The Bible in the Uniting Church and Roman Catholic Church
Uniting Church and Roman Catholic Church Dialogue
The Bible has always played a vital and authoritative role in the life of our churches. It continues to be central to us as we seek to be guided by it and allow it to inform and direct us in our future mission and pastoral ministry. Two central issues which the Uniting Church–Roman Catholic Church Dialogue of South Australia identified in the early stages of our reflection concern (1) the authority of the Bible in our respective traditions, and (2) its interpretation. This document details how these two issues are expressed in and inform the worship life of our respective churches
The proclamation of the word of God from the Bible is a common element within the various traditions of Christian worship. How the texts are chosen has varied from a free selection to a systematic reading of the Scriptures. In recent decades the use of a systematic reading (lectionary) has emerged for the liturgical year in both Protestant and Catholic worship. There are also lectionaries prepared with suggested choices of readings for other worship occasions, such as baptisms, marriages and funeral rites. The same texts may be used in the two traditions, but the way these are used in our liturgies can differ.
The lectionary has a long history in the Judeo-Christian tradition. For the earliest generations of Christians, the Jewish Scriptures, later termed by Christians as the Old Testament or the First Testament were a principal source of community life and liturgy. For most of the first century, until they broke away from formative Judaism in the ninth decade of the first century, the Jewish followers of Jesus continued to worship in the synagogues and, until its destruction in 70 CE, in the Temple too.
In the Jewish synagogue, scrolls of the Law (Torah) and the Prophets were stored in a special cupboard, now known as the Tabernacle. The synagogue service, which developed quite apart from the rites of sacrifice in the Temple, included two set readings from the Torah and the Prophets. The first was a reading from the Torah, later called the Pentateuch by Christians. The Torah was divided into one hundred and fifty readings over three years. The second reading was chosen from the Prophets to complement the reading from the Torah and was read at the end of the service. Worshippers also recited prayers based upon the readings.
Some scholars think that there was also a coinciding three-year cycle of the one hundred and fifty psalms used in these services. Jesus’ words in Luke might reflect this service tradition: “Everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled” (Lk 24:44). Following the example of Jesus himself, his Jewish disciples often preached in the synagogue. They also frequently preached and evangelised in the precincts of the Temple. For those first Christians, steeped in such practices, the home was also a place of prayer. Family prayer over a meal was especially significant. Prominent features of such prayer were the recital of the Jewish prayer called the Shema (from the first Hebrew word in the prayer that begins, “Hear, O Israel,” from Deuteronomy 6:4-7) as well as blessings, thanksgivings and petitions, of which there are many examples in the Jewish scriptures.
The development of specifically Christian books and their adoption into the canon of what came to be called the New Testament or the Second Testament, was a slow and gradual process. These were eventually combined with the Jewish scriptures or the First Testament to form the Bible that Christians used. At first, the Christian good news (gospel) was communicated orally rather than in a written form. Only towards the end of the first century, from the 70s onwards, did written forms of the gospel appear, each with differences of interpretation and purpose. These differences were acknowledged in later centuries when alternative titles were given to the four gospels: “according to Mark”; “according to Matthew”; “according to Luke”; and “according to John”.
The letter was also a popular—and earlier—form of the Christian message. While many letters were intended for a particular community, e.g., the Galatians or the Philippians, they came to be circulated among various churches and read at worship. Extracts from the First and Second Testament, were proclaimed in the assemblies of the Christian faithful. The Christian message, even in the early period of oral transmission came to be equated with the word of God. This is indicated for example, by Paul's observation in 1Thessalonians 2:13: “We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers.” The use of specifically Christian books led to the beginning of a liturgical tradition that continues among churches today in the Liturgy of the Word.
The Liturgy of the Word is a feature of every worship celebration. It is proclaimed from a central place. In Roman Catholic worship the Liturgy of the Word consists typically of a First Testament reading, followed usually by an extract from an apostle’s letter and then by the reading of a gospel passage. In between the first two readings is a response in the form of a psalm with a recurring refrain. The readings are followed by a homily, the recital of a Christian creed, and the general intercessions or prayers of the people. Uniting Church worship may resemble this format.
