Convicted by the Word

Published February 1, 2000

I N THE EARLY 19th century an English Roman Catholic bishop wrote a letter full of good advice to a friend just becoming a bishop.

He included the words, “Episcopus est homo litteris scribendis damnatus” (A bishop is a person condemned to write letters.)

My first year as a bishop was so weighed down by correspondence that I thought of putting the Latin sentence as a “footer” on my stationery.

But letters always stood in a line of precedence. A personal conversation took precedence over a phone call, and a phone call over a letter.

In the meantime other queue-jumping upstarts have arrived – fax, voice mail, and e-mail all come at us demanding to be taken more seriously because of their technological flashiness.

Much literature about the unhappiness of an increasing percentage of working people focuses on their sense of being “got at” (not to say “harassed”) by the ever shriller written and spoken forms of intrusion.

But it always has been so. Nineteenth century novels speak of letters asking a reply by the afternoon post, and I recall a wonderful short story of “Saki”, a witty, reactionary observer of the Edwardian scene, describing the devastating effect of the arrival of a telegram in a genteel English country house of a century ago.

But, of course, words, spoken and written, are what make us human. Animals can communicate, but not as we can. A cat can instinctively know its mother, but only I can know my grandmother, because my mother could say to me, “This is my mother, your grandmother” and I could understand the words.

So however harassed I feel by letters, voicemails, e-mails (I write this on the day when I am trying to clear the desk to go on sabbatical!), I must relax, and more than that, rejoice.

Witness by word, spoken and written, is crucial to every worldwide religion, and to none more than to Christianity. Not only do we ascribe authority to the written word of the Bible, we follow the Gospel of John in calling Jesus “Word”.

But even the Christian community divides about the weight to be given to written and spoken word.

The children’s hymn, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so” was changed to ” and the Bible …” Why? Because most Christians first learn of the love of God in Jesus not by reading but by the words of someone they love.

Even adult converts come to faith in God and in Jesus Christ almost entirely through the witness, in word and deed, of persons, and then find the deeper meaning in the written words of the Bible.

A dear colleague of mine, in an early period of youthful evangelism, witnessed by handing out Bibles on his university campus. That was certainly a fine thing to do, but his later life, committed to justice for, and service of, the weakest in this world, translated the Word into compelling action in ways that I shall never forget.

In history, the word spoken preceded the word written. The word written, in the Christian tradition, grew out of the community that knew it when it was still a spoken word.

So I stand by my first priorities, a person before a telephone (“the next best to being there”), and a phone call before a letter. Archbishop Michael Peers is Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada.


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