Scripture in Stereo
When visiting friends, I like to go with them to their own church. When that church is non-denominational or non-liturgical, one notices that there might not be any Bible reading. I was once at such a church on Easter Day. We were given music in abundance, pictures on screens, prayers and greetings, and a decent sermon. But only in the sermon was there any quotation from the Bible, and that only a couple of verses.
I realized how deeply Anglican my worship sense has become. I expected (and longed) to hear the Bible read.
The genius of the Book of Common Prayer from the 16th century to today is its handling of Scripture. Common Prayer is first of all daily prayer, in two roughly parallel services with the really fancy names of “Morning Prayer” and “Evening Prayer.” (Even this is Anglican. I had to explain to an editor once why I capitalized Morning Prayer. “It’s a worship service,” I said.)
Often is it taught that in having two daily services the Prayer Book was simplifying a very complex system of daily prayers that clergy and monks went through, back in the middle ages (and still, in substance, today). The Prayer Book, it is taught, is a simplification which, at the same time, became a new thing for all lay people to follow. Daily prayer in the Anglican mode is not just for clergy and religious but for everybody. The rubrical instructions in the early Books are downright charming: The clergyman is to read the service in a loud voice from a place that allows it to be heard. And lest the point be forgotten: The clergyman is to read the Scripture lessons clearly in a loud voice that can be heard by the people!
So, yes, the daily round of Morning and Evening Prayer was simpler and was a movement toward putting these services into the daily lives of all the people. But this way of telling the story leaves out an important fact.
From the beginning, Morning and Evening Prayer were aimed at having the Bible read, and not just a verse here or there, but long passages, both in the morning and in the evening. These were designed to be consecutive passages, so that books of the Bible, from day to day (or even morning to evening, in the earliest calendars), would impart their contours onto the congregation’s mental geography.
That is to say, Morning and Evening Prayer were designed as a remedy for biblical illiteracy. Today, a lot of us bemoan our collective ignorance of more than scattered bits of the Bible. Well, so did the folks of the 16th century.
The cure for biblical illiteracy? Say Morning and Evening Prayer.
A final point, as important as everything else. From the beginning, Morning and Evening Prayer each had two Bible readings, one from the Old Testament and one from the New. The 1979 Prayer Book in its multiple alternatives permits, for the first time, there to be only a single reading, if desired. Nonetheless, it states explicitly that if two readings are done, the first is to be from the Old Testament. It also explains what the evening OT lesson should be if you have also read the OT in the morning (see BCP p. 934).
Thus, any time we have two Scripture readings in these daily prayer services, we are listening to both Old Testament and New Testament. This is a distinctive of our Anglican tradition, one with deep theological significance.
Anglicans hear Scripture in stereo. We never listen only to the OT or the NT: we listen to both testaments together.
That shows we believe that the Bible interprets itself. It shows also that we believe God’s promises to his people, beginning with Abraham, are eternal promises never to be gone back upon. It further shows that we trust the Bible. Morning and Evening Prayer have no provision for a sermon (although the 1979 Book suggests where one might be placed); in earlier practice, if there was a sermon it came after the service was finished. (Some of my readers may recall the title, “Morning Prayer with Sermon.”)
Anglicans trust that a congregation hearing the Bible read from day to day, in continuity, with both Old and New Testaments at play—that this practice of hearing the Bible will, through the oft-unheralded work of the Holy Spirit, form a Christian people. Bible study classes can help. Sermons can help. But the core practice is to give our attention daily, indeed twice daily, to the stereoscopically received written Word.
On the Web. I have an essay of recollections as a pro-life clergyman that has been published in the May First Things: https://www.firstthings.com/article/2020/05/the-education-of-a-pro-life-clergyman