Supplementary Old Testament Lections for the BCP Eucharistic Lectionary

Supplementary Old Testament Lections
for the BCP Eucharistic Lectionary

(The PBSC has recently launched a project to compile a set of optional Old Testament readings to complement the traditional Epistle and Gospel readings at the BCP service of Holy Communion. The Revd. Benjamin von Bredow, who is rector-elect of the Parish of Shelburne, Nova Scotia, is the chairman of the committee undertaking this work. In this article he explains the rationale underlying this endeavour.)

The eucharistic lectionary of the Book of Common Prayer, which the 1962 BCP transmits to us with minor modifications, is one of the concrete ways in which classical Anglicanism sought to preserve “the godly and decent order of the ancient fathers”, as the preface to the original 1549 edition expresses it (reproduced on pp. 715-717 in our BCP). Whereas Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, the chief architect of the BCP, judged that the daily office lectionary desperately needed a reform, the eucharistic lectionary received a much gentler revision. Cranmer zeroed in on the daily office’s failure to expose the people of God to “all the whole Bible” – but the eucharistic lectionary, which uses a very small portion of the Bible over the course of the year, escaped the same criticism. Why? Because its purpose was not to provide continuous and thorough reading of Scripture. Instead, it was to complement the daily office lectionary, shaping the people’s biblical literacy into doctrinal and spiritual clarity. Thus, the daily office invites us into the Bible, and the eucharist instructs us from it.

The 1962 BCP, unlike the books and resources that followed it over the subsequent decades, is unique for preserving this two-stream approach to the Scriptures: that is, with continuous reading at the offices running parallel to thematic and doctrinal reading at the eucharist. The Revised Common Lectionary, which is used in most eucharistic services today, represents an attempt to simplify this system in favour of continuous reading of the Old and New Testaments at the Sunday eucharist only, casting aside the ancient lectionary with its doctrinal structure. Besides its failure to deepen biblical literacy in the pews, and its innate inability to achieve its primary goal – over three years, it reads only 25% of the scriptures, not the reputed 100% – its essential problem is its lack of coherence. It is not designed as a repeatable program of essential catechesis.

The Prayer Book Society has written on many occasions about the failures of the RCL, so I need go no further in this vein. But now the PBSC has undertaken a project to approach the BCP lectionary from a pastoral perspective. In view of the need for the people of God to be formed by the scriptural catechesis of the traditional eucharistic lectionary, how can the PBSC promote its use?

I suggested this question, and a possible answer to it, at the October 2021 meeting of the PBSC National Council. I argued that the biggest barrier for priests who would like to transition their congregations to the BCP lectionary is that it does not include an Old Testament reading. For all of its other inadequacies, the RCL has effectively fostered an expectation that the Old Testament will be read and preached on Sunday mornings, and this is not an expectation which a BCP Anglican ought to resist. Until the flourishing of the Parish Communion Movement in this country only a few decades ago, BCP Matins always included an Old Testament reading. Moreover, the 1962 revision of the BCP provides rubrics for the merging of the first half of Matins with the Communion service, effectively creating a three-lesson eucharist starting with the Old Testament. After all, Anglicans believe that the Old Testament is “God’s word written” just as much as the New.

That is not to say that the BCP is deficient because it does not prescribe a three-reading eucharist. Two-reading eucharists are the liturgical heritage of both Eastern and Western Christianity, and an Epistle and Gospel are perfectly sufficient for providing the doctrinal formation which is the eucharistic lectionary’s special genius. Since the daily office uses the Old Testament quite thoroughly, the Prayer Book cannot be accused of neglecting the Old Testament overall.

If a priest could not transition his congregation back to the BCP eucharistic lectionary without an Old Testament supplement, I argued that preserving the purity of the two-reading pattern was not worth denying him that opportunity. So long as no guidance for supplementing the traditional lectionary was available, using it in a congregation which loves the Old Testament – and can any BCP Anglican blame them for that? – remained unviable.

