This was a brief article I wrote for the November edition of FOCUS (the Anglican newspaper for the Diocese of Brisbane), reflecting on the Prayer of the Week for the Sunday between 6 and 12 November from A Prayer Book for Australia - APBA (so note it is written with a particular Brisbane and Anglican context).
Blessed Lord, you have caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: grant that we may so hear them, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them, that, by patience and the comfort of your holy word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
To read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest is probably a very familiar phrase to many Anglicans. With origins from Cranmer in the Book of Common Prayer, we will soon hear it again as we move through November.
But whilst familiar to many – and referred to often (e.g., the draft of the Anglican Communion Covenant) – what does it really mean for us to inwardly digest scripture? At one level, this prayer is a window for us to contemplate what an Anglican understanding of scripture might entail – but even more specifically, it enjoins us to consider the role of the Bible in our lives individually and corporately.
Personally, regardless of particular predispositions or approaches to scripture, I think (and feel) that this prayer epitomises an Anglican openness to the Bible. For it not only suggests an affective intimacy, but also a disciplined reading that urges a continual exploration and permeation of scripture throughout our lives. Thus for me, to inwardly digest suggests a thoroughgoing engagement with the Bible, occurring on multiple levels, within numerous contexts, and in dialogue with God.
Of course Anglicanism has an extremely strong biblical tradition historically. Be it scribes copying manuscripts faithfully, the daily office (i.e., morning and evening prayer) being said, the Bible being read and exposited when we gather, the systematic reading of the Bible over a multi-year cycle (i.e., the lectionary), missionaries being sent outwards to share and translate the good news, or countless other variations – the role of the Bible within Anglicanism is critical.
From a more experiential perspective, when I hear or read this prayer, the image of well-read Bibles (with their worn pages and marked text) comes to mind. This image is not just one of someone who regularly delves into the Bible studiously, but also of the person who is constantly discerning and praying (within the context of the church) how these words impinge upon their life, and how their very engagement with them is fuel for their life. This fuel not only seeks transformation for the individual, but also transformation of the world. Not as some form of self-actualisation, but as a continual shaping of our discipleship in Christ.
So first, inwardly digesting is concerned with an earnest and faithful grappling with scripture. Not some mindless exercise – nor just a scholarly pursuit – but a deep engagement that is reflected in our believing, belonging, and behaving. With a great Anglican tradition of daily Bible reading, it is also one done regularly.
There are a variety of resources available that make it incredibly easy to delve into scripture. This includes numerous excellent English translations (see Rev’d Dr Greg Jenks’ article in a June edition of FOCUS), commentaries for a range of levels, study guides, and software packages. Often a Study Bible (for which there are numerous to choose from) or short commentaries (e.g., N. T. Wright’s “For Everyone” series) are excellent beginning points to help read more fully. The important point is to use resources to assist you in a regular reading of the Bible.
Second, it is also something done corporately. Personally, I like to think about reading the Bible in three spheres: personal study and devotion, in a small group (e.g., a home group, EFM group etc.), and as a community (e.g., a parish). These are of course not the only ways to conceptualise it, but I find that all three spheres are complementary in facilitating ‘digestion’. Furthermore, I think that all three aspects – even personal study and devotion – are done within the context of the whole church. For some who choose to study the Bible more formally (e.g., at a theological college), I am sure they too would acknowledge that such an endeavour has corporate elements.
Third, reading the Bible as Christians is understood as being read with God in the power of the Spirit. Inwardly digesting is not just a form of retention – but has the strong connotation that the Bible is fuel for our lives. And as humans, what we consume we also become (not to labour the metaphor). It is therefore an extremely intimate aspect of our faith that involves every part of us. This is reflected in our strong tradition of praying with the Bible (e.g., lectio divina). This of course does not mean that reason is not an integral component; it just means that the whole activity is done in the context of our relationship with God.
Engaging with the Bible and its implications will not of course mean that it will always be easy. More likely, the more we inwardly digest, the more we will be challenged. But simultaneously, this endeavour is one from which we might gain much nourishment and transformation.
In order to inwardly digest, we must be considerably intentional in our approach to the Bible. Just like a symphony, we can take great delight in single movements, but should also indulge in the full composition to permeate and saturate our being. So too with scripture – we are to read it in fullness and in depth, with each other, and also with God; with our hearts, heads, and hands. Not just that the sound may reach our ears, but be so inwardly digested that it transforms our lives and is reflected outwards and onwards.