The first Scriptures read at celebrations of the emerging Christian Church were the Jewish Scriptures. At the weekly celebration of the Lord’s Day, the Christian communities read the Scriptures, including readings from the Jewish Scriptures, Letters from the Apostles and later the Gospels. In time, like the Jewish people before them, the Christians developed a cycle of celebrations. The liturgical cycle of Lent, Easter and Pentecost gave shape to the emerging liturgical calendar with appropriate readings for these great feasts. In addition to the central feasts celebrating the Paschal mystery, the celebration of Jesus’ birth and ministry were remembered in weekly readings that made up a developing structure of liturgical year with its corresponding lectionary. The Bishops at first recommended this pattern and later prescribed it. Today the liturgical books and orders of service are highly structured with a prescribed form. This contrasts with the less formally structured arrangements in place in the early Church.
The Liturgy of the Hours (the “Divine Office”) consists of a regular pattern of biblical and biblically-inspired prayers, including psalms, readings and canticles from the First and Second Testaments. Although since the Middle Ages monks, nuns and clergy have prayed the divine office more than the laity, contemporary scholarship emphasises that the Hours (especially morning and evening prayer) are important prayers for the whole church. Section 1175 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms that “The Liturgy of the Hours is intended to become the prayer of the whole People of God…The laity, too, are encouraged to recite the Divine Office, either with the priests, or among themselves, or individually.” Section 1176 states: “The celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours demands not only harmonizing the voice with the praying heart, but also a “deeper understanding of the liturgy and of the Bible, especially of the Psalms.”
With the Reformation came Protestant biblical scholarship that ultimately served all Christian traditions in the West as well. It led to an exegetical approach to the word and hymnody in the Protestant tradition. Consequently, the Scriptures became far more widely available to people in their own languages, instead of only in Latin. Indeed, that the Bible should be accessible to all people was one of the driving passions of the Reformation. This showed in the enthusiasm Puritan groups had for the development of general literacy, primarily so that the people could read the Scriptures for themselves in their homes and as families. This affirmed the Protestant emphasis on the “priesthood of all believers.” Widespread use of printing presses increased the availability of Scriptures. The King James English Bible was the most printed book for more than three centuries.
Consequently, preaching or proclamation of the Word has been the central focus of the Protestant Sunday service when the Eucharist is not celebrated. In the wake of the Reformation, Roman Catholic preaching in the West concentrated on the preaching of doctrine, with themes often taken from the teachings of the Church, the Catechism of Trent, the commandments and creed. Before the Second Vatican Council the Scriptures were read in Latin and there was minimal use of the Bible in catechesis.
The lectionary is an essential book for the Roman Catholic community in its celebration of the Eucharist and other liturgical actions. The lectionary is in three volumes. It represents part one of two parts that, together with the Sacramentary, compose The Roman Missal, the collection of prayers and texts drawn upon for worship. The Missal was first published in 1970, following the liturgical reforms encouraged in Vatican II. Since then the Missal has gone through two editions, one in 1975 and a second in 2000. In the 2000 General Instruction of the Roman Missal two principles guide the celebration of the word of God: the need to ensure that those gathered in Eucharist are nourished by the word of God  and “the table of God's word and of Christ's body is laid for the people of God to receive from it instruction and food.” 
