The Annual Cycles of Bible Reading in the Prayer Book, Pt. 1

We tend to think of the Book of Common Prayer as a collection of rituals, but its original preface presents it as a means for hearing the word of God. Cranmer’s Preface recommends it with these words:

[H]ere you have an order for prayer (as touching the reading of holy scripture) much agreeable to the mind and purpose of the old fathers, and a great deal more profitable and commodious, than that which of late was used. It is more profitable, because here are left out many things, whereof some be untrue, some uncertain, some vain and superstitious: and is ordained nothing to be read, but the very pure word of God, the holy scriptures, or that which is evidently grounded upon the same; and that in such a language and order, as is most easy and plain for the understanding, both of the readers and hearers.

The 1549 Prayer Book is the first single calendar governing the reading of scripture and the observance of feasts and fasts for all of England, replacing a multiplicity of diocesan uses. The Edwardine editions of the Prayer Book (1549 and 1552) provide two systems for the public reading of the scriptures that serve different, complementary functions. The first system provides for daily reading that includes most of the Old Testament and some of the Apocrypha once each year, the New Testament (except for most of Revelation — only two chapters of this are read) thrice annually, and the complete Psalter monthly in the context of Morning and Evening Prayer (also called Mattins and Evensong). The second system provides weekly readings for use in the Order for the Lord’s Supper on Sundays and occasionally on fixed feast days.

In 1561, Archbishop Parker added a third cycle: first lessons for Mattins and Evensong on Sundays and feast days. These first lessons replace the text appointed in the Calendar of Lessons when a particular day falls on a Sunday. The 1662 Prayer Book retains all three annual cycles of scripture reading (i.e., lectionaries). These three systems are based on two different principles: the first, continuous; the second, topical; while the third is a hybrid of these two principles. Because the Prayer Book’s annual cycles of scripture reading are little used now among Anglicans, in what follows I provide a brief overview of these cycles and explain how they were designed to work together.

The Calendar with the Table of Lessons for Morning and Evening Prayer

The readings or lessons (from the Latin lectio) assigned for the daily services of Mattins and Evensong are provided in The Calendar with the Table of Lessons in the front of the Prayer Book. It is organized by the secular calendar, rather than the liturgical calendar. This table facilitates a mostly continuous reading of the bible (lectio continua). Mattins and Evensong each have two lessons: one from the Old Testament first, then one from the New. The second lesson in Mattins is (nearly) always from the Gospels or the Acts of the Apostles, while the second lesson in Evensong is (nearly) always from one of the Epistles. There are breaks from the continuous read-through for a small number of red letter days, i.e., major festivals, related to the life of Christ and certain New Testament figures (discussed below).

1 January is a red letter day, the Feast of the Circumcision, so the lectio continua begins on 2 January with Genesis 1 and Matthew 1 for the morning (the first book of the Old Testament and the first Gospel in the New); for the Evensong, the first lesson continues with Genesis 2, while the second is Romans 1, the first of the New Testament Epistles. Generally the sequence proceeds chapter by chapter. The first chapter skipped comes on 7 January, which has Genesis 9 in the morning and 12 in the evening. Genesis 10 and 11 consist primarily of genealogy; the only narrative lost in this omission is the tower of Babel (Gen. 11:1-9). The omissions seem designed to increase usability; the bits skipped over are those places where many an effort to read through the bible has foundered — long lists of ceremonial laws and begettings.

Cranmer worked an echo of one of the most consistent, ancient features of the various medieval daily office lectionaries into the Calendar by appointing Isaiah for the end of November and all of December. Appointing Isaiah for the end of the civil year means it is read during the beginning of the liturgical year: Advent and the beginning of Christmastide.

The Psalter has pride of place, being read through once each month. This pride of place carries over from the medieval monastic breviaries as well (in which all 150 psalms were typically read weekly), and ultimately reflects the place the Psalms have in the bible. No other Old Testament book is more frequently quoted by the New than the Psalms. Hooker simply relates a commonplace when he writes, “The choice and flower of all thing profitable in the other books the psalms do both more briefly contain, and more movingly also express, by reason of that poetic form wherewith they are written” (Lawes V.37).

Using this scheme, the scriptures are continually read through, out loud, in English, in daily morning and evening services. This method of public reading helped to significantly raise familiarity with the scriptures among the laity of England (English literacy was quite low in the mid-sixteenth century) and the parish clergy, who were legally required to publicly read Mattins and Evensong daily. Prior to this requirement, few clergy knew the scriptures well or had even read through the whole bible. Through the Prayer Book system, familiarity with the bible began to significantly rise among clergy and laity alike.

