Vol I No. 7
From the Quarterly

Reading the Bible as a Church

by The Editors

The Rev. Gavin Dunbar

The lectionaries of the historic Prayer Book

One of the defining activities of the Church, perhaps the defining activity, is the way it reads Scripture together as a community of faith, especially in worship.  That’s why lectionaries, which are plans for reading Scripture, are so important, and why they have been an element of the church’s worship for many centuries.  Without a lectionary, a common plan for reading the Scripture, the corporate and ecclesial aspect of reading Scripture is much diminished.

As a glance at the original preface of the first Prayer Book of 1549 indicates, Cranmer knew the importance of lectionaries, and counted reform of the lectionary one of the most important, perhaps the most important, of the objectives of the Prayer Book.  In fact, there are two lectionaries in the Cranmerian Prayer Book, one for the “daily office” of morning and evening prayer, and another for the Lord’s Supper.  The daily office was largely devoted to reading through entire books of Scripture in order, one chapter from the Old Testament and one from the New, at each service, four chapters each day in all; so that in the course of a year one had read through the greater part of the Old Testament at least once, and the New Testament more than twice.  Though Cranmer largely devised this lectionary on his own, he knew that it was reviving a custom of extensive and sequential reading (lectio continua) which had been customary at the Church’s daily prayer until the thirteenth century. Cranmer allowed for a seasonal aspect to this daily office lectionary, for he maintained the ancient custom of reading Isaiah in Advent and Christmas, and provided some proper lessons for holy days.  Subsequent revisions (the best of which are found in the current edition of the 1662 English Prayer book and the 1962 Canadian Prayer Book)  enlarged this seasonal element, while maintaining the principle of lectio continua.

The point of reading through entire books is of course to let the Scripture speak for itself, and to promote familiarity with it as a whole.  But there is another purpose for a lectionary, and that is to proclaim the mystery of the gospel in a very focussed, doctrinally coherent way.  There what matters is not extensive reading, but reading that is doctrinally complete.  In ancient times, this took the form of a lectionary of short lessons from the epistles and gospels for use at the Lord’s Supper.  The version of this devised in the city of Rome from the fourth to the seventh centuries was brought north by the Franks in the eighth century, completed, and adopted by the churches of north western Europe, including the Church of England.  Cranmer omitted its provisions for Lenten week days and Ember days, but with a few minor changes (mostly enlargements) he retained this ancient lectionary, and it is still substantially the same one found in the Book of Common Prayer of 1928.

Though scholars detect some remnants of lectio continua or semi-continua in this ancient Roman lectionary (such as the epistles for Sundays after Epiphany, all from Romans 12; or in the epistles for much of Trinity season), it is apparent that the ancient church had abandoned lectio continua at the Eucharist and sought a different principle for its Sunday readings, one of doctrinal and thematic complementarity.  The point, that is, was not to read through a book of the Bible more or less continuously, but rather to provide each Sunday with its own coherent teaching appropriate to the doctrinal emphasis of the season or day of the Church’s year.  This principle of doctrinal and thematic complementarity probably first began on major feasts such as Easter or Christmas, and was extended to the seasons of preparation and celebration that preceded and followed them; but it was extended to the whole of Epiphany at an early date, and by the early Middle Ages had embraced the entire church year.  This is in accord with the principle that each Sunday is its own ‘little Easter’, with its own coherent proclamation of the Christian mystery in lessons that are chosen to be doctrinally complementary.[1] 

Cranmer’s lectionaries thus provided for both extensive and sequential reading of Scripture as a whole (lectio continua) at the daily office and doctrinally thematic reading at the Eucharist.  Of course such a system assumed that Christians would by and large frequent Morning and Evening Prayer during the week and not just reduce worship to one hour on Sundays.  Surprising as it may seem to the time-is-money culture of our time, there is plenty of evidence that many people did, at least until the later 18th century.  But the time-is-money culture arrived with the Industrial revolution, and in 1872 the British Parliament passed the Shortened Services Act, which struck down the requirement that Sunday service consisted of Morning Prayer, Litany, and Ante-Communion, and allowed them to be used separately.  This meant that the complementarity of Cranmer’s system was undermined.  When the Parish Communion movement of the 1930s moved many churches to a weekly celebration of the Eucharist at the principal Sunday service, the reading of the Old Testament almost disappeared, and the reading of the New was reduced to the provisions of the Eucharistic lectionary.[2]