The lectionary offers this kind of nourishment through its selections of the Bible for proclamation. Not every chapter and verse of every book in the Bible is presented. On Sundays and major feasts, three readings are provided. The first is usually from the First Testament. This is selected with the third reading, the gospel of the particular celebration, in mind. The intent of this thematic harmony is to highlight the continuity of God’s story of salvation from the people of Israel to the community of disciples gathered around Jesus. By implication and in proclamation, this story continues into the lives of those hearing and reflecting on the word in the present. This understanding of continuity is a development from an earlier perception that considered the Second Testament reading, the gospel, literally as a fulfillment of what was predicted in the First Testament. In Ordinary Time the gospel reading is semi-continuous from Matthew (in Year A), Mark (Year B) or Luke (Year C). John’s gospel is read in the Easter Season, Christmas, during Lent and on particular feasts ever year. The second reading is usually a semi-continuous reading from the letters of the Second Testament. During Easter, this second reading is taken from the Book of Acts or the Book of Apocalypse.
The Common Lectionary (and its revision) follows the same three-year cycle. The readings of each year are drawn from a different synoptic gospel (Matthew, Mark, or Luke) with readings from the Gospel of John spread throughout all three years. The season after Pentecost (Pentecost day through to late November) has a distinctive emphasis each year using readings from the First Testament. Year A has semi-continuous readings from Genesis and Exodus, telling of God’s covenant with the people of Israel recorded in the Pentateuch. Year B focuses on God’s covenant with David and the Wisdom literature, while Year C focuses on the prophets.
The Revised Common Lectionary, now widely used in the Uniting Church is based on the lectionary used in the Roman Catholic Church although there are some differences in the readings. One major difference is that the Revised Common Lectionary does not include readings from the apocryphal books. (These are those books of the First Testament acknowledged by the Catholic Church as part of the Bible. Most of these were originally written in Greek and were not recognised as part of the Bible by the Protestant Reformers.) Some Uniting Church congregations will select readings over a series of weeks from a book of the Bible or on a biblical theme rather than follow the lectionary readings.
The presentation of the Christian message remains a challenge. As the New Testament canon developed a special group of ministers called “lectors” emerged. They were entrusted with proclaiming the Scriptures at worship. In times of persecution, they also acted as guardians of the Scriptures. In recognising that the word of God is communicated in human words, the concern will always be how to make the message accessible and relevant and enable it to be lived. This word lies at the heart of the life of the Christian community.
In the Roman Catholic Church lay people are encouraged to read the Scriptures clearly and with dignity in their parish worshipping communities. It is the ordained minister (bishop, priest or deacon) who preaches on the Scripture readings. He breaks open their meaning for the gathered community. Through the homily the preacher reflects on the relevance and meaning of the biblical text for the culture and life of the Catholic community.
In the Uniting Church, congregations make their own decisions about the requirements for readers of the Bible. Most local churches would encourage anyone who is willing and competent to read the Bible. Historically, the whole service, including Scripture readings, would have been led by an accredited person such as ordained minister, lay pastor or lay preacher. Now, it is common to have a roster of lay Bible readers who may read some or all the readings chosen for the day by the preacher. It is rare for all four lectionary readings to be used in any one service of worship; two readings are more common. It is a growing practice for congregations to have lay people contribute a substantial part in the leadership of worship.
In the churches, which formed the Uniting Church, the pulpit always held a special place of focus where the Word was proclaimed to the people. The Uniting Church stands firm as the inheritor of this tradition. To preach in the Uniting Church a person usually needs to be accredited in one of various ways. He or she may be preparing for or already be ordained into the ministry of the word, ministry of deacon, or exercising one of the specified ministries of community minister, lay pastor, lay preacher or youth worker. The minister of the word is still the largest order of ordained ministry and corresponds to the priest or deacon in the Catholic community.
Members of lay ministry teams may also be authorised to preach by the presbytery. Local helpers are employed in some congregations, called and recognised by that congregation alone. They have no status apart from their home congregation. Pulpit exchanges with appropriately trained leaders from other denominations can also occur.
Uniting Church people expect sermons to include some appropriate teaching about the readings, direction in applying this story or concept to their everyday lives and some examples to help make those connections. People want to be uplifted by worship and preaching and to be challenged to apply the gospel to their everyday lives. Having said all this, there is a greater acceptance now of a diverse range of styles of preaching and the leadership of worship.
