The Eucharistic Heart of the Prayer Book

David Curry


The eucharistic lectionary is at the heart of the Common Prayer tradition. The Collects, Epistles and Gospels comprise the largest part of the classical Book(s) of Common Prayer (from 1549 – 1962(Cdn)). Along with the liturgical Psalter, they account for more than half of the Prayer Book. The same cannot be said for most of the books of alternative liturgies currently on offer in the smorgasbord of consumer prayer, including of course the so-called 1979 American BCP. The exception is the Irish “Alternative Prayer Book, 1984” which prints a two-year eucharistic lectionary.

The Collects, Epistles and Gospels are one of the most outstanding features of Common Prayer and its most neglected. It is, perhaps, not too much to say that the failure to attend to the credal or doctrinal understanding of Scripture embodied in the eucharistic lectionary has meant the loss of common prayer and, more seriously, the loss of the common faith for Anglicans. The eucharistic lectionary is, incidentally, the oldest and the most ecumenical part of the Book of Common Prayer. It is at the heart of the Common Prayer tradition, not Bishops!

Cranmer didn’t invent the eucharistic lectionary. He took over what in fact belonged to the essential continuum of liturgical prayer in the western church going back to the Fathers. He made modest changes to it and if anything simplified and sharpened its logic. Later, others would do the same, such as Bishop John Cosin, adding a few Collects, Epistles and Gospels where needed but in conscious accord with the overall doctrinal pattern of the lectionary itself.

For Cranmer and his successors, the Collects, Epistles and Gospels were critical to the project of opening out the Scriptures to everyone. They were opened out in the confidence of their doctrinal or credal understanding; in short, in the confidence of what they are and what they have to say about our identity with God in Christ.

The Collects, Epistles and Gospels provide the interpretative framework for reading and praying the Scriptures in the pattern of the church year both at the daily offices and at the Sunday offices. They express the scriptural content of the formative pattern of common prayer.

That the eucharistic lectionary has a logic, a coherence and an integrity is perhaps the first point to be recovered. This was the commonplace of understanding for a host of devotional and theological writers. The integral character of the lectionary is succinctly captured by Anthony Sparrow (17th cent): in the first half of the year, “we run, as it were, through a great part of the Creed, by setting before us in an orderly manner the highest Mysteries of our Redemption by Christ”; in the second half of the year, the Creed runs through us, as it were, in the application of saving doctrine to the habits of moral and holy lives. “The Sundays after Trinity”, John Henry Blunt observes, “may be regarded as a system illustrating the practical life of Christianity, founded on the truths previously presented, and guided by the example of our Blessed Lord”. The interplay of justification and sanctification so crucial to the Common Prayer tradition is embodied in the structure of the eucharistic lectionary itself.

We have forgotten this, just as we have forgotten the relation between the Collects, Epistles and Gospels of each Sunday as well as the relation between Sundays within the seasons and even between the seasons. In the enthusiasm to embrace the “new” eucharistic lectionaries – themselves in their three-year format deriving from the modernist Roman Catholic Church’s questionable adoption of modern biblical criticism – it has been claimed that the older eucharistic lectionary lacked coherence and, particularly, that there was a dislocation of the epistles and gospels for at least half the year. Such an argument, even at face value, concedes at least that there was a logic, a place from which things became dislodged.

The irony is that Anglicans should have claimed this as an argument for adopting the new Roman-based three-year cycle of three readings. Ironic, because the dislocations which arose over changes made in the late Middle Ages, and subsequently embodied in the post-Tridentine Roman Catholic lectionary, were avoided by Cranmer’s use of the Sarum Missal. The changes primarily concerned two things: provisions of propers for what were formerly “Dominica vagans” – empty Sundays on account of Embertide vigil ordinations – and the common observance of Trinity Sunday on the first Sunday after Pentecost in 1334. It had been instituted earlier in England, in 1162, but without disturbing the sequence of epistles and gospels. The complaint about the dislocation of epistles and gospels is simply groundless with respect to the Common Prayer tradition.

Ignorance married to arrogance has resulted in the iconoclastic destruction of the heart of Common Prayer. Only the fragments remain. Churches will “observe”, for instance, “Laetare” or “Mothering” Sunday in Lent IV, but without its scriptural basis. The traditional propers after all – the epistle from Galatians 4 and the gospel of the feeding of the multitude from John – have disappeared. In general, the hold of the older logic still obtains in the sense that its credal quality is carried over into how people sometimes think the new lectionaries. But in fact, the interplay of thematic and semi-continuous reading of Scripture they present have very little connection to the credal form of the older lectionary.

“Historical” reconstructions and speculations have supplanted theological understanding in the ordering of the reading of Scripture in the Church’s life of prayer. The “new” lectionaries assume the primacy of the synoptic gospels, hence the three year cycle of Matthew, Mark and Luke. Even more, the ghostly presence of the mythical “Q” is assumed in the ordering of readings, for example, the inclusion of the “Bread of Life”discourse from John’s gospel in the midst of reading Mark.

For the older eucharistic lectionary a theological primacy was accorded to the Gospel of John. Theologically, the question of which gospel is earliest is a subordinate concern. Ultimately, the question “what is history”, too, has to be considered philosophically and theologically.

The ascendancy of modern biblical criticism has resulted in primacy being given to the historical. It has resulted in the uneasy and unhappy tension between theology and history. As Stephen Neil and N.T. Wright have observed, everything before the rise of modern biblical criticism in the late 18th century is ipso facto pre-critical and fundamentalist. It is a big broom indeed that so cavalierly consigns to the same dust-bin of history the incredible diversity of approaches to biblical interpretation belonging to the church’s life, a diversity sustained, it must be said, by the credal understanding of scripture. It would be hard to say in what meaningful sense any of it could be termed “fundamentalist”. The category, after all, is really a product of biblical criticism itself.

The historical approach can also be seen to be fundamentally anti-doctrinal. As N.T. Wright has usefully shown, the various historical approaches belonging to contemporary biblical criticism all carry with them philosophical and theological presuppositions. It could hardly be otherwise. But the limits of historicism are beginning to be seen. It cannot account for the texts it reconstructs (and deconstructs!). It is hardly an adequate basis for the church’s reading of scripture. It is ironically ahistorical in terms of how the church has historically read and prayed the scriptures.

Perhaps, just perhaps, it is time for history to come home to theology. And perhaps, just perhaps, the place to begin is at the centre, at the biblical heart of the matter, in the recovery of the sense of Scripture as “a doctrinal instrument of salvation”, as Cranmer and Hooker put it. Perhaps, just perhaps, we might begin to recover for our church and our minds the eucharistic lectionary of the classical Books of Common Prayer. It just might be to find ourselves on the road to Emmaus, like the disciples “our hearts burn[ing] within us…while he talked with us by the way and while he opened to us the Scriptures”. That is the heart of the matter, especially where “he was known of them in the breaking of the bread”.