The emergence of new lectionaries – and their problems

Thus Anglicans found themselves in the same predicament as Roman Catholics, who used a (somewhat corrupted) version of the same ancient Eucharistic lectionary, and the mutilated lectionary of the thirteenth century Breviary against which Cranmer had reacted.  One sensible response to this problem was the provision of an Old Testament lesson complementary to the Prayer Book gospels and epistles.[3] But the Roman Catholics went further, and decided to invent a Sunday morning lectionary which would provide both for the doctrinal themes of the Church’s year and an extensive sequential reading of the Bible.  With this aim in mind, in the Ordo Lectionum Missae (OLM) of 1969, they abandoned almost entirely the ancient Eucharistic lectionary[4], and devised one that was entirely new.   A three year cycle took the place of the one year ancient cycle, with most of the gospels for each year chosen from one of the synoptics (Year A is Matthew; Year B is Mark; Year C is Luke; with lessons from John spread through the three years.)  A reading from the Old Testament, the psalms, and the other books of the New Testament precede the gospel lesson.  For part of the year (Advent to Epiphany, and Lent to Trinity Sunday), these lessons aim at doctrinally thematic coherence (albeit with less success than the ancient lectionary).  But for the rest of the year (Epiphany to Lent and Trinity Sunday to Advent), clumsily dubbed “ordinary time”, the gospels and epistles are selected according to the principle of lectio continua (or semi-continua).  As a result, the gospels and epistles are in principle unrelated.  Though the Old Testament lessons, were still chosen for their relation to the gospel lessons, the result is a loss of coherence in the Sunday lectionary.  By intention it is no longer a doctrinally coherent, cohesive presentation of the Christian mystery, but an attempt to increase the amount of Scripture read. (The canary in the coal mine was the scrapping of the Sundays before Lent, an ancient feature of the Church’s year in east and west, causing an abrupt transition from Epiphany to Ash Wednesday.  The Church year’s doctrinal articulation was mutilated for the sake of three more Sundays of lectio semi-continua.)

With only minor changes, the OLM was adopted for ecumenical use in the Common Lectionary (CL) and as such incorporated into the 1979 Prayer Book.  Another revision, the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL), adopted the principle of lectio (semi-) continua for the Old Testament lessons in ordinary time.  All three lessons therefore are in principle unrelated for much of the Church’s year.  The preacher may indeed look for a unifying theme, and it is significant that almost all preachers do so; but in doing so, he is working against the explicit intentions and principles of the lectionary.

Despite the reverence for the ancient liturgy professed by contemporary liturgists, the new Anglican liturgies scrap an actual ancient lectionary that has been in continuous use since late antiquity for an entirely modern construct, in which the doctrinal coherence of each Sunday’s proclamation is much diminished, or even abandoned altogether.

One might expect the OLM/CL/RCL would do rather better at providing a continuous reading of entire books of Scripture.  Certainly one can point to a greater quantity of Scripture that is being read, yet here the achievement is rather less than it may appear.  Consider the treatment of the primeval history in Genesis 1-11, one of the most significant passages in the Old Testament: in the RCL (the version that increases the amount of lectio continua in the Old Testament). A few verses from the Creation account in Genesis 1 are read on Trinity Sunday in Year A, the Easter Vigil in all three years, and the Baptism of the Lord in Year B, but nowhere a full reading of it, and none of them in lectio continuo, or on days when a preacher might devote his full attention to it.  Moreover, the reading of Genesis 2 and 3 (again, in snippets) only takes place on Lent 1 Year A, and Proper 22 (late summer) in Year B or Proper 5 in Year B.  Passages from Genesis 6, 7, 8 (the Flood) are read on Proper 4 in Year A, at the Easter Vigil in years ABC.  Genesis 9 (the covenant with Noah) is read on Lent 1 Year B, and Genesis 11 (the Tower of Babel) is an alternative reading on Pentecost in Year C.  Not only is the reading of Genesis 1-11 very partial, but none of it can be considered remotely continuous.  The later chapters of Genesis are not quite so fragmented, with many of them read lectio-semi-continua in the Sundays between Trinity Sunday and Advent in Year A; though even here some passages are read out of order in Year C or (for thematic reasons) on certain other days.

