by Clive Marsh.
Over the next 9 months or so there are to be lots of conversations happening within the Methodist Church in Great Britain about marriage and relationships. Spurred on (required!) by the decisions of the 2019 Methodist Conference, local churches and groups of churches are to talk together about the recommendations that the Conference made.
In the middle of all this, the place of the Bible in Christian reflection will keep cropping up as an issue. Positions taken up about issues of human relationships and sexuality obviously have to relate to the Bible in some way. For some Christians it is clear: the Bible condemns all forms of homosexuality (and so we should too). The voice of God is heard plainly in Genesis 1-2 and the model of human partnership is a marriage between one man and one woman. For others it is equally clear: the Bible is of its time, and some of its views are a bit opaque anyway. Better to acknowledge the fact that the Bible is essentially a record of the dealings of a God of love with humanity and work out from there. Things change. Get over it.
British Methodism is not alone is wrestling with ‘use of the Bible’ issues. But its own recent history has found it recognising that there are seven ways in which the Bible’s authority can be understood. The 1998 Conference report A Lamp to My Feet and a Light to My Path presents these, acknowledging that they ‘are not precise definitions’ and ‘are intended to illustrate briefly the range of views which are held, and the reasons for holding them’ (7.9). The report also recognises that ‘most, if not all, of these positions are compatible with’ the Deed of Union’s ambiguous statement about the Holy Scriptures (7.10). There are also those who would disagree that the Deed of Union’s statement was ambiguous, and therefore with the Faith and Order Committee’s report, as received/adopted by the Conference!
The Bible is a very rich book. More accurately, it is, of course, a rich collection of books. The Bible is a library and we forget this at our peril. There may have been sifting and sorting (weeding out texts which didn’t make it into the canon) but there wasn’t a single, structured process by which this happened. Despite this, and despite the emerging authority of smaller collections within the collection at different stages in history, and in relation to two related, but distinct, religions (Torah and Prophets relating to Judaism, Torah, Prophets, Gospels, Letters, relating to Christianity) the Bible is a very diverse collection indeed. Different genres of writing, different levels of authorial authority, different historical settings, different scales of historical reliability all come into play as we wrestle with the texts before us. Women are under-represented, political biases abound, cultures clash. It is representative of life – warts and all – even as it has become a decisive text (in its Two Testament form) for the Christian Church. But it is a library, and so we should not expect it to be able to deliver the single knock-down rules, regulations or opinions that we might sometimes wish for. Better, then, not to hope for such knock-down verdicts and to carry on wrestling responsibly, as a community, with this motley collection of texts.
For some readers this verdict will amount to the usual liberal ‘cave-in’ to worldly ways of reading. Biblical authority has been given up. God’s Word has been reduced to human words. Such a view is one, though, that I simply don’t accept, both on experiential and intellectual grounds. Experientially I want to vouch for the personal discovery of just how exciting and enriching the Bible becomes when read analytically and critically (more so, in fact, than when it is read uniformly and all too narrowly as containing words which are all seen as equally ‘God’s words’). To read the Bible ‘critically’ doesn’t mean being straightforwardly critical of any of its contents. Nor does it mean idolizing the powers of human reason. It means acknowledging what can be done with the God-given gift of reason. Intellectually, recognising the need to sift and analyse what the Bible contains, so that it be read better, here, now, in multiple contexts, by Christian communities in different public locations, addressing many and diverse ethical and political issues, is a matter of simple honesty. We are more likely to be taken seriously as a church in wider society if we accept what the Bible actually contains, how it has been used and misused, and which bits of it really are better than others (and why). Churches have always worked, in practice, with ‘canons within the canon’ (chunks which are seen as more significant than others). Let’s not pretend otherwise. The practice continues, and will continue. It’s why different denominations need each other. It’s why Christian readers need Jewish (and even atheist) readers, so that we are challenged in our thinking.
So let’s hear it for the Bible: as a divine, authoritative, rich, compelling, influential, and still hugely important collection of texts. And let’s read it critically, creatively, constructively and with rigour and wisdom together. It really will enhance all our faiths, whatever detractors may say.
[PS. sorry for late post everyone – an am/pm mix up occurred! George]
 A Lamp to My Feet and a Light to My Path: The Nature of Authority and the Place of the Bible in the Methodist Church (Methodist Publishing House 1998); accessible at: https://www.methodist.org.uk/downloads/conf-a-lamp-to-my-feet-1998.pdf