British Methodists transcribe Bible by hand

By Kathleen LaCamera

In an age when a hand-written letter is an increasingly scarce commodity, British Methodists have pledged to transcribe all 66 books of the Bible by hand during the first five months of this year.

The “Written by Hand, Taken to Heart” national initiative is part of the denomination’s recognition of the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible. One of the world’s best-selling books of all time, this translation was first published in 1611, at the request of England’s King James I.

Each of England’s Methodist districts—roughly equivalent to U.S. annual conferences—will transcribe 25 Old Testament chapters, five Psalms and eight New Testament chapters. The completed transcribed Bible will be presented at the 2011 British Methodist Conference in June.

Jenny Ellis, the church’s Connectional Spirituality and Discipleship Officer, said most of the work is occurring out in the community in “scriptoriums” set up in shopping centers, schools, nursing homes, universities, and other public spaces.

“We want this to be a public expression of the church valuing scripture,” said Ellis. “And we want to be as creative as possible.” In addition to the opportunity to contribute handwritten verses, participants may also be invited to create illustrations to go alongside them.

The hope is that people of all ages who are unfamiliar with the Bible, as well as those who know it well, will come into these mobile scriptoriums and encounter the Bible’s stories, poetry, and teachings in a new way.

On January 9, the UK’s national publicly funded broadcaster, the BBC, devoted more than seven hours of national airtime throughout the day to readings from the Scripture. Sections from throughout the Bible were introduced by scholars and commentators, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, and read by top British actors.

Christine Morgan, Methodist lay preacher and head of radio for the BBC’s Religion & Ethics department, reports the feedback from audiences—both religious and not—has been overwhelmingly positive.

“We even had one atheist get in touch to say that he enjoyed the programming so much he was now prepared to become an agnostic,” Morgan reported.

The Rev. Rob Cotton, a Methodist minister and the British Bible Society’s senior campaign manager, noted that the Bible is deeply relevant to people’s ordinary lives. “The Bible talks about human emotion, loss, jealousy, love,” said Cotton. “It’s not just something we learn theology from, important as that is; it actually affects the way we do life.”

He believes taking part in the handwritten Bible can be almost a meditative exercise that helps people experience the scriptures in a deeper way. To illustrate, Cotton recounted the true story of a man who walked in off the street to one of the Bible Society’s scriptoriums and ended up transcribing by hand the story of the Prodigal Son.

Cotton described how the man wrote little comments in the margins and left a contact address. When the Bible Society tried to follow up, people at the address said “there was some mistake and that the person couldn’t have possibly been their relative because he had left the family and had recently died.”

In fact there was no mistake. The family was sent the pages the man had transcribed with his personal notes. Cotton says they found comfort in the realization that before his death he had found a measure of peace in the story of the Prodigal Son.

“Here is a book that speaks about the very stuff of life,” said Cotton. ”Whatever we (Christians) do every day, we should do through the lens of scripture. That’s who we are.”

Kathleen LaCamera is a freelance journalist who also works as a hospital and mental health chaplain in Britain’s national health service. Distributed by United Methodist News Service.