Ahead of the Dean delivering this year’s Archbishop Blanch Lecture on November 12th we talk to the Very Reverend Dr Pete Wilcox about his love for Scripture, the role of the lecture in Christian formation and the need to defend the Bible against determined criticism from many quarters.
The Bible has very serious charges laid against it. Opponents of scripture, atheists and campaigners will condemn it in inflammatory language and imagery, portraying it as a hate-filled book used to oppress minorities. So when veteran campaigner Peter Tatchell proclaims “The Bible is to gays what Mein Kampf is to Jews” or the flag bearer of the New Atheism, Richard Dawkins, declares “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak “ then a reasoned response is called for.
This year’s Archbishop Blanch Lecture will see the Dean attempt to do just that. He will argue that, read the the Spirit it was meant to be read in, the Bible is the Book of Life and a means of grace. But in this he is not being combative. “I think we need to take on the chin the criticisms from the New Atheism and then show that Scripture remains an astonishing force for good”. Pete explains “The Bible is essential to the way in which we come to experience the grace of God.”
Warming to his theme Pete adds “there is a strong charge that the Bible is a tool of oppression and it's true that we have to be careful about the way in which we use it. And it's true that many parts of the Bible are disturbing and can be difficult to hold it together with what we know of Jesus. So we have to have a strategy for dealing with the problems that Scripture throws up.”
For a man who could, rightly, be consumed by the day to day operations of the UK’s largest cathedral, it is noticeable to see a light shine in his eyes when he starts to talk about Scripture. It’s a passion which stretches back to his early teens when he started a pattern of reading the bible every day “It’s never been difficult. I love doing it. In fact for me it’s actually sometimes the thing that will get me out of bed in the morning - the thought I would soon be reading another passage.” Pete freely admits his passion borders on an obsession, with a love for biblical commentaries meaning that he finds it hard to not to buy every one he sees. “I love reading the different books in the Bible – even the relatively obscure ones such as Obadiah - I love to isolate a single book and to consider what it adds to the canon of Scripture.”
Unsurprisingly for someone brought up in the evangelical tradition Pete was schooled in the idea of the reliability and authority of Scripture but like many students of theology he found academic study of the Bible threatening. It raised new questions. Learning Greek in preparation for Theological College, because he was excited to get behind the language of the English New Testament, he found that the biblical text was not as straightforward as he previously believed. “Translation is an art not a science and that makes a difference” Pete contends.
Well-known as a lover of John Calvin’s writing's he is keen to move our understanding of that great theologian away from the cold, narrow, bigoted killjoy caricature that often attaches to him. “Calvin’s theology is full of grace and life and his love for creation shines through.” Pete says “He was shockingly glib about inconsistencies in Scripture for he knew that some Greek and Hebrew translations are guess work. But he nevertheless had a high view of the Bible as a place where we come to meet with God”.
In many ways that is Pete’s motivation for his Archbishop Blanch Lecture. He wants to encourage us all to explore how our encounter with God can be “between head and heart.” Pete believes that there can be a “positive pay off if we are ready to do some brain work”.
The lecture began with a hunch that there is a way to respond to the malign accusations against God and Scripture by showing it to be a Book of Life, grace and truth. It is this hunch that Pete will explore in his preparation and research as he pulls the talk together. As a classic introvert it is probably the part of the process he enjoys most “in the preparation I get a sense of encountering God. Preparation renews me – the delivery on the night is exhausting”
Pete strongly believes in the power of the lecture. "Our diocese has three key lectures in the course of the year, this one; the Lent Lecture series,the Cathedral Urban Lecture in the summer. All in their own way add to the sum of our theological reflection and knowledge”. There certainly seems to be a place for the lecture – a resurgence in attendance at the Archbishop Blanch Lecture, increasing numbers at the Cathedral Urban Lecture and the increasing popularity of the Lent Lectures all prove people are voting positively with their feet.
But Pete believes this indicates we have to engage our brains in knowing God. Picking up on an observation made by the Revd Dr Michael Leyden to ordinands at St Mellitus NW, Pete points out that when, in Matthew 22, Jesus told the scribe that the greatest commandment is, 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind', he was quoting Deuteronomy 8 - except that Jesus has introduced the word 'mind'; Deuteronomy says 'might'! Clearly the significance is that Jesus knows our encounter with God is strengthened if we do indeed love him with our minds as well as in every other way.