TO MARK 400 years of the King James Version, and to raise funds to appoint a youth minister, the Cathedral community in Taranaki, New Zealand, listened to a non-stop reading of the Bible. I undertook the reading with five-minute breaks.
It was a chance to reflect on the Word in its entirety in the face of a terrible year, and to remember those who died in the earthquakes and tsunamis around the Pacific Rim.
We chose Palm Sunday to begin, and had a sense of pilgrimage, both in the reading and in Holy Week, and of collaboration: other ministers led every service until dawn on Easter Day.
I began to read at 7.30 a.m. with plenty of gusto — five other deans had offered to read Genesis 1 at the same time. Volunteers of all ages filled my breaks, and some read in other languages, including Maori, French, Welsh, and Afrikaans.
We arranged to read in the business district, remembering Jesus in the marketplaces; by the beach, giving thanks for the Bible’s arrival; in a Maori meeting house; and in a boat on the Tasman Sea, praying for those on the water. My first expedition, on the Sunday (still reading on the way), was to New Plymouth Museum, as a living exhibit. Seven hours in, caught up in the detail of the design of the tabernacle in Exodus, I began to appreciate the weight of the task.
I was coming close to the first night of three. Even with superb support and Manuka honey, I saw the 80 hours stretching ahead interminably, and recalled warnings about damage to my voice, a sudden collapse, or hallucinations because of sleep-deprivation.
I had prepared and prayed for months, but I realised that I was trying to shoulder it all myself. I had to let it go into God’s hands, not mine — and through God’s grace, it happened. Three nights and four days later, I came to the end of Revelation, voice intact and feeling fine. How did I do it? Through the prayer of those who listened; through the presence of the risen Christ; through the healing of the Holy Spirit. A mystery, indeed.
I was amazed by the shape of the scripture. It felt as if God calls us into a dance — an improvisation, almost, with the Holy Trinity — not to an annual general meeting. I was also struck by the significance of context. So often, we read a chunk and forget to look around the edges.
There were some tears. I cried through a long section of Isaiah’s prophecy — I don’t know why. On one night, Handel’s Messiah was being sung, and I have never been so affected as I was then by hearing “I know that my Redeemer liveth”.
By the end of Malachi, we all yearned to hear the name of Jesus. When we did, we laughed and cried — and, unexpectedly, we shared the reading of Matthew: anyone present could read a chapter.
Laughter came, too, when God inspires Balaam’s ass to speak. “And the ass said unto Balaam: ‘Am not I thine ass, upon which thou hast ridden ever since I was thine unto this day? Was I ever wont to do so unto thee? And he said, ‘Nay.’”
We will never be the same again. Our response at the end of it all was silence, and then we sang the Gloria. Thanks be to God for this precious and eternal gift.
The Very Revd Jamie Allen (below) was appointed Dean of St Mary’s Cathedral, Taranaki, from the UK in 2009. www.taranakicathedral.org.nz