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The Use of the Bible in Pastoral Practice


Research Project of Cardiff University and Bible Society 2002-03

This page gives an account of an empirical research project, ‘The Use of the Bible in Pastoral Practice’, conducted at Cardiff University between 2002 and 2003. It documents some of the ways in which the Bible is used in contemporary pastoral practice by ministers and churches within the United Kingdom. Based on original field work of a researcher, Ian Dickson, employed at the School of Religious and Theological Studies by a partnership between Bible Society and Cardiff University, the report summarises the main findings of the research so far.

Aims of Project

Section 1: Project organisations, aims and objectives

Since 1998, the School and the Society have been collaborating to explore the ways in which the Bible is, or might, be used in pastoral practice, with the intention of reinvigorating its critical use in contemporary Christian ministry. The project had its roots in Bible Society research into Bible use, culminating in a Consultation on 5th June 2000. Over 40 scholars and practitioners from Europe and the United States met in Cardiff to present and hear papers and discuss issues related to the use of scripture in Christian pastoral ministry. These contributions were fully documented and published internally by Bible Society. As a result of this successful Consultation, a project team was formed to act as a steering group. The group are engaged in preparing three related works. (1) A ‘reader’ on the Bible in pastoral practice, edited by Paul Ballard (Cardiff University) and Steve Holmes (Kings College, London). (2) A ‘critical textbook’ on hard questions pastoral practice asks of the Bible, written as a monograph by Gordon Oliver (Diocese of Rochester and formerly of St John’s College, Nottingham), and (3) this project on Bible use contemporary Christian ministry, asking the basic research question: How, in fact, is the Bible being used in pastoral practice?

These are snapshots of use, not a comprehensive survey or review of Bible use today but a collection of focused case studies and field examples. The material was submitted by ordained and lay, academic and pastoral, practitioners of differing denominations and church views, or observed by the researcher. The selection of samples was governed by interest in commonality and difference. The geographical parameters were the United Kingdom and Ireland, with a natural interest in England and Wales. The concentration is on the ‘how’ of use. The aim was a resource for reflection and a catalyst for future work.

Section 2: Methodologies

The project revolved around five inter-related activities:

  1. Constructing a network database of Bible practitioners. All contacts were recorded in a regional network database. The total number was 119. The regional breakdown was 77 in England, 20 in Wales, 11 in Scotland and 9 in Ireland, plus 1 in the United States and 1 in New Zealand. 54% (64) of those contacted (119) made a response. 50% (32) of those responses are quoted in the main report.
  2. Encouraging the free-flow of comment from these practitioners on Bible use.
  3. Collecting examples of use. Two strategies were employed: (a) personal accounts of use written by the practitioners themselves and (b) documented observation of use on visits.
  4. Training and discussion on inter-textual learning.
  5. Analysis and writing up of findings.

Section 3: Professional views

This section documents responses received from, and the questions that was raised with and by, academics, high-ranking clerics and professionals engaged in Bible use. The material is arranged under four headings, each head corresponding to the four areas of broad questioning with the practitioners: (a) actual or taught uses, (b) strong views, (c) profiles of good and bad practice and (d) ‘valuable if’ suggestions. Following each extract comment and/or analysis is added as a means of provoking the reader’s own thinking and evaluation of the material.

Section 4: A sample of responses

To allow the reader the opportunity to reflect on the flow of full responses, this section records the slightly edited (for length’s sake) comments and reflections of 4 practitioners responding to the guideline questions. At the end of each sub-section, comment and/or questions raised by their contributions are added as stimuli for further thought.

Section 5: Narratives of use — (1) in faith communities

This section documents 15 worked examples of actual use in current field practice, received from, and the questions raised by, non-academics, lower-ranking clerics and laity engaged in Bible use.

Section 6: Narratives of use — (2) in wider communities

The bulk of narrative material received, or directed to, concentrated on Bible use within faith communities. A smaller number, less than 20%, of practitioners made comment on the Bible in wider society. An even smaller number offered an account of current practice. It seems the Bible is still widely perceived as ‘the church’s book’. The narratives of use that make up this section — 10 in all - are primarily concerned with reading forms and dangers, connecting with popular culture, work with children, storytelling, use in schools, counselling ‘drop-ins’, and evangelism and sport. Nothing was related to the project that might be classified as mainline or widespread in the sense of challenging secular society on a big scale. This void relating to transforming British society via the Bible may reflect the absence of such thinking in the Christian church generally or the slant of this research towards what the practitioners are actually doing where they are and not in the nation as a whole.

Section 7: Reflections on best practice

As a summation, best practice (as viewed by these practitioners, all of which are currently engaged in Bible use within pastoral practice or the teaching of it) consists of —

  • Exercising critical faculties and personal discernment.
  • Presenting the Bible as significant for today.
  • Engaging the theological and faith community.
  • Allowing people space to engage with biblical material.
  • Advancing spiritual formation and development.
  • Offering interpretative skills to make others independent users.
  • Reflecting on use.

