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In this eleventh post in a sequence about ecumenical formation, I will explore how we can interpret Christian traditions as libraries.
I will start by unpacking the words I ended with last time, 'An open library has been replaced by a closed book'. Before the printing press, the Bible was out of the reach of most people. It was accessible, at least in Western Europe, to those who could read Latin and had access to copies in libraries or churches. This meant primarily the ordained and religious. However, it was open in that the Bible was accessible to a wider community of scholars. The printing press meant the Bible was opened up to anyone who could read in their own language. This has been enormously important to the history of the faith and to its missionary activity down to the present day. But alongside this, the fact is a set of books bound into a single volume, in a particular order, leads to this single book becoming a defensible space. It is harder to envisage an exchange between scholars of different scriptures, now the Bible is in everyone's hands.
I wonder whether Christians were really people of a book before the advent of printing? There were documents but they witnessed to experience, rather than the direct word of God. Most Christians would experience Christianity through liturgy rather than the written word. Perhaps fundamentalism is trying to turn the Christian faith into something its founders never intended, a people of a book. The Bible can be inerrant only if it is the direct word of God, which it clearly is not.
We need to understand our faith as something that exists in the debates based on scripture, rather than in the scriptures themselves. Our faith is based not on the infallibility of the written word but in the creativity of the spoken word.
What we need to do is understand the change from library to single volume and its implications. Perahps we need to regain a sense of each Christian tradition as a library.
Before printing, it was possible to build up a library where the Canon would be interpolated by other texts. Each tradition would accumulate its own distinctive liturgies, theological interpretations and church law. Together these would be a concrete record of what is often called tradition. Some texts would be closer to the centre of the tradition and some more peripheral. Ecumenism generates texts which are shared between traditions and might have a place in several libraries.
So, Methodists treasure the writings of the Wesleys (Charles' hymns and John's notes, diaries and sermons). These are valued in common between all the traditions that look to the Wesleys as their point of origin. Then each Methodist Church will value their particular expression of their church law (CPD in Britain) and certain theologians who grow out of their specific tradition. Writers from other Methodist traditions will have a shared place too.
Other traditions have similar libraries, eg the Church of England has a special place for the Book of Common Prayer, as well as its Canons and other expressions of church law. We largely encounter each others' libraries through our conversations, because only the scholars will have in-depth knowledge of other traditions' libraries.
This is of course, a major problem for ecumenists. Ecumenism becomes a specialist pursuit. It is hard to follow the debates between scholars if you are living a life.
On the other hand, non-scholars can specialise in their own tradition. Methodist local preachers for example learn Methodist doctrinal emphases and are encouraged to be familiar with the Wesleys. It is fashionable to take some of this with a pinch of salt but if we're serious about ecumenism perhaps we should take our own texts a little more seriously.
As we are formed by our own tradition, we take on board, sometimes unconsciously, its doctrinal emphases. In this sense we become living books. It is then in encounters with Christians from other traditions, in the exchange of insights, we are encouraged to draw on the resources of our own tradition. Our unconscious formation becomes conscious and we experience a deepening of our faith.