Interview with Angela Tilby ahead of her Archbishop Blanch Lecture

We spoke to Angela Tilby about her lecture on October 9th entitled: 'The Plain Meaning of Scripture'.

Is this the first time you have spoken in Liverpool? Why did you want to speak in our Diocese?

I have spoken in Liverpool twice before: once in the Cathedral during Holy Week, and once at an annual lecture on Ministry, also at the Cathedral. I accepted the invitation because Stuart Blanch was a great Archbishop who was fascinated by the Bible, and I thought it would be a good opportunity to do some thinking about scripture and the scriptural tradition of the English Church.

What drew you to be part of the Archbishop Blanch lecture series?

It was a mixture of admiration of Stuart Blanch and interest in the subject. I think we live in a world where people both crave certainty and distrust all claims to it. Scripture is a source, for some, of certainty; it is also distrusted by many. So I wanted to reflect on that paradox, and this seemed a good context in which to do so.

Could you sum up what your lecture is about?

'The Plain Meaning of Scripture' is the title of the lecture. It draws on the belief that was most fully articulated at the Reformation, that Scripture was transparent, anyone with a basic education could read it and understand it and learn from it both about the nature of God and how to do God's will.

That is a very attractive idea, and sounds just right in our individualistic age. But in fact, it turns out to be much more complicated than in looks and even the great Reformers ended up having to write huge great tomes to explain what Scripture was really all about. So I want to make a case for a more ancient way of reading Scripture, of recognising that it has many layers and that the clue to its meaning is in its interpretation, which may vary over time, and from person to person.

Will you just be focussing on the Reformation?

The Reformation is the starting point but there is a lot to be gleaned from the way the Early Churhc interpreted Scripture; and also a lot of pitfalls which Reformation teaching proved unable to avoid, such as the appea to scripture as 'evidence' on issues of natural science.

Will you be making any comparisons with other religions and if so, which ones and how?

I hope to say something about Islam, because the Koran is, of course, regarded as entirely inspired by the Muslim community. But there are important differences too.

Can making the gospels more transparent actually hinder meaning?

I think so. Jesus was very rarely crystal clear in the parables. He produced these wonderful stories, and yet often leaves the meaning open or ambiguous: 'let those who have ears to hear, hear'. That suggests that the meaning is not altogether plain, or not plain to everyone.

The King James Bible is known for its beauty of language – but does this version sometimes favour language over spiritual meaning?

The King James Bible is remarkable in many ways. In places it is terribly obscure. What I most value about it is that it attempts to convey the idiom of the original Hebrew and Greek into English. No modern translation actually does this.

And I think this idiom, this sense that you are hearing in English something quite parallel to the Hebrew of a Psalm or to the Greek of Mark, or Matthew or Paul is sometimes very moving and spiritually important. If you actually listen to the parable of the Prodigal Son in the King James Version it is much simpler and more direct than most modern versions. In that sense I think a lot of peope find it spiritually more transparent and more powerful than most modern versions and I have some sympathy with that.

Which in your opinion is the best translation of the bible?

None of them are perfect! I like the Revised Standard Version because it retains some of the virtues of the King James Bible but is based on better sources and is therefore more accurate. Some of the more modern ones sacrifice accuracy for accessibility and that is always a mistake in my view, because the weird and difficult and obscure bits sometimes shed light in things that really matter.

The Bible is not an instruction manual - it is about creation and judgement and salvation and the kingdom of God. None of those things are simple. They are about everything that matters and to engage with the Bible you need to pay attention and be patient with its difficulties, and always be prepared to learn more than you know.


About Angela Tilby

Angela is a Residentiary Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the Diocese of Oxford.  

She was educated in London and Cambridge and worked for 22 years for the BBC as a producer in radio and television. After ordination in 1997 she became tutor, and then Vice Principal of Westcott House, Cambridge, and taught Early Church History and Spirituality for the Cambridge Theological Federation. She broadcasts frequently on Radio 4’s Thought for the Day. 

Her books include Science and the Soul, for which she won a Templeton Prize, and The Little Office Book, published in 1998 by Arthur James. 

Her most recent book, The Seven Deadly Sins: Their Origin in the Work of Evagrius the Hermit was published in 2009.