A continuing challenge of the use of the Bible in worship is presented by Catholic theologian Catherine Mary Hilkert OP:
Do I believe (or operate as if) the word of God is really to be discovered in the biblical passage, in my prayer, in study of the commentaries by theologians, and then view the process of writing the homily as trying somehow to apply this word of God to people's concrete human lives?…Or do I really believe that God's word (a word of salvation, hope, healing, liberation) is being spoken in new ways today in people's concrete experience and daily lives? Is the same creative Spirit of God who is active in the history of Israel, in the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus, in the church of the past, in the lives of the saints, still active among us today? If that’s part of our theology of revelation, then reflection on culture, people's lives and human experience, is necessary not merely to make a homily relevant but to hear God's word today. Then the preacher listens with attentiveness to human experience because he or she is convinced that revelation is located in human history, in the depths of human experience—a mystery which should not come as such a surprise to those who profess belief in the incarnation.
The “word of God” is a broad term that refers to all the ways in which God is revealed. It communicates not only information about God, but the gift of God's very self. Kathleen Cannon suggests: “The aim of such speech is to involve the hearer in what is heard, and to call forth the surrender of the hearer’s life into God’s love.” Where the word is so received, God's gracious self-communication becomes for the hearer an event of personal salvation.
God has spoken in many and different ways in history (Heb 1:1-2), but the word of God has been associated primarily with the person of Jesus Christ, the sacred Scriptures, and the church's preaching or proclamation. Catholics understand it as especially the person of Jesus Christ, God's incarnate word. In its Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Vatican II has linked the word of God in the proclamation of the sacred Scriptures to the person of Christ when it says: “He is present in his word since it is he himself who speaks when the holy scriptures are read in church”. Cannon concludes: “There is not therefore one monolithic meaning of ‘word of God’ that has been handed on unchanged through the centuries.” She also points out: “The biblical authors describe word as a saving power or force let loose in the world, as an event of salvation….God’s word is creative and so we have to say it is sacramental, i.e. it is mediated or revealed in matter. It is also historical, i.e., we cannot know the word except in and through matter and in the experience of human history.”
Similarly, the Uniting Church understands the “word of God” to mean primarily the person of Jesus Christ, the incarnate word of God as expressed in John 1. This is affirmed in paragraph 5 of the Basis of Union:
The Uniting Church acknowledges that the Church has received the books of the Old and New Testaments as unique prophetic and apostolic testimony, in which it hears the Word of God and by which its faith and obedience are nourished and regulated. When the Church preaches Jesus Christ, the message is controlled by the Biblical witnesses. The Word of God on whom salvation depends is to be heard and known from Scripture appropriated in the worshipping and witnessing life of the Church.
The key in this paragraph is “The Word of God on whom salvation depends is to be heard and known” through the proclamation of the Scriptures and the celebration of the gospel sacraments. Here the Word of God is clearly Christ.
The Uniting Church, from its catholic, evangelical and reformed roots, places great emphasis on the proclamation of Christ through the exposition of Scripture. Just as in the Catholic Eucharist Christ is lifted up for the adoration of the people, so the high-point of Uniting Church preaching is the lifting up of Christ for the people's acknowledgement and reception. Paragraph 11 in the Uniting Church’s Basis of Union affirms that the Church has received a rich heritage of scholarly interpretation of Scripture, but must also seek the will and purpose of God by contact with contemporary thought:
The Uniting Church acknowledges that God has never left the Church without faithful and scholarly interpreters of Scripture, or without those who have reflected deeply upon, and acted trustingly in obedience to, God's living Word. In particular the Uniting Church enters into the inheritance of literary, historical and scientific enquiry which has characterised recent centuries, and gives thanks for the knowledge of God’s ways with humanity which are open to an informed faith. The Uniting Church lives within a world-wide fellowship of Churches in which it will learn to sharpen its understanding of the will and purpose of God by contact with contemporary thought. Within that fellowship the Uniting Church also stands in relation to contemporary societies in ways which will help it to understand its own nature and mission. The Uniting Church thanks God for the continuing witness and service of evangelist, of scholar, of prophet and of martyr. It prays that it may be ready when occasion demands to confess the Lord in fresh words and deeds.