So the work began in January 2022. We formed a committee of people with three different kinds of expertise: biblical scholars, liturgical scholars, and regular preachers of the traditional lectionary. So far, these participants have been Dr. Daniel Driver of the Atlantic School of Theology, Dr. Jesse Billet (currently on leave) of Trinity College, Toronto, the Revd. David Butorac, rector of St. Alban’s Cathedral in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, Fr. Ted Williams, rector of All Saints’ Church in Melfort, Saskatchewan, and the Revd. Gavin Dunbar, rector of St. John’s Church, Savannah and president of the Prayer Book Society of the U.S.A. Meeting every two or three weeks, we began first by studying the received lectionary from historical, theological, liturgical, biblical, and hermeneutical perspectives. We quickly realized that our theoretical foundations would become clearer when applied to particular cases, so we dove in by following the calendar beginning in pre-Lent.

Supplementing the BCP lectionary caused us some trepidation, because we did not want to alter its character by filtering it through the logic of our Old Testament choices. Although the rationale for the whole project was to preserve the thematic coherence of each set of propers, it would have been tempting to use an Old Testament lesson to over-specify the meaning of the other two readings. If the received Epistle had themes A, B, and C, and the Gospel had themes B, C, and D, by suggesting an Old Testament reading to echo only theme B we might have proposed something with coherence, but which limited the dynamism of the received lectionary. So we are not looking for “puzzle pieces” or “keys” in the Old Testament which will “solve” the hermeneutic puzzle of intertextual reading in the New.

Instead, we have used the analogy of “companionship” to describe what we are looking for. We are seeking Old Testament readings which, when they accompany the BCP lectionary, engage in fruitful conversation with it about the themes of the occasion. The supplemental lessons should amplify the conversation which is already happening between Epistle and Gospel, making contributions to that conversation using its distinct theological idiom. For this reason, and out of a respect for the integrity of the Old Testament as holy scripture, we have tended to avoid the obvious type-antitype or prediction-fulfillment modes of relating the two testaments, which, although sometimes appropriate and theologically interesting, more often “erase” the Old Testament by treating it as a footnote or proof-text for the New. We have kept in mind that the lectionary is a catechetical document, so we ask ourselves, “When we see the Epistle and Gospel teaching x, how would the Old Testament approach that same idea?”

Here are two examples to illustrate our approach. In Lent, we have proposed readings centring around the figure of Moses, the Book of Deuteronomy, and the wilderness wanderings and entry into the promised land. On Lent 2, when the Epistle concerns abstinence from fornication and the Gospel describes the healing of the Canaanite woman, the conversation is about conditions or bounds of God’s grace. Does God’s grace extend beyond the Jews? Does God’s grace extend to the sinful? Yes, but sinners and Gentiles alike must receive grace with humility and repentance. So we have suggested the story of Rahab, another Canaanite woman and a prostitute, who in the fear of God appeals for a crumb of mercy from the God of the Jews, and is saved from the destruction of Jericho.

Then, on Lent 3, we receive a stern warning to leave behind the “ways of darkness” in the Epistle, and in the Gospel Jesus warns us about evil spirits and the danger of purifying one’s heart only to have “seven spirits more wicked than the first” return. We have recommended Deuteronomy 12:1-7, in which Moses commands the people to utterly destroy the altars of the seven nations of Canaan, lest, having taken possession of the land, they fall victim to the same idolatry. It is a lesson about the need for total devotion to the Lord alone, and the peril of tolerating spiritual darkness.

The work will continue. Having taken a summer break, we will resume in September, and continue throughout the next year at least.

We welcome new participants, not only to help with the work, but because we have found that in our bi-weekly discussion the lectionary has deepened our appreciation for the challenge and reward of intertextual, doctrinal reading of scripture. In short, it’s a great Bible study. If you or someone you know has relevant expertise as a liturgical or biblical scholar, or if you are a regular preacher of the one-year lectionary, or even if you have a committed interest in the project, please do get in touch! Your presence will be warmly welcomed, and will be a great help and encouragement.

May God bless this endeavour to the edification of his church.

Supplementary Old Testament Lections for the BCP Eucharistic Lectionary