Friday, February 27, 2015

The Bible in Worship (25 February 2015)

Presentation Notes for 'The Bible in Worship'
The New Westminster Ministerial Lenten Series

The Rev’d Dr Richard Geoffrey Leggett
Rector of Saint Faith's Anglican Church Vancouver
Professor Emeritus of Liturgical Studies
Vancouver School of Theology


Four hundred and fifty-nine years ago the first Book of Common Prayer was published by the authority of King Edward VI via the editorial genius of Thomas Cranmer, the then Archbishop of Canterbury.  On the Second Sunday of Advent in that year of 1549, the congregations of the Church of England heard the following collect:

Blessed Lord, which has caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; grant us that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them; that by patience, and comfort of thy holy word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our saviour Jesus Christ.  Amen.

In the centuries that have followed the first prayer book there have been many changes, but this prayer has remained an almost fixed feature, even if it has been moved from the Second Sunday of Advent to another occasion.  In the Anglican Church of Canada’s contemporary-language liturgical book, The Book of Alternative Services, Cranmer’s collect is appointed for use on the third Sunday before Advent:

Eternal God, who caused all holy scripture to be written for our learning, grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

For me this collect summarizes the Anglican attitude towards Scripture:  the Scriptures are to be proclaimed in worship, read and studied by all and, more importantly, be interpreted, that is to say, digested, because what Scripture says is not always what Scripture means.

One of the ways that Scripture is interpreted is by its use in worship.

(1)  The Four Uses

In 1992 the Rev’d Dr Paul Bradshaw published an essay entitled, ‘The Use of the Bible in the Liturgy’ in Studia Liturgica, the international journal of liturgical studies. [1]  Bradshaw identified four uses of the Bible in worship: (i) Doxological, (ii) Anamnetic, (iii) Parenetic and (iv) Didactic.  I want to flesh out these uses a bit more for you tonight. 

(a)  Doxological:  We use the Bible in worship to praise and to lament.

If you have ever uttered in worship the word ‘alleluia’ or the phrase ‘Lord, have mercy’, then you have experience the use of the Bible to express praise and lament.  Both the word and the phrase appear repeatedly in the Bible, especially in the Psalms.  By themselves they carry the freight of our intention.

Other expressions of this use of the Scriptures are too numerous to list here, but many are ones with which we are familiar:

Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might.

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.

This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.

O come, let us worship the Lord; let us heartily rejoice in the Lord our maker.

(b)  Anamnetic:  We use the Bible in worship to connect the events of our time with the events in our shared Biblical past.

In the New Testament the word anamnesis means ‘to recall the past in order to release that event’s inherent power of transformation into our present’.  Every time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper or Mass or Eucharist or Holy Communion, however you call this action with bread and wine, we claim that do so in ‘remembrance’, that is to say, in anamnesis, of Christ.

On the night he was handed over to suffering and death, our Lord Jesus Christ took bread, said the blessing, broke the bread and said:  Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you.  Do this for the remembrance of me. 

After supper he took the cup of wine; and wine he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and said:  Drink this, all of you; this is my cup of the new covenant, which is shed for you and for all people for the forgiveness of sins.  Whenever you drink it, do this for the remembrance of me.

This is more than casual remembering, more than religious nostalgia.  These are, to use David Power’s phrase, ‘words that crack’.

When we gather for healing, we choose biblical texts that speak of God’s power to heal.  When we gather to set apart Christians for lay or ordained ministry, we tell the stories of other occasions when authority has been handed from one leader to another.  When we gather to celebrate the life of a Christian who has passed from this life into the hands of our compassionate God, we remember those times when other believers have grieved their friends and family.

(c)  Parenetic:  We use the Bible in worship to encourage certain attitudes and feelings.

Throughout the Scriptures of the Hebrew Bible and the Apostolic Writings, we find texts intended to encourage believers in their life of faith.  For example, in Daniel we hear the story of the golden image that Nebuchadnezzar commands to be worshipped.  These words were written at a time when the people of Israel were under great pressure to conform to the demands of foreign powers and religions.  What better words to hear than these:

                  16 Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to present a defense to you in this matter.  17 If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us.  18 But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up.”  (Daniel 3.16-18)

When the early Christian movement was experiencing the beginnings of Roman imperial persecution, an anonymous writer exhorted his community in this way:

            1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, 2 looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
                  3 Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.  4 In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.  (Hebrews 12.1-4)

There are many occasions in the life of Christian communities when we seek to hear words from the Scriptures which give voice to those attitudes we find difficult to maintain and those feelings we desire most to find in our hearts.  Consider these words spoken at the beginning of some Anglican funerals:

                  1 “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.  2 In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.  If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?  3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.  (John 14.1-3)

38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  (Romans 8.38-39)

We recite these words to encourage, to comfort and to remember that we grieve not as others grieve but as those who have hope.

No doubt all of us have heard Paul’s famous words on the gift of love in 1 Corinthians 13 read during the course of a wedding.  I have always found it somewhat ironic that we use a text in the context of ‘romantic’ love that is actually written to a community in conflict and is intended as an admonition to get back on track!

(d)  Didactic:  We use the Bible in worship to teach.

This use of the Bible tends to be expressed in preaching, especially when the preacher chooses the text or texts that will be read in the context of worship.  It is also a feature found in the Revised Common Lectionary for those Sundays after Trinity and before the Reign of Christ.  But more on that in a moment.

(2)  How are these uses embodied in our worship?

(a)  In our lectionaries

(b)  In our prayers

(c)  In our choice of biblical translations

(d)  In our hymnody

(e)  In our preaching

[1] Paul F. Bradshaw, ‘The Use of the Bible in the Liturgy’, Studia Liturgica 22 (1992):  35-52.

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