Of course, the Scriptures read privately, or heard in church do not speak wholly of themselves. For writings written by and for believers of another age to speak to believers today as the living word of God, there must be joined to the words the living person of the revealed Word of God, Christ himself. Christ, in the power of his Spirit, must open their hearts to respond to the proclamation of God’s love for them, and lead them in their response. Only then will the word of God expressed in yesterday’s idioms become God’s word for today. In that context the purpose of the preaching is to bring out God’s word as a living word for today, and help those listening to hear Christ speaking to them in the here and now of personal and community situations.
In relating the text to the needs of the community and assisting all to hear the voice of Christ, it is clearly essential that the one giving the homily be the first to hear and heed what Christ is saying. This is why Catholic rites for the institution of readers and the ordination of deacons imply that the word to be proclaimed is already alive and active in those proclaiming it. As the bishop places the book of Gospels in the hands of the newly ordained deacon, the bishop says: “Receive the Gospel of Christ, whose herald you now are. Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach.” A similar statement is made immediately after the declaration of ordination of a Uniting Church minister. They are presented with a Bible and the presbytery chairperson says: “Receive this Bible as a sign of the authority given you to preach the Word of God and to administer the holy sacraments. Keep the trust committed to you as a minister of Christ.”
It has come to be seen that the proclamation of the word of God is essential to liturgy. For “the liturgy itself is the church’s most profound moment of self-actualization”, in which the church is “called into being by God’s inviting word”, and so that word “must be proclaimed day after day” in liturgy. The proclamation of the word calls the church into being, “precisely because it is an act calling forth our response in faith.”
Where the Liturgy of the Word is followed by a liturgical action involving material objects (e.g., bread and wine, water and oil) as well as signs, symbols, gestures and actions, the aim of the reading is to stir up faith in the action which succeeds it. That action is understood as an embodiment, an enactment, a celebration, of the previously spoken word. That action makes the spoken word visible and tangible. St. Augustine distinguished between the audible word and the visible word in liturgy, and understood a sacrament as a visible word.
The biblical basis for the celebration and interpretation of Christian sacraments is abundantly clear. A sample of the most striking illustrations of this biblical basis follows:
The use of the Bible as a unique liturgical source, could hardly be better expressed and summarised than in the words of the Constitution of the Sacred Liturgy of Vatican II:
The importance of scripture in the celebration of liturgy is paramount. For it is texts from scripture that form the readings and are explained in the homily; it is scripture’s psalms that are sung; from scripture’s inspiration and influence flow the various kinds of prayers as well as the singing in the liturgy; from scripture the actions and signs derive their meaning.
This closely accords with the Uniting Church’s Basis of Union. Paragraph 5 in part states:
When the church preaches Jesus Christ, its message is controlled by the Biblical witnesses. The Word of God on whom salvation depends is to be heard and known from Scripture appropriated in the worshipping and witnessing life of the Church. The Uniting Church lays upon her members the serious duty of reading the Scriptures, commits its ministers to preach from these, and to administer the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper as effective signs of the Gospel set forth in the Scriptures.
In fact, Christian liturgy can make sense only to those who are initiated into the biblical narratives, metaphors and images, which have given rise to, given shape to, and given meaning to, the churches' rituals and symbols of worship.
For worshippers in the Uniting Church, the efficacy of the preachers is usually valued in the extent to which they give insights into the Bible. The leaders of worship will frequently incorporate biblical snippets in a service as a call to worship, a response, a word of comfort after prayers of confession, a word of mission and in many other ways. The practice of basing worship as well as the preaching on the selections of the common lectionary is steadily growing.
