In their book The Fate of Communion: The Agony of Anglicanism and the Future of a Global Church Ephraim Radner and Philip Turner make the observation that the Book of Common Prayer (henceforth BCP) teaches Scripture by means of immersion that is the BCP lectionary as originally designed by Abp. Cranmer does not seek to provide proof texts for doctrine but it seeks to form the Christian people by providing a very thorough reading of Scripture in the Daily Office as contained in the BCP. To this end the BCP has a continuous reading schedule for the Bible which is only very rarely interrupted for ‘proper readings’ for the sanctoral or temporal cycles of the Christian year. This is definitely a strength of the BCP.
It has been noted on the New Liturgical Movement Blog (the series concerning Breviary Reforms through the ages) that a grand total of30 + pages of about 1500 pages which the Breviary contained (in the 16-th Century) were Scripture readings. No doubt this is a severe weakness of the Breviary and paints a stark contrast with the BCP. The Breviary focused very heavily on the sanctoral cycle providing selections from the (same) Psalms and selections from the Old and New Testaments woven around the celebration of this or that saint. The Daily Office as contained in the Breviary at that point does not focus on Christ and the medium through which He most immediately reveals Himself – Scripture. The Breviary under Abp. Cranmer’s revision became the 1549 BCP where the sanctoral and temporal cycles were drastically curtailed in favor of a regular reading of the Psalter as a whole (over the course of 30 days) and most of the Old and New Testaments (over the course of a year).
In the BCP the Scriptures are central and its Author rather than the saints and Feasts of the Christian year. This is – as I have said – an undeniable strength of the BCP over against the Breviary. In the BCP providence is made for the Christian people to be formed by Scripture directly rather than by the sanctoral and temporal cycles without any significant exposure to Scripture. The praying Christian – either privately or corporately – is formed and shaped by what it is he or she prays and reads. The words of prayer and Scripture are the Christian addressing God and God addressing the praying person – for Scripture is (of course) the Word of God. Christian formation as it took place under the Medieval Roman system (and current Eastern Orthodox system) takes place by the sanctoral and temporal cycles rather than by exposure to Scripture. Now Scripture itself is already mediated communication with God through a created medium (the Bible) when the feasts of the saints and to a lesser extent the temporal cycle replace the place of Scripture such formation is now mediated by another mediated medium which itself depends on the Scriptural mediation. A chasm begins to appear between hearing God and being formed/shaped by His Word to the extent that the sanctoral and temporal cycles obscure the exposure to Scripture.
That being said, the BCP as it left the hands of Abp. Cranmer lacks a sanctoral and temporal cycle to an almost fatal extent. By that I mean that mere exposure to Scripture does not necessarily form the praying person into a mature Christian. In recent studies on how Scripture was read and used by the first Christians it has become clear that Scripture in and of itself does not provide its own hypothesis or interpretative key. Rather the Rule of Faith in the larger context of the Christian Church does. The most basic application of this is that it is axiomatic that Scripture speaks of Jesus Christ and in order to do so Scripture speaks and teaches in different ways – has multiple layers of meaning. The assumption that Scripture has multiple layers of meaning was not new with Christians it is to be found (as the biblical scholar James Kugel points out in his works) in ancient (pre-Christian readers/commentators of the Bible) and is continued – albeit in a specifically Christian way – in Christianity. By just using the BCP this does not become clear at all. Scripture takes the leading role in the BCP Office but it is not necessarily taught. The sanctoral and temporal cycles of the Medieval Breviary teach – or are supposed to do so – Scripture to the praying person(s) yet in the absence of Scripture readings the teaching easily becomes detached from Scripture and increasingly frivolous. On the other hand the severity of the BCP’s inability to teach but merely immerse in Scripture becomes increasingly evident over time and the BCP is revised regularly in order to teach more clearly.
