Ten years ago at a Catholic grammar school in the North of England the headmaster,, a priest, was talking to sixthformers about the Bible. The Bible, he told his audience, was U complicated collection of documents. "I'm not sure that laymen should be encouraged to read it," he said, "There is a serious risk they will fall into error."
It is true that the diocese to which the school belonged had a reputation for theological conservatism. Years later it was rumoured that pilgrims were flocking there to see what the Church had been like before the Second Vatican Council.
But the incident demonstrates what a shift of biblical awareness has taken place among Catholics. A generation who gleaned their knowledge of the Old and New Testaments principally from weekly readings at Mass are now much readier to map out biblical landmarks for themselves.
This injection of new life into the Catholic Church is welcome not least for its ecumenical implications, and one body which has been ready to recognise a quickening of the Catholic pulse over scriptural study is the Bible Reading Fellowship, set up in 1922 to encourage interest in the better use of scripture.
The Fellowship has just moved to new promises at St. Michael's House in Victoria, a smart red-brick building appropriately sited between the B4O.A.C, terminal and the Victoria coach and railway stations: three of London's largest centres of communication.
Director of the B,R,F. is the Rev. Ian Thomson, an Anglican, born in China of missionary parents, and a former chaplain at Oxford University.
He explained: "The purpose of the Fellowship is to provide biblical aids and material at all levels — notes for systematic devotional reading designed to cover the whole Bible thoroughly over a five-year period."
Apart from editors and assessors the Fellowship has never fewer than 80 writers preparing material for their publications.
What seems to appeal to readers is the systematic pattern of regular daily reading, with a prayer each day or a thought for the day. The range of publications is wide, The childcentres "Ladder Book" series is written for children between the ages of seven and twelve and illustrated by Hero of the Observer.
Each of the 15 books takes up one school term on a basis of weekly projects. The "Cornpass" series contains daily readings. For young people between 14 and 18 there is the Discovery series, while adults can deepen their understanding with the series A and B notes. All of these booklets have been approved by Cardinal Heenan.
The story behind the paperback series Word for the World is of special interest. "It was inspired by the experience of
meeting so many biblical scholars gathered together at the Fourth Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Uppsala" said Mr. Thomson. "This led to a set of four paperbacks in which one page a day is devoted to biblical exegesis and the opposite page to the contemporary relevance of the biblical message.
"Suddenly in the middle of the conference a clear picture came to one's mind of the way in which expert biblical interpreters could be invited to show how the message of the Bible is relevant for today.
''Even the books of the Bible to be used and the names of people to be approached crossed one's mind in a flash. It took two hours to put on a typewriter what was given — and not a single person approached declined the invitation to write, "It is a unique series, because the writers are drawn from so many countries and from every continent, as well as from different Christian traditions. The unity they found is in the book they seek to understand and interpret."
In recent years, he said, there has been a growing relationship between the Bible Reading Fellowship and Catholics, in Britain and throughout the world.
"The Catholic Biblical Association wrote officially in 196S and asked if they could see our materials. They were so satisfied that they asked if they could co-operate and work together."
By 1969 thousands of Catholics were reading the B.R.F. publications and Catholic bishops happily publicised the work of the organisation. In the same year Mr. Thomson was invited to become a member of the Catholic Biblical Association and serve on their committee, a relationship strengthened when the B.R.F. helped the C.B.A.'s Scripture Bulletin out of financial difficulties.
Then. in 1970, Fr. Richard Stewart, Secretary of the Ecumenical Commission for Englund and Wales, was nominated by Cardinal Heenan to fill a vacancy on the B.R.F. Council.
Mr. Thomson said: "Things happen which indicate the way developments are going. The Catholic Communications Institute in Dublin telephoned and asked if we had anything on St. Luke's gospel they could use — something brief. We wrote a sixpage discussion leaflet.
"They immediately telephoned for 1,000 copies, then 5,000. Now they've asked for JO12.000. This was a direct request for help and the B.R.F. was able to meet 11
On a world tour in 1971 Mr. Thomson called on Catholic bishops wherever he could and was keenly aware of the revival in scriptural interest. In Catholic Malta the B.R.F. now has more than 1,000 members.
Not that Ian Thomson is new to relations with the Catholic Church. In 1967 he had five official interviews with the Vatican and later acted as a consultant to the Congress of the Lay Apostolate in Rome. "They treated me right royally" he said.
Another member of the staff, Mr. Henry Turner, handles the Fellowship's work in Ireland, where earlier this year the Irish Churches jointly distributed the booklet on Luke's gospel Good News for Ireland to every home North and South. "We see our job as identifying with any new movements and making sure
they have a biblical content." Born in Cork of English Methodist parents, Mr. Turner was brought up on the Bible Reading Fellowship and he says they are now in touch with more people than ever before. Developments in Irish ecumenism encouraged him. "As one born in Ireland it's a miracle for me to go back and see how well I get on with Catholic clergy."
Every morning the staff at St. Michael's House assemble for prayers in the neo-Byzantine chapel, with its mosaic of Christ on the wall. Perhaps it is this custom, combined with a sense of joint purpose, which makes for such a warm and friendly atmosphere among those who work for the B.R.F.
And this warmth seems to be emanating more and more strongly from the Westminster headquarters. As Mr. Thomson himself has written, it is as if the words of Pope John in his opening speech to the Council on October II. 1962, were coming true before our eyes: "In the present order of things, Divine Providence is leading us to a new order of human relations which, by men's own efforts and even beyond their very expectations, arc directed towards the fulfilment of God's superior and inscrutable designs. And everything, even human differences, leads to the greater good of the Church."