N.T. Wright thinks that the Bible can put a new zest into ecumenism, in part because of this:
The synod (of Catholic bishops in Rome) was, in effect, inhabiting more fully the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, particularly the document Dei Verbum. Many bishops at the Synod spoke excitedly of the effect of Bible reading and study on their congregations, and of the sea-change that this represents compared with the time, not long ago, when the Bible was quite literally a closed book to ordinary lay people. More than once bishops declared, as though it was a new discovery, that the Bible (and not just prayer and the liturgy) can bring people into a living personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ.
The issue of lay people–Protestant or Catholic–reading the Bible is a more complicated subject that Wright or others care to admit.
On the Catholic side, the document that officially began the Church’s encouragement for the faithful to read the Scriptures wasn’t the Second Vatican Council but the papal encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu, issued in 1943. Putting the liturgy into the vernacular was an important advance for the encyclical’s message, as the readings from the Scripture (an integral part of the Mass) were now intelligible to a wider swath of the laity. You still hear Catholics, however, say that they’re not encouraged to read the Scriptures, and that’s largely because the Church still considers itself (and presents itself accordingly) as an active mediator between man and God, something that direct Bible reading can short-circuit.
On the Protestant side, Barna routinely reminds us of the real Biblical ignorance of many who are supposed to be “people of the Book” in every sense of the word. It always amazes me that churches that demand a salvation experience from their members have so much of this in their midst. One reason why this is so is the same reason the Catholics have: too many of our ministers effectively proclaim that they possess magisterium and that their view of what the Scriptures say is the only right one, in their local church at least. That discourages exploration of the Scriptures as well.
And, of course, on both sides, there’s lay laziness at work. Too many people are content to uncritically accept whatever comes from the church they’re a part of and not think about things too deeply.
The problem isn’t only that people aren’t allowed to read the Bible. The problem is also that they just won’t.
One more thing that Wright came out with deserves comment:
It is precisely Roman Catholic writers, by and large, who read scripture afresh and generated the last generation’s liberation theology. Modern western culture has regularly tried to stop the Church speaking out in the public sphere. “Devotional” and “historical-critical” readings alike can, by themselves, collude with this pressure in a way which falsifies the message of the Bible itself.
This kind of comment has the a priori assumption that only left-wing interpretations of the Scriptures are the way for Christians to address the “public square.” But that’s not so. If the élite’s visceral reaction to a Christian movement is any indication of its radicality, then the American Religious Right must be the most dangerous thing to the world order since the International. The left routinely compared Sarah Palin to Eva Peron, but perhaps they, sitting on their tsar’s throne of power these days, should look to her as their V.I. Lenin.