This is part of a lesson taught at Grace Anglican Church today. It’s also, in a sense, an offshoot of my article “Anglicanism as a way of being Christian” from a couple weeks ago.
Anglicans read the Bible in three distinct ways. The first feature is almost too obvious to guess: we read the Bible in the common tongue. This was one of the primary goals of the early Reformers the world over – get the Bible into a language people can understand! This means that anyone who can read has access to the Bible. To this day, you and I can pick up a Bible and read it to our heart’s content, however much or little we feel like it. The Holy Spirit within us is better equipped to speak to us and show us the Word of God in Christ when the written word of God is at our fingertips. Many Protestants today leave Bible-reading here, up to the devices of the individual Christian, but Anglicans still have two more approaches to Scripture up their sleeve. Those two approaches reflect one of the popular nicknames for Anglicanism: “Reformed Catholicism.” Let’s explore these in reverse order.
Unlike many of the Protestant churches, the Anglican tradition continued the Catholic plan of reading Scripture at the Sunday Eucharist. The Sunday lectionary that you can find in every Prayerbook from 1549 to 1928 is virtually identical to the same lectionary used throughout Western Christendom since somewhere in the 500’s. These readings are typically one Gospel and one Epistle and a couple excerpts of Psalms, and occasionally an Old Testament reading swapped in. The idea behind this approach to reading the Bible is not to get through whole books or even whole narratives and stories necessarily, but to highlight key topics from week to week with the intent of conveying the the whole Gospel through each year. The Revised Common Lectionary that many churches have been using since the 70’s departs from this tradition, so what most of us are familiar with is a little different. More on that later.
The ‘Reformed’ part of our ‘Reformed Catholicism’ identity points us to the third approach to reading the Bible. In the offices of Morning and Evening Prayer, Anglicans traditionally read nearly the entire Bible every single year. The classic daily lectionary set forth in 1549 had you reading one OT and one NT chapter every morning and evening, getting you through the OT once a year, and the NT three times a year. And one must admit, some things were left out: 1 & 2 Chronicles and 1 & 2 Maccabees and 1 & 2 Esdras (due to length), much of Ezra, and the book of the Revelation (due to civil unrest and difficulty of interpretation). This daily lectionary has seen even more revision over the years, each time having less and less of the Bible covered in favor of shorter readings.
Something odd about the late 20th century is that, as the Daily Office fell away from popular attention in favor the of Eucharist, the full-Bible reading approach was getting lost. And so the solution in the 1970’s was to make a new Sunday Eucharistic lectionary (the previously-mentioned Revised Common Lectionary) which covered a lot more Scripture in a three-year cycle. In other words, they were trying to make one lectionary do the work of two complementary ones. Some people see this as a brilliant solution. Others see this as a good way of doing two things badly. The classically Anglican method of reading the Bible from these multiple angles simultaneously has been somewhat diluted, in our generations.
To this end, I have a proposal for the next liturgical year (starting in Advent): I’d like for us to switch over to the classical Anglican Sunday Eucharist lectionary, so we can experience that ancient treatment of the Scriptures. Consider it the ultimate sermon series of the Church: “The Gospel in a year!” At the same time, I’d like to make available to you all copies of the older Daily lectionary so that, if you like, we can walk together through the majority of the Bible over the course of next year. If you have other Bible-in-a-year plans, that’s fine; there are many options out there. But part of what makes us Anglican is doing that sort of thing together. We’re not just a bunch of individuals with Bibles; we’re a community with a Bible.