By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
In any Synod of Bishops, the real star is, of course, the pope. In second place typically come high-profile Catholic prelates from around the world, as well as the bishops of dioceses of particular interest – such as Patriarch Emmanuel III Delly of Iraq – and, of course, powerful Vatican officials.
At this synod on the Bible, however, one of the “fraternal delegates," meaning a representative of another Christian confession, has more star power than most Catholic prelates in the hall: Anglican Bishop N.T. “Tom” Wright, the bishop of Durham in England, and one of the world’s best-known New Testament scholars.
In a room full of people who devour Biblical commentaries the way others churn through spy novels, heads turn when Wright walks in the room.
tThough a committed member of the Church of England, Wright belongs to that wing of the Anglican Communion that stresses the grand tradition of Christian orthodoxy shared with Rome. He’s known for respectful, but firm, clashes with liberal Biblical scholars such as Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan on matters such as the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection.
Especially among English-speaking bishops and experts at the synod, Wright has been one fraternal delegate who needs no introduction. Several bishops who know Wright only by name have asked to have him pointed out, or to be introduced to him, because of their esteem for his work. In some cases, bishops have said that meeting Wright has been a highlight of the synod.
During the first meeting of the circoli minors, or small groups, several members of the group in which Wright is participating said afterwards how excited they had been to see and to hear the legendary New Testament expert.
On Tuesday, Wright finally took the floor in the synod hall. On a day when Pope Benedict XVI stressed the need to press beyond a purely secular and scientific reading of the Bible towards a theological exegesis, Wright struck much the same note – providing additional reason to believe this will be a key theme in the synod’s final recommendations.
In his remarks, Wright called for a “four-fold” reading of scripture understood as the love of God, which he said should involve:
•tThe heart (Lectio Divina, liturgical reading);
•tThe mind (historical/critical study);
•tThe soul (church life, tradition, teaching);
•tStrength (mission, kingdom of God).
In words that would certainly be music to Benedict XVI’s ears, Wright placed special emphasis upon mission – including the church’s mission to the field of Biblical studies itself.
“In particular, we need fresh mission-oriented engagement with our own culture,” Wright said.
“Paragraph 57 of the Instrumentum Laboris implies that Paul’s engagement merely purifies and elevates what is there in the culture,” Wright said. “But Paul also confronts pagan idolatry, and so must we.”
“In particular, we must engage critically with the tools and methods of historical/critical scholarship themselves,” he said.
Indirectly, Wright also endorsed what Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Quebec, the synod’s relator, referred to as a new “Marian paradigm” for reading the Bible in the opening address of the assembly.
Referring to “Mary as model,” Wright said she is the classic example of “waiting patiently in the soul,” which is also the posture of “the tradition and expectation of the church.” The church always awaits, Wright said, “the new, unexpected and perhaps unwelcome, but yet saving, revelation.”
Among other things, Wright’s presentation underscores a “mega-truth” about ecumenism these days, which is that on some issues, and in some cases, the fault lines that truly matter in Christianity no longer run between denominations but within them. When it comes to the Bible, Wright and the Catholic bishops gathered in Rome are arguably closer to one another than they would be to more liberal members of their own churches inclined to adopt revisionist readings and to challenge the historical veracity of key Biblical claims.
The Synod of Bishops on the Bible runs Oct. 5-26.