A renewed appreciation of the value and importance of Scripture have occurred in Roman Catholic liturgies since the Second Vatican Council. The Constitution of the Sacred Liturgy states that liturgical acts derive their meaning from the Scriptures (n.24); that one of the norms of liturgical revision is to be the increased use of the Scriptures (n.35.1); that Bible services are to be encouraged (n.35.4); and that pastors are to strive to catechize their people to understand and appreciate the Liturgy of the Word as an integral element of one act of eucharistic worship (n.56).
One of the greatest achievements of the Second Vatican Council, in fact, has been its recovered appreciation of the value of the word of God and its proclamation. One of its greatest decisions is surely this, as recorded in Dei Verbum:
The Church has always held the scriptures in reverence no less than it accords to the Lord’s body itself, never ceasing—especially in the sacred liturgy—to receive the bread of life from the one table of God’s word and Christ’s body, and to offer it to the faithful.
As the Roman Catholic Church and the Uniting Church continue to seek ways of common faith life, the most fundamental source of unity is the Bible. Our respective histories, especially in more recent decades, demonstrate that for both our ecclesial communities, the Bible is the focus of our liturgical life from which we seek to hear God’s word speaking to us and inviting us to unity.
May our common love of the Bible allow us to know the deep riches which can come from a shared faith in God’s Word.
 Catechism of the Catholic Church (Homebush, N.S.W.: St. Pauls, 1994), 304 n. 1175
 Ibid. n. 1176
 Lectionary, Vols. 1-3, of The Roman Missal: Revised by Decree of the Second Vatican Council and Published by Authority of Pope Paul VI (London, Collins, 1981).
 General Instruction to the Roman Missal, (Vatican: Congregation of Sacraments, 2000), Introduction.
 Ibid., I.8. This appreciation of the word as a source nourishment for the people is also found in two Vatican II documents key for liturgical renewal, Sacrosanctum Concilium 48, 51 and Dei Verbum no. 21. All references to the documents of Vatican II are taken from Norman P. Tanner, ed., Trent to Vatican II. Volume 2, Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils (London; Washington: Sheed & Ward; Georgetown University Press, 1990).
 The Congregational, Methodist and Presbyterian Churches united to establish the Uniting Church in Australia in 1977.
 Mary Catherine Hilkert, “Naming Grace: A Theology of Proclamation,” Worship 60 (September 1986): 441.
 In our discussion about the “word of God” we distinguished between “word” and “Word.” The first being the various expressions of God’s self-revelation, the second referring to God’s ultimate self-revelation in the person of Jesus.
 Kathleen Cannon, “Word, Theology of the,” in Peter E. Fink, ed., The New Dictionary of Sacramental Worship (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1990), 1323-25.
 Sacrosanctum Concilium (“Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy”), in Tanner, 822 n. 7
 Cannon, “Word,” 1323-4.
 The Basis of Union: 1992 Edition (Melbourne: Uniting Church Press, 1992), 8 n. 5.
 Ibid., 10 n. 11.
 “Ordination of a Deacon,” translated by the International Committee on English in the Liturgy (ICEL), 1969, in The Rites of the Catholic Church as revised by the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council and published by Authority of Pope Paul VI, Volume 2. (New York: Pueblo Publishing Co., 1980), 57 n. 24.
 Assembly Commission on Mission, “Ordination of a Minister of the Word,” Uniting in Worship: Leader’s Book (Melbourne: Uniting Church Press, 1988), 513 n. 17.
 Andrew D. Ciferni, “Scripture in the Liturgy,” in Peter E. Fink, ed., The New Dictionary of Sacramental Worship (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1990), 1144-9.
 Sacrosanctum Concilium, trans. Tanner, 826 n. 24.
 Basis of Union, 8 n. 5.
 Sacrosanctum Concilium, 826 n.24, 828 n.35.1, 830 n.35.4, 831 n.56.
 Dei Verbum, (“Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation), in Tanner, 979 n.22.