Epistle and Gospel Variations in the Classic Prayer Books

The liturgical year of the church is about to begin. That means, for Anglicans, that the cycle of proper readings is also about to begin. But to say “the cycle” would overstate the uniformity in what is sometimes called the “eucharistic lectionary.”[1]

Some Anglicans use a three-year cycle, adapted from the Revised Common Lectionary. In the United States, three-year cycles are often used with the Episcopal Church’s BCP 1979 or the Anglican Church in North America’s BCP 2019.

But other Anglicans are about to start the year using the traditional Anglican one-year cycle of proper readings. This lectionary was, in fits and starts, developed in the Western Church for about a millennium before the Reformation. At the Reformation, Archbishop Cranmer took over and refined that one-year lectionary, as used in Sarum and York, for the new Book of Common Prayer.

I do not mean here to offer an argument for the traditional one-year lectionary. Others have done that, and I would especially call attention to the work of Robert Crouse, Gavin Dunbar, Drew Nathaniel Keane, and Matthew Olver.

Here I will briefly note the variations within two forms of the traditional one-year lectionary. The first is the classic Anglican prayer book, the 1662 BCP. (The edition I cite here will be the one that Keane and I have edited, and which will be published in January by IVP Academic: The 1662 Book of Common Prayer: International Edition.) The other is the 1928 BCP of the Episcopal Church.

The 1928 BCP introduced a few variations from the traditional version in the 1662 BCP. Although we cannot know for certain why each change was made—I have it on good authority that the revising committee of the 1928 BCP ordered that all of its notes were to be burned—the best we can probably do is to quote one of the revisers, who said:

“Some selections both of Epistles and Gospels which seem less happy have been emended in various recent Prayer Book revisions, as we shall see. While such changes are sentimentally regrettable, as putting sister branches of the Anglican church out of step with each other, and with Western traditions of some eleven hundred years, on certain occasions, yet plainly there is nothing in the history of our liturgical lectionaries which entitles them to more respect than their intrinsic merits deserve; and it is quite within the comptence of any National Church to make such further improvements as may be demanded in the lections for our cycle of Sundays.”[2]

If there is a theme in the BCP 1928 revisions, it is away from words of warning, as can be seen in the readings for Maundy Thursday, Easter Day, Ascension Day, and the feast of St. Simon and St. Jude.

One final note. Even though the tabulation here is of differences, it should be emphasized that there is great continuity between the 1662 and 1928 eucharistic calendars. The BCP 1928 varies the reading from the 1662 eucharistic lectionary only 11 times, while the Anglican Church of Canada’s BCP 1962—which also uses the traditional one-year lectionary—varies the reading from the 1662 eucharistic lectionary 45 times.

Here, then, is a list of variations for the epistles and gospels (according to the 1662 calendar):

  • The Circumcision of Christ, epistle: Rom. 4:8-14 (1662); Phil. 2:9-13 (1928)
  • The Second Sunday after the Epiphany, gospel: John 2:1-11 (1662); Mark 1:1-11 (1928)
  • The Third Sunday after the Epiphany, gospel: Matt. 8:1-13 (1662); John 2:1-11 (1928)
  • The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, gospel: Matt. 8:23-34 (1662); Matt. 8:1-13 (1928)
  • Thursday before Easter, epistle: 1 Cor. 11:17-34 (1662); 1 Cor. 11:23-26 (1928)
  • Easter Day, epistle: Col. 3:1-7 (1662); Col. 3:1-4 (1928)
  • Ascension Day, gospel: Mark 16:14-20 (1662); Luke 24:49-53 (1928)
  • The Ninth Sunday after Trinity, gospel: Luke 16:1-9 (1662); Luke 15:11-32 (1928)
  • Saint Thomas the Apostle, epistle: Eph. 2:19-22 (1662); Heb. 10:35–11:1 (1928)
  • Saint Simon and Saint Jude, Apostles, epistle: Jude 1-8 (1662); Eph. 2:19-22 (1928)
  • All Saints’ Day, epistle: Rev. 7:2-12 (1662); Rev. 7:2-4, 9-17 (1928)
  1. The term is not quite precise because the proper readings can be used for Ante-Communion, and not merely for Communion services. It does, however, help to make a point about the scope of this essay: I am not referring to the lectionaries used for the daily offices of Morning and Evening Prayer.
  2. Edward Lambe Parsons & Bayard Hale Jones, The American Prayer Book: Its Origins and Principles (Scribner, 1937), p. 85.


Samuel L. Bray is a professor of law at Notre Dame. He is a coauthor, with John F. Hobbins, of Genesis 1-11: A New Old Translation for Readers, Scholars, and Translators (2017); and a coeditor, with Drew Nathaniel Keane, of The 1662 Book of Common Prayer: International Edition (forthcoming 2021).

'Epistle and Gospel Variations in the Classic Prayer Books' has 1 comment

  1. November 28, 2020 @ 11:34 pm Canon Shannon Ramey

    I would have appreciated some value judgment as to which reading is more useful for the given day.


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