Section 8: Issues for further research

Seven recommendations for further research were made:

  1. Using the Bible in pastoral practice: a workbook. The report emphases the crafting of a workbook as the chief and most natural outcome of the research so far. In Appendix D its importance, rationale and potential are discussed. Suffice to say here, that some further research would be needed to supplement the material gathered for this report to fully facilitate the writing of such a reflective workbook.
  2. The ‘why’ of use: exploring the factors that influence and generate Bible use in pastoral practice. This present project has been about what people actually do with the Bible in their every day ministries. How do they use it? The original thinking, however, was much wider than presented here. The whole question of motivation and influence in use was discussed but eventually deemed to be a project in itself. So the question remains largely unanswered: why do people do what they?
  3. Bible use: comparative studies. How would the findings of this project compare with findings in a non-European culture?
  4. Bible use with children and young people. This is a specialist area, but it is encouraging to know that the plans for the ‘Grow with the Bible’ Seminars in 2004 include pathways for discussion of Bible use with young people and children.
  5. Bible use and small groups. The findings of current PhD studies at Cardiff University into how the Bible operates in groups within rural communities are awaited, but the field is still relatively open.
  6. Bible use and people who have communication/physical difficulties. To what extent does offering pastoral care to those with communication and learning disabilities demand greater degrees of flexibility, imagination and creativity in Bible use?
  7. Bible use and the technological revolution. How do developments in technology change the way we ‘read’ the Bible? Is Christianity disadvantaged by an old world loyalty to the printed page?

Section 9: Conclusions and recommendations

On the basis of material received, the use of the Bible in contemporary pastoral practice is:

  1. Use for largely pragmatic purposes. The responses indicated a widespread view of the Bible as ‘product’; suitable for reinforcing particular pre-existing stances and ministries, making use essentially a pragmatic decision. So it was practical considerations rather than theological concerns that shaped use for the bulk of practitioners. Although it was rarely expressed, the clear impression was that where ministers and pastoral carers are stretched to the limit, it is necessary to ditch critical approaches to the Bible and use texts for purposes of comfort or challenge without imposing hermeneutic controls. In other words, the structure of many Christian ministries (and worship services) inadvertently precludes Bible use beyond the superficial.
  2. Use as a printed book in a techno-visual age. The old world of close analytical reading still dominates the mindset of the vast majority of these practitioners of contemporary Christian ministry. For most, the word ‘Bible’ was synonymous with ‘printed book’. Some were even apologetic about using an electronic Bible. Others did express their awareness of the declining interest in reading books and called for the recovery of the art of storytelling. Yet, in only a few cases, did practitioners show any awareness of, or even interest in, changes in reading practices, stemming from use of the web and the use of online tools and their implications for the presentation of Christianity via the Bible. It was noted how theological education solely based on printed pages imposes a use of the Bible becoming increasing obsolete in 21st century Britain.
  3. Use with some variation but lacking an expected creative diversity. When it came to ‘actual’ Bible use very few went off-piste, but stayed within the fashionable ‘runs’ of practice. The rise in importance of storytelling, reflecting ‘the narrative turn in theology’ by conservative, radical and liberal theologians alike, and moving the emphasis of use from the historical and literary to the imaginative and practical, was evident everywhere. Storytelling itself fell into distinct categories of text-based or text-free, the latter giving open speculation a significant and legitimised role in pastoral practice. Immediately, we might want to seek a solution for this repetitive use, in petitioning the Bible societies and publishing houses for resources that encourage more creative, adventurous ideas. But, perhaps, a greater need is the promotion of space in practitioners’ working lives for the Bible. Again, the conclusion is that either the ability of people to minister is poor or the conditions under which they minister is restricting better Bible use.
  4. Use without regular creative reflection. This project has brought to light by investigating the particular matter of using the Bible an aspect of a more general wide-ranging question about reflection. Few practitioners provided evidence of active reflection on, and evaluation of, their Christian practice. Some were surprised to be questioned over Bible use at all. Others found it difficult to understand what we trying to get at. Reflection on practice was simply not part of their professional and personal lives. Or, perhaps, they were actually reflecting but needed to learn how to articulate it. One practical way of helping them would be to use this collected material, augmented by further examples, to prepare an interactive, reflective workbook for use by groups and individuals
  5. Use increasingly as a shared activity within the faith community. Some practitioners spoke of their pastoral practice as a shared activity, reflecting currently popular notions of team ministry or links with other like-minded ministers and pastoral workers in their neighbourhoods. In effect, Bible use was something to be discussed with peers, the fruit of open communal judgment rather than closed private judgement. Responsible use was ‘whole body’ use. A workbook designed for group use would be one mechanism to engage that community.

This research so far is at best a ‘turning of the sod’ — seeing what might or might not be there. In the end, it is clear that the Bible still plays a significant part in contemporary pastoral practice: informing the practitioner, identifying the group, enriching pastoral conversations, allowing dramatisation and imagination, and providing direct counsel for life today. Yet the paucity of reflective comment starkly revealed a largely activist Christianity in the UK today in danger of losing the capacity to evaluate and improve its pastoral practice. So, perhaps, the greatest contribution of this research so far was to raise the type of questions that demand reflection and evaluation. Once the sod is turned the ground lies open.

Dr J N Ian Dickson

Research Fellow, School of Religious and Theological Studies, Cardiff University

December 2003