The Windsor Report 2004

Scripture and interpretation

  1. This means that for scripture to 'work' as the vehicle of God's authority it is vital that it be read at the heart of worship in a way which (through appropriate lectionaries, and the use of scripture in canticles etc.) allows it to be heard, understood and reflected upon, not as a pleasing and religious background noise, but as God's living and active word. The message of scripture, as a whole and in its several parts, must be preached and taught in all possible and appropriate ways. It is the responsibility of the whole Church to engage with the Bible together; within that, each individual Christian, to the fullest extent of which they are capable, must study it and learn from it, thoughtfully and prayerfully. Within this context, the Church's accredited leaders have a responsibility, through constant teaching and preaching, to enable the Church to grow to maturity, so that when difficult judgements are required they may be made in full knowledge of the texts.

  2. The place of Christian leaders - chiefly within the Anglican tradition, of bishops - as teachers of scripture can hardly be overemphasised. The 'authority' of bishops cannot reside solely or primarily in legal structures, but, as in Acts 6.4, in their ministry of “prayer and the word of God”. If this is ignored, the model of 'the authority of scripture' which scripture itself offers is failing to function as it should. The authoritative teaching of scripture cannot be left to academic researchers, vital though they are. The accredited leaders of the Church - within the diocese, the bishop(s); within the Communion, the primates - must be people through whose prayerful teaching ministry the authority of God vested in scripture is brought to bear - in mission within the world and in wise teaching to build up the Church.

  3. As this task proceeds, questions of interpretation are rightly raised, not as an attempt to avoid or relativise scripture and its authority, but as a way of ensuring that it really is scripture that is being heard, not simply the echo of our own voices (though our own responsive hearing is necessary) or the memory of earlier Christian interpretations (though we must always take them into account: 'tradition' consists primarily of the recollection of what the scripture-reading Church has said). Historical interpretation, from ongoing lexicographical work (to make sure the nuances of ancient words are properly and precisely heard) to large-scale historical reconstruction (to ensure we are not making anachronistic assumptions), remains vital. It can be deeply challenging to entrenched views of what scripture is thought to be saying, not least where it has been read within an unchallenged philosophical or cultural matrix.

  4. This applies equally, in our own day and setting, to the assumptions and entrenched views of the Enlightenment (which have often resulted in unwarranted negative judgements on much biblical material), as well as to the assumptions and entrenched views of a pre- or anti-critical conservatism. Biblical scholarship needs simultaneously to be free to explore different meanings and to be constrained by loyalty to the community of the Church across time and space. It cannot pretend to a detached 'neutrality'. Such pretence (as in phrases like “the objective results of scholarship”) is often, and rightly, seen as either a grab for power or a mere protest against alternative interpretations. Where a fresh wave of scholarship generates ideas which are perceived as a threat to something the Church has always held dear, it is up to the scholars concerned, on the one hand, to explain how what is now proposed not only accords with but actually enhances the central core of the Church's faith. And it is up to the Church, on the other hand, not to reject new proposals out of hand, but to listen carefully, to test everything, and to be prepared to change its mind if and when a convincing case is made.

  5. The current crisis thus constitutes a call to the whole Anglican Communion to re-evaluate the ways in which we have read, heard, studied and digested scripture. We can no longer be content to drop random texts into arguments, imagining that the point is thereby proved, or indeed to sweep away sections of the New Testament as irrelevant to today's world, imagining that problems are thereby solved. We need mature study, wise and prayerful discussion, and a joint commitment to hearing and obeying God as he speaks in scripture, to discovering more of the Jesus Christ to whom all authority is committed, and to being open to the fresh wind of the Spirit who inspired scripture in the first place. If our present difficulties force us to read and learn together from scripture in new ways, they will not have been without profit.

  6. A mention of scripture today can sometimes seem actually divisive, so aware are we of the bewildering range of available interpretative strategies and results. This is tragic, since, as with the Spirit who inspired scripture, we should expect that the Bible would be a means of unity, not division. In fact, our shared reading of scripture across boundaries of culture, region and tradition ought to be the central feature of our common life, guiding us together into an appropriately rich and diverse unity by leading us forward from entrenched positions into fresh appreciation of the riches of the gospel as articulated in the scriptures. This is characteristically and appropriately accomplished through the various ministries of the Church, not least the next of the bonds of unity now to be considered.