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Many faith groups have undertaken to read the King James Bible in its entirety during this year of its 400th anniversary. When I was asked by a member of the village church to do a shift in this mammoth undertaking, I will admit to being a little surprised. However, it would have been churlish to refuse, so I presented myself at the appointed time, hoping that smitings and lengthy genealogies would not be my lot.
As I sat waiting my turn, my heart sank a little. The reader before me was ploughing valiantly through a great many unfamiliar names in the latter part of the second book of Chronicles. She must have felt as though she was calling a register of the unpronounceable. Rather selfishly, I hoped that this passage would not persist into my first session.
But gradually, the peace of old stones began to work on me and the Shaphans, Hilkiahs Tokhaths and Jeduthuns became a background hum in the air of the 14th century building which Pevsner describes as an “impressive cruciform church of flint and pebble rubble”. I have never been able to share the disdain of some of my fellow Quakers for 'steeple-houses' and often find myself deeply affected by the accumulation of centuries of joy and suffering which has been brought within their walls. It seemed right to exercise quietness and receptivity where “prayer has been made valid” and where generations have heard the words of the book being read.
My stint began with a description of the manner in which Josiah arranged and kept the Passover - a record which mixed inventories of abundance with a certain boastfulness in a manner not altogether distant from the tone of a celebrity wedding as recounted by Hello magazine. This was followed by the fates of a number of very short-lived kings and I was left wondering however poor little Jehoiachin – eight years old on ascending the throne and reigning for just three months, could have “done evil in the sight of the Lord”.
The reader who relieved me at the start of the book of Ezra was afflicted by even more lists and names. The record of Israelites returning from Babylonian exile was recounted with a level of extraordinary detail which was witness to its significance for the contemporary chronicler and his readers: “the descendants of Parosh, two thousand, an hundred, seventy and two. Of Arah, seven hundred, seventy and five.” Paragraphs of this painstaking numbering speaks over the millennia of something beyond bureaucracy, something which was to be remembered, perhaps as much for those who did not return as for those who did. There is a terrible echo here for modern ears.
My final spell of reading was concerned with the disputes around the building of the Temple. It seemed strangely contemporary in its bickering and exchange of indignant letters and could almost have been the record of a residents' association taking issue with a District Council decision, being snubbed and appealing to the Department of Communities and Local Government. Though perhaps the final decision of the Persian king, Darius might not have found favour with a present day Standards Committee: “Also I have made a decree, that whosoever shall alter this word, let timber be pulled down from his house, and being set up, let him be hanged thereon; and let his house be made a dunghill for this.”
I am grateful to have had the opportunity to read and reflect on texts which were wholly unfamiliar to me, within a place of worship which I do not frequent. The combined effect was to emphasise how little the strengths, weaknesses and desires of human nature change. To be secure in one's own land, to worship in a manner and place of one's choosing, to confuse temporal power with the Divine will, to show reverence for tradition, to take pride in doing this well, to pursue an idea – even if slightly partial – of fair dealing, these are deep seated, will be always with us and demand informed recognition.
The Iron Age Scribes had spoken to the condition of a 21st century Quaker. And I have King James' 400 year old Bible to thank for it.
© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpenTweet