Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Wrestling with Scripture in The Episcopal Church

Sheila McJilton
Recently, as I thought about the texts for that upcoming Sunday, I realized one of them was Genesis 22. Somehow, in 15 years of ordained ministry, I had dodged that difficult text in preaching—the gospel was always easier. Besides, how do children hear such a primitive, terrifying text? (Yes, some of them may be happily coloring pictures during the sermon, but parents have told me they hear more than one might think!) But this year, I decided it was time to wrestle with that theological alligator, thanking God that I had saved class notes from Dr. Ellen Davis’ Old Testament class years ago.

When one of the teenagers at St. Philip’s saw the lessons that morning, he said to his mother, “Mother Sheila won’t preach on that passage. She’s going to avoid it.” His mom replied, “Oh, I wouldn’t be so sure about that.” Later, she said she elbowed him when I began preaching. At the end, he said softly, “But she still didn’t answer my questions.” His mom replied, “Of course she didn’t.”

He still has questions? Good. So do I. And I was glad that he does have questions about his Christian faith. Young people (those I know, anyway) don’t just accept blindly whatever a church leader tells them about faith and how they should believe. Instead, they question, push back, engage in deeper conversations about what they believe and why.

I was also pleased to see what happened at coffee hour that morning. Someone commented on the sermon and a thoughtful discussion ensued. I was able to share some of this difficult passage’s interpretations and was amazed at the depth of conversation over coffee.

Having been raised by Southern Baptists, I understand the differences between that view of Holy Scripture and that of Anglicans. My love for the Anglican way deepens every time I preach or teach about a difficult text. I appreciate the fact that Dr. Reginald Fuller argued that the Church of England—even at the time of the Reformation—never made the claim for the inerrancy of Scripture. Instead (he referenced Article VII of the Thirty-Nine Articles in the Prayerbook), we see the Son of God as ‘the Word of the Father,” hence this Word of God is living and personified.^

I also appreciate that as long as humankind has had language and the ability to communicate, words have been used as illustrations, symbols, and vessels of great power. Yes, sometimes those vessels and symbols have been used by some humans to divide, to hurt, even to abuse. Yet I cannot imagine that a scripture passage a) means the same thing to a twenty-first century person as it did to a person living in the Bronze Age of history and b) has only one meaning forever. I also do not believe that revelation of God’s Word ended with written texts or a particular time in history—wouldn’t that be limiting the power of God’s Spirit? Yes, we will continue to wrestle with interpretation of scripture—even within my beloved Anglican Church. But I hope, and pray, that in this wrestling, the One who first created us, the One who gave us the living Word, changes us—for the better. 

^ Reginald Fuller, “The Bible as the Word of God” in Sykes, Booty & Knight, The Study of Anglicanism, 87.

Sheila McJilton is the rector at St. Philip's, Laurel.