Daily Hearing of Holy Scripture Read in the Church (Part 1 of 2)

The daily hearing of Holy Scripture read in the Church is fundamental to Anglicanism because 1) it was the explicit intent of the English Reformer Thomas Cranmer, 2) it is an institutionalised Church practice, and 3) it is grounded in Anglican theology. In the first half of this article, we shall examine the first point.

Cranmer’s Intent

Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer was responsible for producing the defining documents of the Church of England – the Book of Common Prayer, the Ordinal, the Book of Homilies and the Articles of Religion – and is thus credited as the architect of Anglicanism. Indeed, the Bishops of the Lambeth Conference in 1888 declared that the Prayer Book with its Catechism, the Ordinal and the Articles are the special heritage of the Church of England and are received as standards of doctrine and worship by all churches in the Anglican Communion. The next Lambeth Conference in 1897 reaffirmed this with another joint statement saying, “The Book of Common Prayer, next to the Bible itself, is the authoritative standard of the doctrine of the Anglican Communion.” Therefore, if anything fundamental to Anglicanism is to be found, it is in Cranmer’s design of the Church of England in these documents.

Accordingly, we find that the daily reading and hearing of Scripture was Cranmer’s explicit intent. This is visible from various components of the Prayer Book. First, the Divine Service in the Church are called “The Order for Morning Prayer, Daily throughout the Year,” and “The Order for Evening Prayer, Daily throughout the Year”. Furthermore, the instructions at the beginning of the Divine Service highlight that the minister “shall read with a loud voice some one or more of these Sentences of the Scriptures”. These titles and instructions clearly demand the everyday, audible reading of the Scriptures. At this point, it should be pointed out that daily reading is the same as daily hearing. For in Cranmer’s conception, when clergy read Holy Scripture, whether in public or private, the reader is the listener. Thus, Cranmer intended for daily oral reading and hearing of Scriptures in the Church.

Some may dispute that Cranmer’s long and descriptive titles for the Divine Service may be purely ornamental. However, this is entirely refuted by Cranmer’s Preface to the Prayer Book, where he articulated that his Prayer Book was designed to help the Church return to the practice of the “ancient Fathers”, who read through the Psalms in a single month and a great part of the Bible every year. That is, he did mean for the Scriptures to be read and hear every single day in the Church and the Morning and Evening Prayer were designed to redress lapses. Indeed, Cranmer was simply restoring to the Church of England, church traditions which have since been corrupted. Unfortunately, the lengthy and coherent reading of Scriptures in churches today is again on the decline.

Finally, Cranmer’s intent is obvious through his creation of “The Calendar, with the Table of Lessons” which has assigned readings for each day. The entire Psalter is to be read once through every month (except February) in a 30-day pattern. Depending on the length of the psalms, up to 12 psalms may be appointed for one day. The longest Psalm 119 is divided and read over 3 days. The Old Testament (OT) is read through once every year. Passages from the OT are the first readings in the divine services and are read in sequence in the Morning and Evening Prayers. The New Testament (NT) is read through twice a year. These are the second readings in the Divine Service. Different from the OT, the four Gospels and Acts are read in an unbroken sequence in the Morning Prayer while the Epistles are read through in canonical order in the Evening Prayer.

The Calendar is Cranmer’s original contribution to church liturgy and perhaps peculiar to the Church of England. Joan Lockwood O’Donovan went as far as to say that the lectionary-calendar is the lynchpin of the Prayer Book. With this “plain and easy” lectionary-calendar, Cranmer ensured and facilitated the continuous, uninterrupted reading of the Scripture throughout the year. Thus, judging from what Cranmer has done in the Prayer Book, it should be clear that it was his intention for the daily reading and hearing of Scriptures to be one of the cornerstones of the Church of England (and therefore of Anglicanism).

This article is originally an assignment written for the Anglicanism module in Trinity Theological College. The question [i.e. the title of the article] was set by the Canon Reverend Michael Poon. It has been adapted for this column and will be published in two parts.