By Robert Solon
I come to praise the Lectionary, not to bury it (with apologies to Mark Antony and Richard Kew). The 1979 Book of Common Prayer’s lectionary for the Daily Office was one of, if not the, first new Office lectionary arising out of the late 20th-century Liturgical Movement. In the American prayer book sequence, the ’79 lectionary follows after the 1945 recension of the Office lectionary of the 1928 BCP. When some commenters compare the current lectionary to, usually, the 1662 BCP (still the standard in the Church of England), they should realize it’s really the 1928 Office lectionary, not ’79, that was the larger change.
The 1928 lectionary was our first to begin the liturgical year with the First Sunday of Advent, rather than the civil year of January 1, and to include the Sunday Office readings in the same table of lessons as the weekdays. The 1945 recension added a cursus of psalmody for every day of the year as the default, with additional options for readings and psalmody on Sundays, to permit a two-year cycle of Office readings on Sundays if one wished. And so when the Office lectionary was formally published in the 1976 Proposed Book, it shouldn’t have been that surprising a change. The biggest difference from 1945 was that there were only three readings given for each day, and an explicit two-year cycle of readings for every day of the year. Even so, the option was always given to use it as a four-reading lectionary by including the Old Testament reading from the other year.
As one who has prayed the Office nearly half my life, and as a scholar of it, I’ve also prayed the Offices of others. I make these observations about our current Office lectionary, both in rejoinder to Richard Kew and others who seem to yearn for anything but the current BCP, and simply for their own sake:
The current lectionary is Catholic and Reformed. Beginning in 1892, the Episcopal Church appointed proper readings for the Holy Days of the year, and this has continued since. But the ’79 lectionary adds a seasonal focus in its regular readings for Sundays and weekdays as well. Isaiah, Amos, and 1 and 2 Thessalonians in Advent; Deuteronomy, Exodus, Jeremiah, Romans, and 1 Corinthians in Lent; appropriate readings during Ascensiontide — all help to support and even reinforce the unfolding seasons of the Church year.
And just as important: we aligned the lectionary year with the Church year and away from the civil year. Up to then the Table of Lessons began with January 1. Beginning the year on Advent 1 thus emphasized the natural links, and brought the Office into alignment, with the Eucharist, which in prior editions wasn’t really an intention, except on Holy Days. And at the same time, in good Reformed tradition, we continue to read the Bible mostly in sequence and to read from all of it. Cranmer was right to re-emphasize a deep encounter with the Bible. And there is nothing un-Cranmerian about the ’79 or any modern Anglican Office lectionaries. Extensive in-course reading of the Bible is still appointed, if somewhat more languidly than Cranmer first envisioned.
The lectionary is flexible. The provision to use the “other” Old Testament readings in order to have two readings at each office was new (see 1979 BCP, p. 934). The lack of an appointed fourth reading can be seen just as much as positive rather than negative. For example, it opens the possibility of using a non-scriptural reading from the early Church or other sources at an office, even in public recitation. Such eminent publications as Galley’s Prayer Book Office (Seabury, 1980) and Wright’s Readings for the Daily Office from the Early Church (Church Publishing, 1991) — alas, both out of print — are specifically designed to work directly with the Office lectionary and calendar for this very reason.
The lectionary has lacunae, but all lectionaries do. Many, including Richard Kew on this blog, have lamented that there is less Scripture in the Office than in the past. It is of course true that the dailyreadings are shorter than what the 1549 or 1662 BCPs call for. On the other hand, much of the same material is appointed over two years and so is still encountered, just in a slower way. To read the entire Old Testament in one year — every verse — would require an average of one-and-a-half chapters at each office, morning and evening, and including Sundays and Holy Days. One wonders if mere quantity of Scripture is necessarily an inherent value; shorter lections have the advantage of allowing a more reflective approach, which for those without much exposure to it may be more edifying than plowing through chapters at a time. (This is a point Fr. Matthew Olver has made in reference to the RCL.)
To be sure, the ’79 lectionary is not perfect in scope. It’s missing some content, particularly for the birth and Passion narratives in the Gospels, and there is not nearly enough Ezekiel or Jeremiah from the Old Testament. The gaps in the Gospels can easily be explained by recalling that the lectionary is designed first and foremost for public recitation, and so presumes that the bits not read at the Office would in fact be proclaimed at the Eucharist on Sundays and Holy Days.
And let’s be clear: no lectionary is perfect. Kew notes this. (Although his assertion regarding Isaiah seems incorrect, as both the 1549 and the 1662 prayer books appoint Isaiah beginning in late November and much of December.) But I argue that nothing essential from Scripture is missing. Every book is included, and the full sweep of salvation history is, to my mind, admirably covered. And besides, omitting much of Chronicles, and the lists and genealogies of the Pentateuch, may well lead one to further reading. That’s to be commended; all of us could stand to have more Bible in our lives.
The lectionary is official for us, and good enough for others too. This is our appointed lectionary for the Office, and there is great value in praying with others, even if one is reciting in private. How often I have seen — or made myself — a comment on the day’s Office in social media, and I’ve noted, “Yes, we prayed that together!”
In addition, the Anglican Church of Canada in 1985 and the Lutheran Book of Worship of 1978, among others, have adopted the ’79 Office lectionary for their use. The fact that a sister Anglican province has done so seems particularly important on both length and width of use across the Communion.
And so when I hear people indict the 1979 Office lectionary for whatever reason, I first recall that in and of itself it’s both Catholic and Reformed, it’s flexible, it covers all the essentials, and it’s official for us and good enough for others too. Ultimately, of course, one can always read whatever one wishes in private recitation. And so then I ask, “Well, why not read what you feel is missing, in addition to what’s appointed?”
It’s the Bible that is the point of the lectionary; what to read and when to read it, not so much.
The Rev. Robert (Bob) Solon, Jr. is priest at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Haworth, New Jersey, and treasurer of the Society of Scholar Priests.