That is not to say that the BCP is completely powerless to teach! Certainly not. The Puritans realized that many catholic things areimplied by the BCP that are not directly taught and realizing this therefore sought to destroy the BCP all together. The BCP implies a staunch adherence to Trinitarianism, to the real humanity and divinity of Jesus Christ, it implies that Scripture contains all things necessary for salvation, it implies the necessity of the three-fold ministry of Bishop, Priest and Deacon in the Church, it implies that God communicates with us by means of the Bible, it implies that sacraments are an essential part of Christian life … In other words a great deal of things are implied but little – beyond justification by faith – is explicitly taught. The BCP is still a catholic book and therefore implies a catholic approach, even if it does not require it. The BCP depends upon the larger – catholic (not Roman) – context in which it is used, the religious and spiritual culture in which it is set. The BCP unlike the Anglican Breviary (henceforth AB) depends rather heavily upon this context so that the relationship between larger culture and the Prayer Book is too much in one direction – from the culture upon it. The AB, because it contains clearer teaching depends much less upon the larger cultural context in which it is set and has more impact upon that culture as does the BCP. It is my contention that what is implied in the BCP is more clearly expressed in the structure of the Anglican Breviary and for that reason we find that today hymns, collects and readings are provided for celebrating a more extensive sanctoral and temporal cycle for use with the BCP or the Book of Common Worship in the UK. The BCP, today, functions more as a Breviary. In a sense it is coming full circle.
But how does the AB teach Scripture differently from the BCP? First of all the AB is a reformed entity and shares a common ancestry and purpose with Abp. Cranmer’s BCP (an argument could be made that the AB is a BCP). AB incorporates the BCP including all its collects. Whatever is taught directly in these BCP collects is taught also by the AB. The AB reads the Psalter over the course of a week and like the BCP prefers the Daily Psalter over most feasts. The AB also prefers readings from Scripture over proper readings so that the first Nocturn of Matins is usually the (continuous) reading of a Book of Scripture. The second Nocturn is usually a patristic commentary which reads the passage of Scripture from the first Nocturn in a particular way thereby forming and shaping how Scripture (and thus the voice of God) is heard by the person who is praying the Office. The same things happens in the third Nocturn. On feasts selections from Scripture are used and selections from patristic sources or legends are used in order to shed light on the feast celebrated and to guide the direction that contemplation of the feast could take. The BCP does not do that. It is here that what the BCP implies becomes explicit in the AB. This paradoxically means that the BCP is less inclusive of Antiphons, Legends, selective readings for feasts etc. and therefore ore open to divers interpretation. Implication is a weak form of teaching. The AB is more inclusive of Antiphons, legends, selective readings for feasts etc. and to that extent less inclusive of diversity in interpretation. The BCP means by implication, the AB means by explication – to state things in an over-simplified form.
This does not mean that the AB is perfect – far from it. There are disadvantages to the way that the AB teaches Scripture. One disadvantage is that the AB covers significantly less Scripture in its Office in comparison to the BCP. So that when using the AB one needs to supplement the reading of Scripture outside the context of the Daily Office where the BCP suffers from this problem to a much, much lesser extent. When using the BCP a context needs to be provided within which its Scripture readings is to be interpreted. The how to concerning the hearing of Scripture is not clearly given in the BCP. In the AB the commentaries and legends interpret and apply Scripture which serves as an example to those using it for how they are to interpret and apply Scripture. In the AB there is no mereimmersion in Scripture, but immersion in a specific interpretative context. Where the BCP provides the building blocks (Scripture) the AB provides along with it a blue-print for using the building blocks in traditionally Christian way.
All this is not to say that the AB is always to be preferred over the BCP – far from it. The context provided for the sanctoral and temporal cycle today make the BCP or Book of Common Worship function as the AB does. The AB is merely an older and more continuous structure to achieve the goals the BCP has set. In the end the AB could not have existed without the BCP and in that sense depends on it. In a way, the AB is a more continuous rendering of the Daily Office ideal as intended and implied by the BCP. But that means that the BCP itself can be amended so that it expresses what it implies more clearly while not reverting back to a Breviary structure. This is what is done by modern provisions for the sanctoral and temporal cycle to enrich the BCP Office or the Book of Common Worship Office with. The BCP can in today’s context do what the AB does and teach Scripture so that it now forms Christian users by immersion in Scripture while at the same time providing the how to for reading and applying Scripture. But as long as the BCP does not itself become more like the AB it will always depend more upon an outside context as does the AB.
Fr. Gregory +
EDIT: the discontinuity of the BCP which I mentioned in the last paragraph lies in its collapsing several Offices from the Breviary into one Office by very extensive editing of the Offices. The AB also edits the Offices and re-distributes the Psalter but it keeps intact the overall structure of the Breviary Offices.