Faith leaders play some of the most visible roles in their congregations – organizing programming, guiding creative methods of worship, and serving as a face for the church within their communities. But as the members of St. Luke’s Parish in Darien, Connecticut, have found over the past year, parishioners themselves can shine in these duties, particularly when they’re united around an engaging project like hosting The Saint John’s Bible.
The parish’s participation in A Year with The Saint John’s Bible began in late 2018, when its lead rector, David Anderson, and his wife, Pam, initiated the project and convened a group of parishioners to serve as docents. Shortly after training started in Darien, however, the couple – who had been with the parish for 15 years – shared that they would soon be leaving it.
Parishioner Kim Westcott recalls of that time, “We were so excited; the Bible was going to arrive in another month, but the news came out and we said, ‘Well, who’s going to be organizing this thing?’”
Westcott was, as it turned out. “I’m an organizer,” she states, “so I said, ‘You know, I’ll take it on.’ And then I thought, ‘Oh man, what did I get myself into?’”
Whatever it was, she wasn’t in it alone. A dedicated team of parishioners was trained as docents for the parish’s Year with The Saint John’s Bible. While the parish’s remaining associate rectors were working “flat out,” according to Westcott, the docent team shepherded The Saint John’s Bible into the church “not as a stopgap, but with a sense of mission, a joyful mission.”
“Headlong” into Programming
Once Gospels & Acts arrived at the beginning of Advent, “We just went headlong into it,” says Westcott. “Speakers, field trips, taking it out, learning about it, all this great stuff.” In its time with St. Luke’s, the Bible has traveled to assisted living facilities, a nearby synagogue, the public library, and more, with plans currently underway to display it at the state Episcopal Church convention.
Within the walls of the church, the Bible has been used with groups ranging from the Adult Discovery Hour to confirmation classes with sixth through eighth graders. Of the hard-to-impress confirmation demographic, Westcott says, “I won’t say it’s transformational, but the kids think they’re going to get stuck in a room and then they find The Saint John’s Bible is both beautiful and cool, and they think it’s kind of a treat.”
Fostering a “Reverence for Scripture”
Al Briganti, another docent and a 30-year member of St. Luke’s Parish, relates that he saw in The Saint John’s Bible opportunities to engage with the community outside the church as well as inside. “I was interested in getting the Bible into American life a little bit more, and I thought this tremendous project and this work of art would be exciting for a lot of people. Even in the secular world, just as a work of art and a work of faith, I think people could see it as an opportunity to at least become familiar with the Bible,” he says.
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Briganti notes that fellow members of his Bible study “take very seriously that their Bibles are beat up and marked on and comments are made in the pages,” and observes that the Heritage Edition represents “also having volumes that show the respect you have for the Word.” He recalls visiting Jewish services and being touched by how “when the Torah was brought around they would take their prayer books and touch the Torah with the prayer book; they wouldn’t touch it with their hands. I thought that kind of ritual – that kind of reverence for scripture – is the kind of thing that we miss a little bit in our church.”
With The Saint John’s Bible on hand, he sees an opportunity to foster a similar reverence. “Having the Bible on our altar,” he says, “people come up and look through the great illuminations, the amazing calligraphy, and see it as a very special part of what it is to be a Christian.”
Engaging the Arts Community
Fellow docent Deidre Hogan brings an arts background to the project, having served on the board of the Darien Arts Center for seven years, two as its president. Like Briganti, she has been with St. Luke’s for decades and recognized in The Saint John’s Bible a chance to engage many kinds of people. “I saw the artwork and the beautiful renderings as a way to draw in other types of folks,” she says, noting that the history of Bible-making speaks to audiences interested in gilding, calligraphy, and many other types of art.
In fact, Hogan coordinated workshops with the Darien Arts Center on gilding and calligraphy, using the Heritage Edition as a showpiece for these skills. Recalling the gilding workshop, she explains, “The instructor spent quite a while talking about the historic tradition of gilding, and it was all around Bible-making.” The calligraphy sessions drew a crowd of aspiring artisans from the parish, but also “people who would never set foot in St. Luke’s, so that was really good fun.”
The docent team has also brought the Bible into homes in the community, visiting Bible studies and fellowship groups. At one session, held at Hogan’s home, “There must have been 20 women at my house,” she says. “And there was so much enthusiasm in the room, and then we all washed our hands and went and turned the pages, and they were just jumping up and down. It was so much fun to see the enthusiasm. Everybody was just awestruck.”
“A Work of Love and Art”
While the search for the next rector is ongoing, interim priest-in-charge the Rev. Ellen Tillotson notes that the parish has been energized in the meantime. “[The Saint John’s Bible] has been a big part of their joy, their focus this year, and they’re having a great time with it,” she observes.
Leading services with the Bible, she says, “rounds out a worship experience so that the preaching is not just verbal. It’s not just cerebral; it’s physical, and because of the beauty of the book, it’s almost palpable. It involves yet another sense. Any time you get people to engage another piece of their being on the Word and on the story, it’s wonderful.”
Tillotson, who has training in art history and whose late husband was the director of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, also appreciates the Benedictine tradition behind the Bible. “I love the values that Saint John’s has carried forward about how to do these manuscripts and how to engage the handwritten manuscript in a whole new era,” she says. “It’s a stunning work of love and art.”
“You Only Need to Put it Out There”
As the discernment process for the new rector continues, the St. Luke’s community is also reflecting on what role The Saint John’s Bible might have in its future, and how a new leader might embrace it. “It’s a big commitment of time and interest,” says Briganti. “It can’t just sit on a bookshelf. It’s a commitment to have a group in the church – not only clergy – but laypeople who want to use it and bring it to the community.”
The docents at St. Luke’s have certainly shown a flair for that, but from Hogan’s telling, it comes naturally. “It seems to me you only need to put it out there and start telling the story, and people are just fascinated,” she says. “Seeing peoples’ reactions to this beautiful volume has been the biggest surprise and delight for me.”