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Living with Cranmer’s Lectionary

By Richard Kew

At the time of the Reformation, Anglican Reformers guided a church whose grasp of Scripture among both lay and ordained was pitiful. They set out on the multigenerational task of changing this from the grassroots up. Although medieval priests were required to observe the sevenfold Daily Office, until 1549 each parish’s focal point of worship was likely to have been some version of the Mass to begin the day, with the Angelus rung out three times a day. These were replaced by Morning and Evening Prayer said daily in the parish church, and in that context there was a thorough and ordered reading of Old and New Testaments, some Apocrypha, and a monthly cycle of the Psalms.

Cranmer’s Daily Office, adapted from the sevenfold Office, was a brilliant innovation, yet I find myself wondering whether its expectations of an uneducated population with limited literacy may not have been too high, especially for absorbing Scripture. The Lectionary and Kalendar in the opening pages of the 1552/1662 Book of Common Prayer remained the norm for three centuries, only slightly modified in the Victorian era, before being eviscerated in the 20th century — during which time, even among the faithful, daily Scripture reading dropped out of fashion.

I started writing an online Daily Devotional for my congregation in 2002, and have continued virtually uninterrupted ever since. I have been choosing a reading from the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL), using both the eucharistic and Daily Office readings, but this has revealed to me a deep sense of our lectionary’s gross inadequacies. Being a good son of the Reformation, I thought the Bible reading style of the Reformers must set a good ideal, so I decided this year to use the 1552/1662 Kalendar for my daily devotions. In that time, I have discovered both its strengths and its eccentricities.

(If you wish to receive these Daily Devotions from St. George’s Episcopal Church, Nashville, TN, email Richard.Kew[at]stgeorgesnashville.org.)

The entire New Testament is set for reading three times each year at Morning and Evening Prayer; only the Book of Revelation is missing, perhaps due to its potential to confuse readers and hearers. The complete Psalter is recited monthly while most of the Old Testament and some of the Apocrypha are read once during the year, although with some interesting hiccups. Predictable chunks of the Pentateuch are considered inappropriate for public reading, as are the books of Chronicles. What has surprised me, however, is that while Jeremiah is in place, Isaiah and chunks of Ezekiel are missing. Was that an oversight? Did an earlier generation think differently about the great prophet Isaiah? Or were chapters included for readings at the Sunday Offices in Advent and after Christmas and Epiphany, as well as for some Eucharists, considered sufficient?

During the 50 years since I was ordained I have regularly read Scripture through, often following one of several different Bible-in-a-year schedules. Good as some of those schedules are, I have preferred to read along with Cranmer, Ridley, Latimer, and the other Reformers, not just because I cover more ground but because it has given me a real sense of companionship with them. I have pondered how swaths of Leviticus and Numbers might have spoken to Cranmer’s soul as in the cold winter months of 1555 he sat in his Oxford prison cell, preparing his defense and awaiting martyrdom. And now that most of 2018 is over I feel as if I have been standing on a prominent place gazing out over the whole sweep of salvation history.

Those Reformation bishops yearned for the English to become the People of the Book. The Scriptures were already available in English, a copy of the Great Bible chained to a lectern in every parish church. The Kalendar was the syllabus of daily readings both for laity and clergy. The prior forms for the offices and the Mass had been superseded by Morning and Evening Prayer and Cranmer’s Communion service, conceived as patterns of worship within which both literate and illiterate were given orderly access to God’s self-revelation. Thus, the Bible at the heart of daily worship became Anglican Christianity’s theological foundation, the Kalendar setting the rhythm for its reading. That genius has been abandoned since World War II.

While the Kalendar is guiding my daily readings this year, through my online Daily Devotions I have kept in close touch with the Episcopal Church’s eucharistic and Daily Lectionary readings based on the RCL. The word that best describes the comparison is distressing. If our only exposure to the Scriptures is through the Eucharist and Daily Office, then we are being robbed of regular access to large quantities of God’s Word. Worse still, passages offensive to the questionable theological sensibilities of the lectionary editors are similar to Thomas Jefferson’s mutilation of the text. This contemporary lectionary has been shaped by those who want to stand in judgment over Scripture rather than be shaped by the whole counsel of God.

The RCL might be better than nothing, but I cannot understand why we have put up with it for so long. We have been more interested in the language of the liturgy than the quality of the readings used within the context of public and personal worship. I suspect we have put up with this because at first glance the orderly lists of daily readings look as if they cover the waterfront; we have not been prepared to dig deeper to see what is missing and how the text is managed. Perhaps we comfort ourselves that at least our parishioners are getting a bit of Scripture into them, but often vital facets of the Word are missing, with fundamental doctrines eviscerated.

If we preach the three-year RCL Eucharistic Lectionary, we hop, skip, and jump over the surface of the written Word. We might comfort ourselves that the RCL is more adequate than the one-year pattern of Gospel and Epistle readings in historic prayer books. But this overlooks that in much of Anglican worship, until the middle of the 20th century, Morning and Evening Prayer were the primary settings for congregational worship in a majority of parishes on both Sundays and weekdays, thus exposing worshipers to the rich texture of the whole of Holy Scripture.

Cranmer’s Kalendar demonstrates the basic principle that Anglicans are meant to engage Scripture, as far as possible, in its entirety. We live in a very different world than the 16th century, with its small communities and stable parish churches, so we must be prepared to adjust and adapt for today — but we should not avoid this undergirding principle. The task of a congregation’s primary leaders is to guide an ordered reading of the whole Word of God in both public worship and private devotion. By using our creativity to do this we will, over a generation or so, build up a biblically literate core in our parish. This means that we have a lot of work to do.



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