Two hundred years ago - on 7th March, 1817 - a committee of 52 chaired by New South Wales Governor Lachlan Macquarie and also including Anglican cleric Rev Samuel Marsden and early Sydney identities such as William Cowper and William Redfern, gathered in a Sydney courtroom.

They were there, not for grave matters of state nor to discuss pressing affairs of business, but for the first official meeting of the Bible Society (then known as the British and Foreign Bible Society) in the land now known as Australia. It was a gathering which makes the Bible Society Australia (BSA), as the body became known, the oldest continually operating organisation in the country.

Indigenous ministry photo

REACHING OUT TO INDIGENOUS AUSTRALIANS: A key part of the work of Bible Society Australia is the translation of the Scriptures into Indigeous languages. PICTURE: Courtesy Bible Society of Australia.

 

“Throughout the year we want to make the most of this opportunity to elevate the Bible in Australia…We’re hoping we can celebrate the Bible and, by doing so, more people will come to see the mission of the Bible Society and be involved with us.”

- Greg Clarke, CEO of Bible Society Australia

“No-one has been continuously around as long as us,” says Greg Clarke, CEO of the BSA. “We were founded one month before the first bank – [now] Westpac – and all the original directors of the bank were directors of the Bible Society. It’s just one of those fantastic stories about how Christian thinking [influenced] the early days of the colony here.”

To mark the bicentenary, Bible Society Australia, part of a global network of Bible societies, will this Sunday (5th March) be holding a ‘national celebration of the Bible’ at two services at Hillsong in Sydney which will be streamed live to some 50 or 60 “lighthouse” churches around the country as well as telecast on the Australian Christian Channel and webcast via the Bible Society website. Hillsong’s Brian Houston and the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Dr Glenn Davies, will be preaching about the Bible and the work of the BSA will be showcased.

The services are among a series of events being held across the country to commemorate the bicentenary. The BSA is also publishing some special commemorative books including one, Our Mob, God's Story, marking the significant contribution of Christianity to Indigenous art. And in July, representatives of Bible societies from around the world will come to Sydney for an annual conference.

“Throughout the year we want to make the most of this opportunity to elevate the Bible in Australia…” says Dr Clarke. “We’re hoping we can celebrate the Bible and, by doing so, more people will come to see the mission of the Bible Society and be involved with us.”

“Nine per cent of Australians go to church but 61 per cent of people identify as Christians so we’re really keen to bridge that gap between church and belief and reach out into the community more generally because we know people are less sceptical about the Christian faith than Christians think they are. They just need opportunities to encounter the Scriptures in ways that are meaningful to them. So that’s what we’re trying to do with the help of the churches.”

Among matters discussed at that first courtroom meeting – the exact location of which remains a matter of speculation but was believed to have been on Macquarie Street in Sydney – was, along with the need for the establishment of public schools so that children could learn the Bible, how the money raised by the society would be spent.

“It was decided that…half of it would be spent in Australia and half of it would go to the needs of people overseas,” says Dr Clarke. “And that’s been a wonderful guiding principle for us as an organisation…”

In a rough illustration of the global task to which the BSA contributes, Dr Clarke notes that only some 500 of the 7,000 or so languages have a complete Bible translation while some half a billion people still have no Scriptures at all in their native language.

“We’ve done a lot of work because those 500 completed Bibles are in majority languages,” he says. “So we really have, in the last 150 years, covered incredible ground in working towards fulfilling the Great Commission – that every tribe and every nation come into the Kingdom – but there’s still 500 million people around the world who just have no contact with Scripture whatsoever.”

Add to that the billions who only have some portions of Scripture available in their language.

“If you and I were sitting down to read our Bible but we only had a Gospel, a few psalms and a little bit of Isaiah, you really wouldn’t have all the resources to bring us into full knowledge of God,” says Dr Clarke. “And that’s the situation for billions of people around the world still.”

The work of the society doesn’t stop there – even when completed, Bibles need to be revised every 20 or 30 years to reflect changing use of language, and the society is constantly exploring new ways of presenting the Bible – including through audio and even animated editions as well as special editions featuring Braille and sign language.

Each year, Dr Clarke says Bible Society Australia supports some 30 or 40 international projects covering Bible translation work, Bible printing and literacy programs. He notes that worldwide there’s currently more than 2,000 translations underway, some of which are utilising modern technologies which can dramatically reduce the amount of time it takes to produce new Bibles.

Advocacy is also an important part of the Bible Society’s work around the world and this can involve everything from running media campaigns to holding art exhibitions in a bid to help people become aware of the value of the Bible.

That advocacy work also forms a key plank of the BSA’s role in Australia. While Bibles may be readily available in countries like Australia, Dr Clarke’s says an important part of the BSA’s role is about “championing the value” of reading one.

PNG Bible

"TO EVERY TRIBE AND NATION": Reading the Bible in Papua New Guinea. PICTURE: Bruce Millar (via Bible Society of Australia)

Another key area of the BSA’s work locally is the translation of the Bible into Indigenous languages. There’s currently only one complete Bible in an Indigenous language – the Kriol Bible, which was published several years ago -  while parts of Scripture are only available less than 30 different Indigenous languages. “So we still have a lot of work to do…” says Dr Clarke.

Dr Clarke agrees that there’s something special about reading the Bible in one’s own language. “One of the famous lines that sticks in my head is from a speaker from the Wubuy tribe…A translator told me that when they received a Gospel, I think, in their language, he said back to the translator, ‘I finally understand now that Jesus speaks Wubuy’. And that really is what we’re after here – that direct means of communication between the Divine and the human. And it does seem that the language of your heart is quite important in really feeling and sensing that deep connection with what God is saying.”

As for a Bible that special to him? Dr Clarke nominates the first Bible he was given, at the age of seven, which pictured an image of Jesus, the Good Shepherd on the front.

“That image, for me as a child, really captured what Christianity was about: Jesus, the shepherd, looking after you, holding you in his arms, but also strong enough to wield a stick and bash away a wolf. That combination of the strength of Christ and the love of Christ is something that just spoke to me as a child so I’ll always thanks my parents for giving me that particular Bible.”

It’s his hope that this year of celebration will lead others to similar experiences of the power of the Bible. In the meantime, the great challenge of the Bible Society, meanwhile, remains as it has always been – “to make the Bible available to everyone”.

While that how that is achieved looks different in different countries – “in some places, people are becoming Christians in droves but they don’t have any resources; in other places, the church is dwindling but they’re sitting on goldmines”, Dr Clarke notes -  in Australia he says that means showing people the “relevance of Scriptures in their day-to-day lives”.

“[A]nd convincing people that your search in life can find…answers in this book, in the person of Jesus. So we see that as a big challenge here at home but we’re very confident that God will continue to bless us and provide what we need so His Word will go out.”

 Correction: The name of the organisation has been corrected from Bible Society of Australia to Bible Society Australia.