John Mason Neale on Scripture Lessons

In a collection of essays – Essays on Liturgiology and Church History – I found on I was particularly struck by some observations made by John Mason Neale in his essay The Breviary – Roman and Gallican. Neale is here concerned with how the Breviary works and every s often he will reference to the BCP :

And, to begin:- No one doubts that our people hear a great deal more of Holy Scripture in the course of the year than those of the Roman Church; but some grave considerations will arise for the discussion of the future National Council of the English Church (p. 24).

Neale proceeds to list a number of things which took me by surprise. It has been an assumption of mine – and apparently of the Reformers – that exposure to Scripture is crucial to the purpose of the Divine Office. The more Scripture covered the better, after all these are the words of God bringing salvation and healing from the passions and sins. But is that necessarily the case?

It is absolutely certain that no uneducated, and not many educated, persons, can understand half of the Old Testament Lessons of our Church. Take, for example, the the prophets from Jeremiah, which occupy from the 17th of July to the 27th of September, how many chapters are, and must be, an utter mystery to an ordinary congregation! How many to how many priests?

Indeed, just because you have spent hours/days/months/years studying exegesis, biblical history, hermeneutics etc. does not mean most other people have also. Just because it is obvious to me what the Lord really means in this passage doesn’t mean it is all that clear to anybody else – and perhaps even I could be in error? In other words do not presume your fellow Christians are as familiar in theology – or even the Bible – as you are. People are not stupid. Yet a poll I saw a few years ago taken in the United States indicated that a majority of the people believed that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife! If you don’t know why that is funny/tragic you may want to consider Sunday School again.

So again the Epistles; where not only is the obscurity so great, but where there is considerable danger lest they that are unlearned and unstable should wrest them to their own destruction.

Another point that was completely lost on – and often still is – on the more Protestant of the English Reformers. Throwing lots and lost of Scripture at unsuspecting (and often sadly unlearned in Christian basics) people may very well be poisonous to people. After all most heresies are not caused by a deviating and pernicious philosophy, but are a a failure of exegesis. To be sure, Scripture contains the words of life from God, but even Jesus did not give all His teaching all at once to His disciples – He fed them responsibly and met them where they were at. This seems also to have been St. Paul’s practice (1 Cor. 3) should ours not be the same?

Neale goes on the acknowledge that never-the-less the hearing of such words might be a real blessing to people even if they do not understand the Scriptures thrown at them. But “by a kind of opus operatum” because God respects the faith of His faithful. But the blessing thus received comes not by “any virtue of the portion read.” Rather God’s grace is received as a response to the faith shown, not from the passage read. In such a case the passage read remains passive – at best.

… but, if he [the non-understanding hearer] does not obtain any good, it certainly follows that many of our lessons are wholly useless. And it is inconsistent enough, on the one hand, to condemn wholesale the use of one tongue “not understanded of the people,” and, on the other, to make such a large portion of the service consist of a language (namely, that of Scripture prophecy and argument) almost equally unintelligible to them.

Taking seriously what Neale is saying here cautions me in my previously stated desire to add more Scripture to the AB. I had not taken any notice of Neale’s wisdom and prudence before. Scripture is good and it contains the words of salvation, yet too much of a good thing without time to properly process whatever good we are receiving may prove to be poisonous! I think this is also one of the point made in the story of the Fall in the book of Genesis.

Just some thoughts along the way …

Fr. Gregory Wassen


About Father Gregory

I am an Anglican Catholic Priest, currently residing in Orvelte, the Netherlands.
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