On occasions like this, I have developed a habit, which perhaps I should break, of quoting a great 19th-century judge, Lord Bowen. It was Lord Bowen who began an after-dinner speech once by observing that, unlike him, Daniel in the lion's den had the comfort of knowing that when the dreadful feast was done, it was not he who would have to give thanks. But obviously, it would be churlish indeed to suggest that I am reluctant to give thanks for what we have received tonight.
I am unsure of my credentials to speak to you this evening. It's a long time since I had the confidence - some might have said the cheek - to preach a sermon. Yet the subject suggested - the relevance of the Bible in today's society -sounds very much like a sermon topic: or, rather, the topic for a lifetime of sermons.
Somehow, I was put in mind of a little story my minister used to tell, of when, many, many years ago, a bishop went to stay at a wayside inn. In those days, there were no such things as en suite bathrooms or even hot and cold running water. The hotel's boy was instructed in his duty to take up a jug of hot water for His Lordship to wash in: "You knock on the door and say, 'It's the boy - with your hot water, my Lord'." Inevitably, the boy got flustered. Perhaps this was why he interpreted the episcopal, "Yes. Who is it?" as sounding rather irritated. His response was, "It's the Lord, my boy: with the hot water." I'm rather afraid that the Lord might have quite a bit of hot water in store for me in the coming weeks.
But that's not what I'm here to talk about, I know, although the suggested topic is probably wide enough to encompass it. In fact, it's wide enough to encompass almost anything.
The other day, I had the pleasure of meeting Dr Jen-Li Tsai, the Asia Pacific Regional Secretary of the United Bible Societies. He told me that between September of 1987 - when Bibles first began to be printed in China - and July 1995, last year; in that eight year period, 10 million Bibles were printed and distributed; and in the 12 months since, another 3 million. He told me how people who had heard the Word, but not held a Bible, would fall to their knees when one was given to them. Bibles were too precious and holy to receive in any other way.
150 to 200 years ago, New Zealanders received the Scriptures with similar awe and gratitude.
Many of you will know the story of the copy of Matthew's gospel, plundered from the body of a young women, Tanore, who was killed in an ambush in the Kaimais. It was taken to Rotorua and read by a released slave from Ngati Raukawa, who later took it back to his home in Otaki. There, it was read by Te Rauparaha's son, Wiremu Tamihana, and this prompted him to ask Henry Williams at Paihia to send a missionary. I owe that gospel a debt too, for the missionary who went was my wife's great grandfather, Octavius Hadfield, later to become Bishop of Wellington - the Primate of New Zealand.
It was some 10 years after that, on 2 September 1846, that the New Zealand Auxiliary to the British and Foreign Bible Society was formed. Over the 150 years since, it has done wonderful work. Goodness knows how many Bibles it has produced, and distributed, into how many languages it has been translated in this country. Work goes on, as important and as strongly as ever. In addition, New Zealanders make the largest per capita contribution, in giving to the work of the Bible Society, of any country in the world. I am delighted to see that, perhaps in recognition of this, as well as his personal qualities, my old friend Dr George Martin has become Vice President of the United Bible Societies.
May I acknowledge another personal debt. One GH Bennett, as a young man, was a traveller for the Society, with Nelson as one of his sales areas. Walking the street close by the Cathedral one afternoon, he heard a piano and in the window saw a "golden headed girl" playing. He courted her and married her, and took her back to his home in Palmerston North. The Bennetts had a daughter. The minister of their church had a son. He courted her and married her. They were my parents. Many, many years later, on 21 March of this year, the grandson of these two men of great faith, took his oath of office on a beautiful New King James Version presented to me by the Bible Society.
People take oaths on the Bible daily. Whether they are undertaking to fulfil the responsibilities of office, or affirming loyalty to the Queen, or promising to tell the truth, the Bible is used as a symbol of solemnity, as an assurance of a binding obligation on our consciences. But whereas the Bible did, once, always have that significance, I doubt that this is the case, these days.
Those of us who've ever been in the Courts will know how often the most blatant lies are told by witnesses under oath. I think the use of the Bible for this purpose, the solemnising of an oath, has too often become irrelevant, or almost sacrilegious. I tend to agree with those who would do away with the practice, except for people who genuinely accept the Bible for what it is. Indeed, it is rumoured that at times when a Bible has not been at hand, witnesses have been sworn on whatever book was. In a New York case, unwittingly, so it is said, witnesses were sworn on a book by one Olendorf, called A New Method of Teaching French; and in England, on the Young Man's Best Companion, and in each case it was held that the proceedings were not, as a result, invalidated.
Bibles, of course, are everywhere - in Courts, in offices, in hotel rooms. Once, it could probably have been said that there was at least one in every home. Now, there must be more and more homes where there is none. That's a symptom of the same malaise that is manifested in the fact that many of the Bibles which are available are not opened, and read. The Bible is not seen to be relevant to life today.
If you shared that view, you wouldn't be here tonight, and there's not really much point in my preaching to the converted. Yet there are some points, I suggest, we can make at appropriate times to the communities in which we live.
One can look at the Bible at various levels, from various perspectives. I like to think - and it's certainly been the experience over the centuries - that the important thing is to begin at some level - to have the Book opened and read. For so often, one [spiritual] impulse leads to another.
At one level, the Bible - or parts of it - can be read as literature. I'm talking now about the Bible in English: I can't speak of it in any other tongue. The King James Version, original or new, is one of the finest pieces of writing in the language. It's quite extraordinary that it isn't taught simply as that - to contemplate the sheer beauty of language of, say, Isaiah Chapter 40, "Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people ... "; or John's Gospel Chapter 4, "Whosoever drinketh of the water I shall give him, shall never thirst." Or, for concise, breathtakingly-constructed argument,