Anglicans are often proud of the central place of scripture in prayer book worship, especially the lectionaries, those scheduled scripture readings for the Daily Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer and the Eucharist. Certainly, it is true that a widening diversity of calendars and lectionaries across the Anglican world are limiting claims about uniformity of scriptural engagement. And, moreover, some of these calendars and lectionaries have grown crowded with saints days, interruptions in the flow of daily lessons. Nevertheless, it remains an Anglican conviction that the daily reading of scripture is central to our common worship. And, historically speaking, this Anglican sensibility is fully Reformed and fully Catholic: Thomas Cranmer intended the daily continual reading of select books of the Bible over the course of the Christian year in Morning and Evening Prayer – what is known as lectio continua – and then, for the Sunday Eucharist, the scripture readings followed the Christo-centric seasonal emphases of the liturgical year. The first set allowed a worshipping community to work through whole books of the Bible while the second set impressed upon the same community the mighty works of God in Jesus Christ. Cranmer’s Daily Office lectionary, the one that utilized lectio continua, was interrupted only a little for mostly Biblical saints’ days. While that Reformation-era design of uniform scriptural engagement with only slight pauses has faded, the general sensibility among Anglicans remains: our corporate worship life is a hearty engagement with the word of God according to a well-devised schedule. This also highlights an Anglican sense of obedience: the people of any given parish should be able to trust that their clergy will nourish them in worship with this specially planned diet of scripture; they should not have to fear the idiosyncratic whims of their rector. Lectionaries, in other words, are empowering and liberating. Yet these points all highlight the reality that the public reading of scripture in worship (paired with an expository sermon) is not a Bible Study and therefore presumes that Bible Study is a norm for vibrant congregational life.
Let’s think more about the nature of Biblical engagement in worship. The reading of scripture in public worship – and our corporate act of listening too – is rooted in the evangelical conviction that the word of God has active, dynamic power. To borrow from Martin Luther, the word is the instrument for the Holy Spirit to penetrate the heart and implant faith. The very word, “word,” carries an awful lot in Christian thinking: it can mean the Biblical text itself; it can mean preaching in general (which hopefully is exegetical); and it can also mean Christ himself. Consider here the mystical prologue of John’s Gospel. We see that idea, that there is power of God’s speech, coursing through the Old Testament. Look at the creation narrative: God says, “Let there be…” and it is. Christians therefore believe the Divine Word has dynamic power. God’s word brings creation into existence; God’s word changes it and re-creates it. Therefore, those who plan worship have a sacred obligation to stay close to the word (scripture) in order to show forth the Word (Christ). When the body gathers for worship, we stand in the succession of the Prophets and the Apostles when we hear the word of the Biblical text read aloud. The Biblical text itself, when read and heard by believers assembled together in the power of the Holy Spirit, operates almost sacramentally, convicting us and converting us, breaking our hearts and giving us new hearts for God. And why? Because scripture read in worship communicates not moral tips or secret wisdom but Jesus Christ himself. We therefore feast on the word as we feast on the sacrament of the table. Augustine described preaching, the exposition of the lessons, as an audible sacrament; in this way, God gives himself to us.
In short, Anglican worship operates on an unmistakable commitment to the word. But, recognizing that neither the life of the church, nor that of Christian individuals is limited to worship, we must ask, is the Bible in worship enough for either the individual disciple and the church? The answer must be a resounding no. And I make that assertion not in spite of the preceding discussion, but because of it.
The lessons read in worship are short passages, which make sense only to those who have engaged the whole text and the whole canon. Hearing a passage, lifted almost surgically from its context, presumes a familiarity – even an intimacy – with the Bible as a text. I quickly note here that earlier generations could, perhaps, rely on a broader cultural immersion in these texts so that even illiteracy was not a barrier. Again: the liturgical reading of short pericopes is premised upon a shared knowledge of the actual books of the Bible. A colleague of mine, a New Testament professor, remarked recently that when he hears passages in the twice-daily chapel services of his seminary, his first thought is “Oh, that makes me think of the whole book.” We could add not only the whole book, but also that book’s situation within the canon and in the course of salvation history, the author, and what the author possibly wrote in other texts (especially if we are hearing Paul). When we hear these passages in worship, it should not be odd for us to think, “Oh yes, Isaiah was up to this or that, and had just said X and was about to say Y.” The sermon, then, even if thoroughly expository, is still not an in-depth Bible study any more than the reading of a passage is a sufficient study of the word. And that’s true likewise for those of us who are culturally accustomed to “longer” sermons of 20 minutes. It’s not just a time factor. What exactly, then, is a sermon, and how does it differ from a true Bible study? A sermon works in one direction, relies entirely on passive aural acquisition, tends to the worshipping context and the liturgical year, and (for the most part) tends to the impending celebration of the Eucharist (and in some cases Baptism too). A Bible Study, on other hand, is dialogical, involves conversation and questions, is situated in fellowship (hopefully with coffee and doughnuts). Participants in a Bible study are not passive but are armed with concordances and highlighters. And, even if begun and ended with prayer, a Bible study tends to the Bible as a collection of books and can ignore the liturgical year.
In a positive sense, this need for non-liturgical Bible Study reinforces the concept that worship itself is the summit of the Christian life. Yes worship is the big front door for most seekers, but it is also the target of the Christian life and the collective vocation of the church; worship in these last days is the foretaste of the wedding feast of the Lamb, the apex of redemption, the telos of New Creation, our chief end and purpose – it is our earthly harmony with the angelic voices in the heavenly throne-room who forever sing “Holy, Holy, Holy.” But that summit doesn’t come cheap… It comes by being united with Christ, growing into his full stature. And one does that, in part, by immersing one’s self in the great drama of salvation contained in the word of God, the Bible. This in no way undercuts the sacraments, but rather compliments them or perhaps expands our understanding of sacramentality, how God communicates himself to us. A robust Bible Study, then, is a much-needed preparation for worship, just as prayer before the service begins; it readies us for that divine summit so that we might really appreciate in heart, mind, soul, and body what we are doing – and what God is doing – in worship.
Let me close with a telling anecdote. While having lunch with a parishioner, the subject of Bible study came up. I asked him – a man of about 60 years of age with adult children, a man who has served on vestry and given so much of himself to the church in so many way, a man devoted to worship every Sunday – why he doesn’t come to Bible Study. He told me “I get enough Bible in church.” Notice how he casually elided “church” with “worship?” My brother in Christ believes, first, that attending worship is “church,” full stop. And, second, he believes that those orphaned passages along with a 15-minute sermon are enough for lively discipleship and a thriving church. My beloved brother is wrong on both counts. And we have work to do. Christ said, “feed my sheep,” and what we hear in worship alone is simply not enough.