This is not quite a post about a few current difficulties, although I shall begin with someone who was rather obsessed by present Anglican divisions and divisiveness. Combative and confrontational, this priest challenged his bishop (whom he suspected of dangerously liberal tendencies) to say whether he really believed in the authority of scripture.
The bishop, rather than engage in confrontation, mildly remarked “Well, it’s the only book I read twice a day”. That was, I think, a very Anglican answer. It located authority in actual practice, rather than dealing with it as an abstract theological position; and it placed the answer firmly in both liturgical tradition, and a framework of the legal canons of the church.
Although the canons are observed by many clergy with (shall we say) creative flexibility, they enjoin the clergy to say morning and evening prayer daily. Those offices (if the traditional provision is being followed) revolve around the praying of the psalms and the reading of the rest of the scriptures.
From Cranmer’s day until relatively recent decades that meant praying the whole psalter once a month, reading the Old Testament and Apocrypha / Deuterocanonical books ion their entirety once a year, and the New Testament twice a year. While that was legally enjoined on the clergy, Cranmer’s expectation (shared with his successors) was that some laity at least would join in what was meant to be public worship. Today’s lectionaries are less comprehensive, but still extensive. (I for one regret, for example, the way they have pandered to some evangelicals’ pan-Protestantism by providing “safe” alternatives to the deuterocanonical readings.)
The expectation of liturgical practice needs to be set alongside the sixth of the 39 articles, which is on scripture. There, in relation to the Apocrypha, it says that “the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine”.
In saying that, it seems to make a distinction between two types of authority. There is the sort of authority attributed with certainty to the books of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, which the official Church acknowledges in establishing doctrine. No-one should imagine that Henry VIII, or Cranmer himself, or their respective successors, would have tolerated the idea that anyone could use scripture to establish doctrine. In the words of the monarch’s declaration “if any publick Reader in either of Our Universities [there can be only two!!] shall affix any new sense to any Article … he … shall be liable to Our displeasure, and the Church’s censure … and We shall see there shall be due Execution upon them.”
That kind of application or use of the authority of scripture was even less open to the ordinary priest or lay person. The Church under the Monarch-in-Parliament taught you what doctrine was authorised by Holy Scripture, and to venture your own opinion was divisive, contumacious, spiritually arrogant, theologically wrong and quite possibly treasonous.
But the other kind of authority, which included not only the undisputed canon but the fuzzy edges of the deutero-canon, was exercised by priest and people praying the words of scripture in psalm and canticle, and reading, hearing and pondering the whole sweep of the Bible’s story year by year as a story directed to shaping Christian living and drawing the Christian and the church into the worship of God, so that (as the regular use of penitence and exhortation reminded them) they might learn the way of repentance, conversion of life, and holiness.
The key thought of “the authority of scripture” was the power the story had to inform prayer and shape imagination, to provide exemplar and encouragement, and to help put their lives’ journey into the context of the journey of God’s people from creation to final fulfilment by way of the cross.
The authority of a story (and most of scripture is story) is often subtle, frequently a long-term project, and nurtured by repetition and slow digestion. It is about the reshaping of how we see ourselves and our lives by forming our mental world, and populating it with the images, examples and friends who open new possibilities to us, as well as warning us away from bad ideas and foolish practices (of which there are more than a few in the Bible). Our interplay with those stories is rarely unequivocal, but often complex, and we may well reshape and reconfigure the stories as we go.
First and foremost, though, it is precisely by reading scripture, regularly more than occasionally, sequentially rather than selectively, and when directed to worship – penitence and prayer, lament and praise – rather than information gathering and study, that we really come to give it authority over our lives. For then it works beneath the surface of the psyche as well, with id as much as ego, and with heart as well as mind.