Or consider another significant book of Scripture, the Epistle to the Romans.  Here again the opening chapters, which are as crucial to the argument of Romans as Genesis 1-11 is to the whole of Scripture, are read in a fragmentary way: a bit of chapter 1 on Advent 4 in Year A, another bit (with a morsel of chapter 3) on Epiphany 9 in Year A, repeated on Proper 4 in Year A.  The condemnation in Chapter 2 disappears altogether.  Lectio continua of Romans only really begins with Romans 4, but here again the reading of Romans 4-16 jumps around with some passages chosen for thematic reading in Advent, Lent, and Pentecost, and others (the leftovers?) for sequential readings in Sundays after Pentecost.  Exactly how is the preacher or teacher to provide a coherent exposition of this Epistle?

Similar problems appear with Ephesians: some of which is read for thematic reasons at Christmas, All Saints, Ascension, Epiphany, Lent; the remainder of which is read sequentially in Year B.  Paul’s teaching on marriage (Ephesians 5:21-33), the most significant passage in the entire Bible, if also the most challenging to contemporary assumptions, is not read, nor is the remainder of the “household code” in Ephesians 6:1-9.  Coincidentally, the parallel passages in Colossians (3:18-4:1) also disappear.

Leaving aside a certain delicacy about passages that might not go down well in contemporary culture, the RCL (and therefore also to an even greater extent the CL and OLM) suffer from warring principles.  On the one hand, they want thematic readings for Advent and Christmas, Lent to Trinity Sunday.  On the other hand, they want sequential readings for the rest of the year, called “Ordinary Time”.  Aiming to do both, they fall between two stools, and fail at both.  There is neither genuine lectio continua—the continuous reading of entire books of Scripture—nor is there doctrinally thematic coherence for each Sunday.

Practical suggestions for churches today

It is hard to believe that the OLM/CL/RCL family of lectionaries can be satisfactorily amended.  Their problems are fundamentally structural, and the way forward must begin by scrapping them.  What’s to be done instead?  Some practical suggestions for churches today:

  1. Use the ancient lectionary preserved in the Book of Common Prayer, to provide a doctrinally coherent presentation of the Christian mystery every Sunday and holy day at the principal service (Morning Prayer or Holy Communion).
  2. Add an Old Testament lesson at the principal service, chosen for doctrinal complementarity (see footnote 2 for specifics).
  3. Recognize that not everything important that needs to be done, can be done in one hour on Sunday morning.
    1. Provide a second service (Morning Prayer if the Eucharist is the custom, or Evening Prayer on Sunday afternoon or midweek) at which there can be lectio continua of a selected book of the Bible with expository preaching on it.
    2. Add a Sunday or midweek teaching opportunity for the corporate reading, study, and discussion of books of the Bible.  Adult Sunday School is perfect opportunity for teaching books of the Bible, and primes the pump for the principal Sunday service.
    3. Train the congregation to use the daily office as a means of reading Holy Scripture, corporately if they can or privately if they cannot, privately or publicly or in small groups.  Promote the use of IPray!

[1] Other factors played a role in the choice of these lessons, such as allusions to local churches in the city of Rome, in which the Pope would celebrate his stational liturgy.  On the fourth Sunday of Lent, for instance, the Pope celebrated mass in the Church of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem, and this probably prompted the choice of the epistle from Galatians 4, with its reference to the heavenly Jerusalem.  Yet such factors do not seem to have been as widespread as one might think, and where they appear, they are integrated into the lectionary’s thematic development.  Thus on Lent IV, the epistle lesson fits in the general theme of ‘going up to Jerusalem’ for the death and resurrection of Christ, adumbrated on the Sunday before Lent, and complements the theme of pilgrimage and exodus in the gospel lesson from John 6:  Lent represents to us the Christian life as spiritual exodus and pilgrimage, in which we are sustained with bread in the wilderness, whose goal is the heavenly Jerusalem.