The 1662 daily calendar for Mattins and Evensong was modified in 1871 and a Revised Table of Lessons was added in 1922. This calendar seeks to combine the principles of continuous annual reading of most of the bible with the principle of alignment with the church year, the annual cycle of greater festivals. This arrangement, of course, requires more frequent breaks in the lectio continua. Rather than read each Gospel separately, the Revised Table harmonizes the Gospels. It slightly shortens the amount of OT read and also differs in selections from the Apocrypha. The 1662 has Tobit read from Evensong 27 Sept. until Evensong 5 Oct. (skipping ch. 5), then for the rest of October, Judith, Wisdom of Solomon, and Ecclesiasticus (i.e. Sirach), which continues into November, then Baruch, Bel and the Dragon, and Susanna also in November before Isaiah begins on the evening of the 23rd. The 1922 lectionary does not include any of Judith, only two small selections from Tobit, and of the Greek additions to Daniel, both Bel and Susanna are dropped, but the Song of the Three Children is included (though not in the 1662 Calendar, this is the alternative first canticle in Mattins). The 1922 also adds 1 Maccabees and some of 2 Maccabees. This Revised Table was the basis for the table included in the 1926 Irish Prayer Book and the 1929 Scottish Prayer Book. In 1961 a revision of the 1922 was prepared that did away with the harmonization of the Gospels approach, restoring lectio continua to the arrangement of Gospel lessons; though this 1961 revision did not succeed in replacing the 1922 lectionary in England, it was the basis for the lectionary in the 1962 Canadian Prayer Book.

The Collects, Epistles, and Gospels for the Lord’s Supper

The Rev. Dr. Robert Crouse has aptly described the Collects, Epistles, and Gospels for the Lord’s Supper (also called the Communion propers or lectionary) as “the heart of the Prayer Book system.” This annual cycle of readings is very ancient (though its origins are unknown, the core of it may have already been in use in fifth-century Rome). Cranmer adopted the sequence of readings from the Use of Sarum, which itself derives ultimately from an ancient Roman Use. Cranmer simplifies the profuse propers of the medieval mass (the major propers said by the priest or deacon: Collect, Epistle, Gospel, Secret, Postcommunion; and the minor propers said by the choir: Introit, Gradual, Alleluia or Tract, Sequence, Offertory, and Communion), trimming down first (in 1549) to Introit, Collect, Epistle, and Gospel, then (in 1552) to the triad of Collect, Epistle, and Gospel (the model followed in 1559, 1604, and 1662).

In this system, primarily for Sundays in the “Second Service” (i.e., the Order for the Lord’s Supper), but also including a number of fixed holy days that may or may not fall on a Sunday, the year is divided into three parts: the Nativity cycle, the Easter cycle, and the Trinity cycle. The Nativity cycle begins with the first Sunday of Advent and continues to the Feast of the Presentation. The second cycle begins with the first Sunday after Epiphany (the Gospel is Luke 2:41, when the young Jesus asks Mary and Joseph, “wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?”) until Whitsunday (i.e., Pentecost). The third and longest cycle begins with Trinity Sunday and continues until the Sunday next before Advent (“Stir-up” Sunday).

We can take Dr. Crouse’s description “heart of the book” literally, as the full text of the Epistle and Gospel pericopes is provided, not just the chapter and verse references, making it the largest part of the book other than the Psalter, which is roughly the same size (but did not become an official part of the text of the Prayer Book until 1662). These two longest parts of the Prayer Book — the propers and psalms — both epitomize the whole teaching of scripture in different ways. In the Prayer Book system, the propers are designed to go together. The associations are sometimes clearer than others, but usually the keynote is given in the Gospel. Through the Communion propers, the narrative of the life of Christ and the emergence of the Church is given special prominence by its own, different annual cycle over and above the three times these are heard in the course of second lessons in Mattins.

This annual cycle has been used in the Western church for more than a millenium (though with some small variants from diocese to diocese in the middle ages and church to church after the Reformation). Until the mid-twentieth century it was essentially the only Western Communion lectionary. It was shared by both Roman Catholics and those Protestant churches that continued to use a lectionary (primarily the Evangelical and English churches but some other Reformed churches as well, such as the Hessian and parts of the Dutch; other Reformed churches generally rejected lectionaries altogether until the twentieth century). It is reflected in Western homiletics and hymnody, our sacred music, art and devotional literature from the early middle ages to the present (having never been entirely displaced by the three-year lectionaries originating with the 1969 Ordo lectionum missae).

For present-day Anglicans who are more familiar with three-year systems, like the Revised Common Lectionary, the absence of an Old Testament reading and Psalm comes as a surprise (though Isaiah — “the fifth Gospel” — is read a few times in place of an Epistle reading). This surprise is not dissimilar (nor unrelated to) the surprise about the lack of any prayers for the world generally in the 1662 Communion liturgy. But, the Lord’s Supper is not meant to stand alone in the Prayer Book system; it is embedded in the framework of the daily office. Every morning and evening, including Sundays, the Old Testament and the Psalms are read; in the Litany — appointed for every Sunday, Wednesday, and Friday — intercession for the world generally and for non-believers particularly are offered, and there are other prayers for these intentions in the set of occasional Prayers and Thanksgivings that follows the Litany, which may be added to daily services as appropriate.

