Preaching at a church in Huyton, in Liverpool, on Sunday I introduced the idea of lectio divina, re-reading the same passage of Scripture several times. I asked one of the teenagers who came up to help me what his favourite songs were. I didn’t even recognise the name of the band (just two years out of school and I have already lost touch!). I then asked how often each day he listened to his favourite songs. Three or four times? Ten times, twenty? “Just, all the time”, was his answer.
I wrote recently about evolving ideas of what constitutes good education and learning, how these ideas are gaining ground nationally and internationally, and how these ideas are impacting on my understanding of liturgy and worship. We are coming to see memorisation and repetition as key to learning, and obsession with novelty, far from being helpful, as the enemy of learning. I speculated about the lectionary we use for the Principal Service on Sundays and wondered if there would be more benefit in a one-year cycle. Perhaps even more so given many people’s patterns of attending church fortnightly or once a month rather than weekly as in the (recent) past. Similarly I have been thinking about the readings at the Office. Many of my Evangelical friends would not dream of praying an Office each day, certainly not alone. But they do read the Bible every day. Many, very many, who I have spoken to use a bible reading plan.
Of course, until the late nineteenth century Anglicans had a very simple plan for reading the Bible at Morning and Evening Prayer. The 1662 Table of Lessons works through Scripture in a year, four chapters a day. A single Old Testament Book is read morning and evening, one chapter at each, a chapter of a gospel each day in course and a chapter of an epistle each day, in course. Strangely Revelation is omitted (as, in the Old Testament, is Ezekiel) perhaps Cranmer feared that too much apocalyptic might not be helpful for an established church.
I have used liturgical books to read Scripture in worship for most of my life. Lectionaries, missals, breviaries etc. But since November last year I have been using a bible for everything. It is quite startling to see just how much is omitted and how much jumping around there is in the lectionary. This is a particular issue for the Church of England. Having authorised the Daily Eucharistic Lectionary (of the Roman Catholic Church) the Common Worship Office lectionary is designed to avoid reading the same Scripture on the same day. It was very evident in Advent, particularly towards the end of Advent, that this caused much jumping around Isaiah. I was trying to use a commentary with Isaiah and found it very hard to keep up, or back, with the text. The Common Worship lectionary is really quite complicated, spreading Scripture over four years.
In frustration, at the beginning of the year I looked at what other alternatives there are. I examined some of the schemes for reading the Bible in a year. I may well try one of those another year. But this year I decided to use an Anglican provision. The old Prayer Book lectionary was superseded in 1871, which is the Table of Lessons found in most copies of the BCP that are around. It reduced the repetition of the New Testament from three times to twice a year and the coverage of the Old Testament from 89% to 63%. 1871 was itself supplanted by an ‘Alternative Table of lessons’ in 1922. This has special provision, outside of the course, for Sundays. In the Green seasons rather than read the Gospels through it harmonised them into a single narrative. A 1961 version of this lectionary undid the harmonisation. That version still appears as an option in the Church Union Ordo.
However, I decided to use the 1662 version, available in tabular form as a PDF document here:
Many people comment on the shortness of the readings in modern lectionaries. I don’t think this is particularly a problem for the Eucharistic/Principal service lectionary but for those praying daily creates some odd snippets and a loss of the narrative and argument in many texts. I realise that the 1662 readings may seem long, this Sunday evening (13th January) there were 101 verses of Genesis and Romans, for instance. But that much of the text allows the narrative and argument to flow. In Genesis 24, one of my favourite chapters, including Isaac walking in the field in the evening just before meeting Rebekah (see my thoughts on this text here), I had never noticed the echo of v 14 and v 43. In Romans the doxology of praise at the end of Chapter 11 makes much more sense after the magnificent sweep of Paul’s argument than after a few verses.
Here is January’s table in all its simplicity:
When I was a parish priest I encouraged people to come to the Office every day and I put the reading references on the weekly pew sheet, but our modern lectionaries are very complicated, omitting verses, jumping whole passages. Which is, presumably, why bible reading plans are so much more popular.
I am absolutely not suggesting an archaeological approach to worship, I am using modern translations. In fact I think what my Evangelical friends remind me of is that the liturgical year is only useful in so far as it brings us to the complete Christ made known in the complete Scripture. Just before Christmas a priest-friend lamented the endless carol services she had attended and led because she didn’t have any of the ‘waiting time’ before Christmas. But I am not sure that should bother us. Jesus is already born, just as in Holy Week he is already risen. We are not re-living past events. The founder of the former Anglican Cistercian monastery at Ewell in Kent, Aelred Arnesen, was very strong on this, his papers are worth reading here. He points out the importance of simplicity in worship and the problems with ‘anamnesis’ when it is interpreted as ‘re-enactment’, in the liturgical movement of the 20th century.
“Wherever there is a sort of pretence in any worship service that we are unable at that particular moment to acknowledge and praise the Lord as the risen Christ, we are undermining our own faith and clouding the vision of others. This is particularly true of services on Good Friday and Holy Saturday. There is also the heightened anticipation, as Lent progresses, that at Easter we shall be able to greet the risen Lord. So, in the recommended book for use by Anglicans, at the Easter Vigil, it is suggested, ‘The president may introduce the vigil of Easter using these or other appropriate words -“As we await the risen Christ.”’ The gospel has at this point vanished!”
When I was at theological college the (Prayer Book) idea of reciting the psalms in course was much ridiculed ‘Would you use a hymn book starting at the first one and ending at the last?’. But canonical criticism has shown the importance of the biblical arrangement of the psalter. So my current pattern is the Prayer Book monthly cycle of psalms and Cranmer’s one year distribution of Scripture. At the daily Eucharist the Sunday readings from the one-year traditional cycle repeated each day of the week. It is early days for me but I am finding it very helpful. Cranmer’s Office is, at the level of participation and public worship the most successful people’s Office of Christian history, there is much we can learn from it. Not least of the benefits of this simple use of Scripture is how much easier it makes using commentaries to gain a better understanding of the text. With the Old Testament course running across Morning and Evening Prayer there are only three books for study at any one time.
In Religious Education the Understanding Christianity material includes a picture, a frieze, of the whole of the biblical narrative from Creation to Revelation with the Crucifixion – Resurrection right at the centre. If we are to teach salvation in this way we need to read it and pray it this way ourselves.
If Cranmer’s scheme seems a little inaccessible, the Bible in One Year app is superb. With excellent commentaries by Nicky and Pippa Gumbel it provides everything you need for doing what it says on the tin. All of the material is also available as an audible download. A simple Google search will find many other ways of achieving the same aim. The ESV app, once the Global Study guide is added, also provides a number of schemes for reading Scripture in a year or parts of the Bible in shorter periods.
For more on Bible reading plans see here.
In Liverpool, Bishop Paul as part of our Rule of Life (Pray, Read, Learn, Tell, Serve, Give) has encouraged us to read David Bentley Hart’s refreshing new translation of the New Testament. Over the last few weeks I have been listening to it on Audible books. It is so powerful to hear the good news read out loud like this, in one go, that at times I have had to pull my car over to take in what I have just heard, and sometimes to listen to a passage again and again.
What we are re-discovering in education is worth re-discovering in our worship. Repetition, memorisation, didactic methods have worked for the whole of human history. They will work for us now too, in our life as Christians.