[2]The other development was the revision of Cranmer’s chapter by chapter reading of the Bible.  The one currently found in the 1662 Prayer book, is an improved version of Cranmer’s; the Revised Table of Lessons, also found in the 1662 Prayer Book, dates from 1922, and is excellent.  (It is the one used in the IPray app.)   A slight variation of the latter is found in the Canadian Prayer Book of 1958/62.  Unfortunately, the office lectionary of the 1928 American Prayer Book was a very weak revision, and its replacement in 1942 was no better.  Though not without virtues, the lessons are often far too short – narratives and arguments reduced to fragments, with large passages of the Old Testament never read at all – and the selection of lessons for special occasions is imperceptive.

[3] These Old Testament lessons (and psalms) can be found on the Common Worship website incorporated under “A Lectionary and Additional Collects for Holy Communion (Book of Common Prayer)” at:  http://www.churchofengland.org/prayer-worship/worship/texts/the-calendar/lect/bcp/lectfront1.aspx.

[4] The 1922 English and 1962 Canadian Sunday and holy day office lectionaries provide Old Testament lessons that very often have a real thematic link to the Eucharistic lessons. Note:  The medieval breviaries preserve fragments of a reading system for Advent and Septuagesima-Easter which complement the Eucharistic lectionary. At St. John’s, we have adopted them in this form:

Advent 1 – Isaiah 1:1-20 (21-end), 2:1-5 – complements Christ’s cleansing of the Temple (gospel lesson)

Advent 2 – Isaiah 11:1-10 – quoted in the epistle lesson

Advent 3 – Isaiah 35 – alluded to in gospel lesson

Advent 4 – Isaiah 40:1-11 – the imminence of God’s salvation (epistle lesson) and the ministry of John the Baptist (gospel lesson)

Christmas (at midnight) – Isaiah 9:2, 6, 7 (ancient lesson in Sarum Missal)

Christmas (at midday) – Isaiah 61:1-3; 62:11, 12 (ancient lesson preserved in Sarum Missal)

Epiphany – Isaiah 60:1-6 (ancient lesson preserved in Roman and Sarum Missal).

Septuagesima – Genesis 1:1-2:3 – the work of God and the work of man (gospel lesson)

Sexagesima – Genesis 6:5-end (as selection of 6-9) – the patience of Noah as type of apostolic labours (epistle lesson) and parable of seeds (gospel lesson)

Quinquagesima – Genesis 12:1-9 – Abram’s unfinished journey and offering of sacrifice completed in Christ’s going up to Jerusalem (gospel lesson) and the inward growing up to maturity in faith, hope, and charity (epistle lesson)

Lent 1 – Genesis 22:1-18 – the testing of Abram as type of testing of Christ (gospel lesson)

Lent 2 – Genesis 25:29-34 or 27:1-28:5 – the striving of Jacob for the birthright and blessing of Esau, to which he is not entitled by right of birth (a type of the Gentiles’ obtaining the graces promised Israel, in the gospel lesson)

Lent 3 – Genesis 37 – the murderous envy of Joseph’s brothers towards Joseph – a type of the Pharisees who ascribe demonic motives to Christ (gospel lesson)

Lent 4 – Exodus 3:1-22 (4:1-23) – God calls Moses to lead his people out of Egypt – a type of the new exodus sustained with bread from heaven (gospel lesson) whose goal is the heavenly Jerusalem (epistle lesson)

Lent 5 – Jeremiah 1:1-19 – the rejected prophet of judgment delivered by God – a type of Christ (gospel lesson)

Lent 6 – Jeremiah 11:1-17 (18-23) – the covenant broken by Israel’s disobedience (epistle lesson) and the rejection of God’s prophet (gospel lesson) with the exception of a few major holy days, such as Christmas.