In “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” the poet Dylan Thomas writes that he once received “by a mistake no one could explain, a little hatchet.”
By a mistake—or at least an unexplained gaffe—no one could explain in Lusaka, the 16th meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council—a meeting with gender justice high on the agenda—began on April 8 with morning prayer that included a reading from 1 Peter 3: “Wives … accept the authority of your husbands.”
Bishop James Tengatenga, who completed his term as ACC chair at the meeting, made the best effort at interpreting the odd choice, speculating that pairing the reading with the book of Ruth, which the ACC members studied together most mornings of the meeting, would “subvert patriarchal dominance.”
“There is a subversive element to scripture that we will attend to,” he said.
The eight-part Bible study of Ruth was developed for the ACC by a group of scholars working with the Anglican Communion Office’s Bible in the Life of the Church project and its coordinator, Stephen Lyon. It was designed to be, if not actively subversive, provocative enough to get people reading the Bible together “across the different contexts in which we are called to witness and minister,” according to its introduction.
The studies, which are available for free download on the Anglican Communion website in English, Spanish, and French, include a dramatized text of the story and a series of twenty woodcut illustrations, as well as questions like “who are the Naomis, the Orphahs, and the Ruths in your society? In what ways do the characters in this chapter (Chapter 3) speak to them and for them?”
The Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, the Episcopal Church’s clergy member of the ACC, said that studying Ruth with a focus on its contemporary parallels catalyzed new conversations for her table group, at which she was the only woman.
“There’s a temptation to read the book of Ruth as a story about a good daughter-in-law and a bad daughter-in-law, and how God rewards submissive loyalty,” she said. “At my table, the Bible study gave us an opportunity to talk about how women do what they have to do to survive, and how Ruth and Orphah both made choices out of desperation. And we came to understand that in every single one of our contexts—Congo, the United States, Pakistan, Ireland, Myanmar, and others—women today make exactly the same desperate choices to survive.
“At a meeting that included 50 men and only 20 women, a contextual study of Ruth led us into conversations about gender equity and gender justice that otherwise might not have happened.”
Rosalie Simmonds Ballentine, the Episcopal Church’s lay member of the ACC, agreed. “That was really the central part of our discussion—the role of women in society, even today,” she said. “In some countries the situation hasn’t changed much from what Ruth and Naomi experienced, which coming from my context is hard to understand. Certainly the issue of gender equity is something we talked about a lot.”
Exploring new interpretations of biblical texts is critical to combating gender violence, says the Rev. Terrie Robinson, director for women in church and society at the Anglican Communion Office. “It’s very much a gospel issue,” she says. “We don’t have a great history of understanding that. In the past, scripture has been used in a way that has given privilege to some and taken it away from others. Women have borne the brunt of that.”
On the last morning of the ACC meeting, members were asked to reflect on their study of Ruth by discussing the value of studying the Bible contextually and considering how they might strengthen their communities’ use of the Bible. In contextual Bible study, participants ask themselves how Biblical texts relates to life in the communities in which they live.
“The Anglican Communion has said, and said consistently through its history, that one of the key means of growing deeper into Christ … is through engaging with, reflecting on, and feeding on scripture,” Lyon said. “This is what the Bible in the Life of the Church Project has been trying to address since 2009, to find ways in which we can do the Bible better.”
The project has nearly concluded, Lyon said, and more than 100 resources it has developed will be posted online this summer.
“I think the Bible in the Life of the Church project is perhaps the single most important and under-recognized effort of the Anglican Communion,” said Bishop Ian Douglas, the Episcopal Church’s bishop member of the ACC. “It is fundamentally about how we find our unity in diversity given holy scripture. The living good news in the Bible is that gospel and culture embrace.
“Ruth was an inspired choice,” he added. “Everyone around our table could identify how women in particular are historically marginalized … and how those at the margins claim their voice, find their place, assert their power and are about the lineage of God’s work in the world. Every person around our table could identify from their context those who are historically marginalized who are also are lifted up in the story of God.”
“We’ve all read Ruth, but I’ve never read Ruth the same way,” Ballentine said. “I don’t think I’ll ever look at—not just Ruth, but any other book of the Bible—in the same way. Realizing the depth of what so much of it says to us in terms of how God moves in the world was amazing … Every aspect of life, everything we experience in our lives, the challenges, the opportunities, it was there.”
“It was worth coming halfway across the world just for the Bible study,” Douglas said.