable as a means to soak the believer in Scripture.

Which brings me to where my pondering has now reached: why do we need a new Bible at all? Why not simply purchase psalters for use at 9:30 and 6:30? Well, there doesn't seem to be a 'Common Worship Psalter' as such - but the psalter is contained in both the core 'Common Worship' book itself (= "CW"), and within the Office book Daily Prayer ("DP"). One possibility is simply to purchase sufficient copies of CW for the congregation to use. This has the advantage of not just containing the psalter but also the texts for various different services, and could be used for both Morning and Evening Prayer on Sundays - it would give a fair bit of flexibility and more resources if we went down that route. If we purchased lots of copies of DP then we'd get the psalter (a better version, in fact) along with some tremendously good resources in terms of canticles and so on, but we wouldn't get the orders of services that we use on Sundays. The upside of using DP, though, would be that it would be much easier to accustom people to the Office - and I do see pursuing that as carrying a great potential for blessing. We might even encourage people to purchase their own copies, for use at home - or even, for those a bit frightened of the main DP book (which is a bit chunky) the rather excellent introductory form which Tim Chesterton put me on to, called Time to Pray.

The more I ponder these issues, the more I become aware of the size of the question, and the more silly I feel for thinking it a straightforward matter. Being someone who gives great respect to church authority and tradition I was unaware of the 'third rail' aspect which discussions of the Bible can have amongst evangelicals. Yet it is precisely that authority and tradition which provides the richest standpoint from which to engage with Scripture, and which allows for a solid spiritual and Scriptural foundation for the worshipping community. The issue is what provision can we make which will most strengthen the community in its walk with God - bearing in mind that we are not simply engaging with the community in its present form, but also making decisions on behalf of those people who are coming into the faith without much background. If I was a dictator I'd say 'NRSV and DP!' - but I'm not, so I've got to keep pondering a little longer.

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