The Prayer Book liturgy for the Lord’s Supper is focused squarely on the self-oblation of Christ; “as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup,” Paul said, “ye do shew the Lord’s death till he come” (I Cor. 11:26). As in Christ’s own highly priestly prayer before his crucifixion, “I pray not for the world, but for them which thou hast given me; for they are thine… Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word” (John 17: 9 & 20); so the priestly prayer in the Supper is a prayer for the church, because the sacrament is for her continual reconstitution, confirmation, and comforting. That prayer does not exclude prayer for the world; indeed not, as it presupposes the Litany has been prayed and that through the church’s publication of the Gospel, the Redeemer draws all peoples to himself. So too, the readings in the Supper are not exclusive of the Old Testament — indeed, none of them make any sense at all apart from the Old Testament — but the liturgy is designed with the assumption that an Old Testament lesson has already been read in Mattins (or Evensong). Because the Prayer Book Communion liturgy focuses intently on the Cross, the scriptures included in it draw only from the Gospels, the record of when God became man to redeem mankind and the working out of the implications of that fact in the life of the early church (the Epistles).

Because Sunday Mattins and Litany have largely disappeared, their purposes have been imported into the late twentieth century Communion liturgies, which add an Old Testament lesson, a Psalm, and replace the prayer for the church into a general litany (i.e., “the prayers of the people”). What the Communion liturgy gains from these it looses in sharpness of focus.



Drew Keane

Drew Keane is a Lecturer in the Department of Writing and Linguistics at Georgia Southern University. He served on the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music for the Episcopal Church from 2012 to 2018. His current research focuses on residual orality in 16th C. English religious prose, and he is a PhD candidate in the School of English at the University of St. Andrews.


'The Annual Cycles of Bible Reading in the Prayer Book, Pt. 1' have 4 comments

  1. March 9, 2020 @ 8:48 am raitchi2

    You nicely wrote about the system of the lectionaries, but I hope you write about more subtle aspects of the lectionaries. I’ve used the 1662 lectionary in my personal prayer life for sometime, after becoming frustrated with the more modern versions. Whenever a modern lectionary had a lacuna inevitably it was some “hard” part of scripture (God condemning, morality, brutality in O.T., etc.). This is contrasted with the few lacuna in 1662 are usually something like a genealogy or census. This phenomenon increases the closer your get to our own time (e.g. 1979 Episcopal BCP, and even the Roman Catholic lectionary). I hate to become conspiratorial, but it really becomes difficult not to see a pattern with these lacuna. With modern lectionaries, I couldn’t help but feel as though I was getting exposure to the Bible in a “Swiss Cheese” format with all the difficult bits cut out.

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  2. March 9, 2020 @ 8:59 am Dagan Siepert

    It truly is unfortunate that the Revised Common Lectionary (and various iterations of the same i.e in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod of which I am a minister) have subsumed the daily lectionary into the Sunday communion liturgy. With the lectio selecta and the lectio continua used together, the former gives the hermeneutic for the reading of the latter. Assuming one is preaching on the proper readings, particularly the Gospel, the sermon/liturgy gives the framework for reading and interpreting the scriptures with the Church and the analogia fidei. It seems that the pattern of reading the scriptures has completely been overturned in the 20th century where the lectio continua is on Sunday and the lectio selecta on weekdays with the latter now informing the former. Perhaps this has done more to fragment the Church than to truly facilitate common prayer. Well written, Mr. Keane.

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  3. March 9, 2020 @ 12:18 pm Fr. Jonathan Trebilco

    We know from Justin Martyr that the primitive Eucharist included an Old Testament reading. The ancient Western Eucharistic lectionary does not include an OT reading, only Epistle and Gospel. Do we know when this happened and why?

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  4. March 10, 2020 @ 2:55 pm Ben Jefferies

    For the Daily Office Lectionary, the BCP 2019 intentionally sought to capture the spirit that animated Cranmer/1662 as you have exposited it here, by reaching back to before the 1871 revision to restore a Calendar-Year based lectionary with greater lectio continua, as well as a 30-Day psalter as the norm, thus restoring a Cranmerian/1662 spirit to the Office readings, even if the lectionary is not identical to the 1662 (For the 2019: the NT is read through twice, instead of three times, for slightly shorter lessons, Many chapters omitted in the OT are restored [esp. in Leviticus and Ezekiel], and the amount of Apocrypha is reduced to a “greatest hits” of the Apocrypha, to make room for the OT lessons that got re-instated).

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