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Hallo again to all.

One of the great mysteries of the Christian faith, that whispered earth-shaking invitation to a terrified teenager, occurs this week on 25 March: The Annunciation. Most Anglicans, we suspect, are content to view it as an event not subject to human understanding; the eternal entering time, as TS Eliot has it. Behind the veil of Mary's 'Fiat' lies our salvation. There seems to be a willingness to let the mystery be; to understand that we will never fully understand. Arguments and differences about the role and place of the Blessed Virgin Mary do not threaten schism in the Anglican Communion. And yet the question of how to read and interpret other texts in the Bible, seemingly far less important, do. The cover of Anglican Identities

In these days of tumult, we seem to divide too easily into two camps. On one side there is the 'clear teaching of scripture'; on the other, an emancipatory human rights agenda buttressed by Scripture. On one side is the closed, bounded, once-for-all faith delivered to the saints; on the other side is the continuing revelation of God's purpose in creation. Where is the middle ground? Is there no Anglican anywhere in sight? In Rowan Williams's new book, Anglican Identities — a collection of addresses and lectures on important Anglican figures — he suggests an unlikely hero of the third way, the English scholar-bishop Brooke Foss Westcott (1825-1901).

Before we began reading the Archbishop's address*, we wrinkled our brow trying to remember what we knew of Westcott. We vaguely recalled that he was one of that group of mid-19th century priests and bishops whose names we often muddled together until they became a blur of mutton-chops and gaiters — Lightfoot, Westcott, Lee, Benson, Stanley —— all of whose scholarship, achievements, and 'output' were towering. Brooke Foss Westcott as a young man.We were set right by Archbishop Williams early on. Brooke Foss Westcott, great Biblical scholar and Bishop of Durham, held an idiosyncratic middle course at a time of the growing divide between 'the literalist' and 'the liberal' in the interpretation of the Bible. 'For him', writes Rowan Williams,

'The Bible is given us by our creator not first as a set of clear narratives and instructions but as something more like a massive canvas depicting the nature of the giver. You need to stand back again and again to see the whole; but you also need to see how that whole is constructed; you have to crawl over its surface inch by inch, not stopping to abstract and frame one section of that surface, but tracing the connections that, detail by detail, make up the whole'.

In 1886, Westcott writes to a friend: 'I do in my heart believe that every syllable of Holy Scripture, as Origen said, has its work; but I hope I may be saved from the presumption of saying "It is this, this only".' And: '[The Bible] offers no wisdom to the careless, and no security to the indolent. It awakens, nerves, invigorates, but it makes no promise of ease'.

No promise of ease. No easy parsing of passages for anyone. No sound-bite prooftexting or riffing of verses to suit the circumstance. The spines of 19th-century theological booksAnd, dare we say, no patience with a lack of understanding of the languages the words were first written in. Surely to 'love each word as an individual', as Westcott was said to do, there needs to be a love of the language of those words. In the far-too-full-already curricula of theological colleges, the Biblical languages often get short shrift. By so doing, do we end up short changing the Anglican Communion? The ability to give a reason for that which we believe implies the ability to wrestle those beliefs from the texts. We cannot all be Westcotts, surely†, but if we were able to 'love the words' more, would we find the lines between our divisions in the Anglican world today a little less rigid?

Rowan Williams says this of Westcott's scholarship: 'It might be summed up as the belief that scriptural and Christian language always says more than it initially seems to say. To believe that you have mastered that "more" is to arrest a process in which God is actively causing you to grow. Such a perspective entails a very high doctrine of the givenness of Scripture and tradition —— even, perhaps, an uncomfortably high doctrine. At the same time, it assumes an interpretative conversation which no one has the right to terminate'.

We believe that the Anglican Communion needs more interpretive conversation and more scholar-bishops like BF Westcott. It is part of our heritage and it can be our gift to the Christian community, if we don't lose our way in this very black-and-white world we live in.

See you next week.

Cynthia McFarland's signature
Brian Reid's signature
Cynthia McFarland
Brian Reid

Last updated: 21 March 2004

*Delivered at Westcott House in 2001.
†'Westcott's dearest schoolboy friend, T. M. Whithard, recalled how Westcott chose to recite by heart 2,600 lines of Virgil and 500 lines of Homer as voluntary repetition during school holidays. 'On another occasion he recited faultlessly the whole of Cicero's second Catiline oration'. page 106, Godliness and Good Learning, David Newsome (1961).

A thin blue line
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