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 second half of this article, we shall examine the last two points.
With the Prayer Book, Cranmer effectively institutionalised the daily reading of Scripture within Church worship. Yet, he did not stop there but reinforced it as Church practice by making it part of clergy duty. At the end of his Preface to the Prayer Book, Cranmer gave the direction to all priests and deacons “to say daily the Morning and Evening Prayer”, regardless of personal health or urgent business. Similarly, clergy with oversight of a parish or chapel are to do the same so that whoever attends the Divine Service may hear God’s Word.
Moreover, the same charge is found in “The Form and Manner of Making of Deacons”. One of the deacon’s vow is “Will you diligently read the same [i.e. the Canonical Scriptures] unto the people assembled in the Church where you shall be appointed to serve?” In addition, in the description of the Office of a Deacon, it is written, “It appertains to the Office of a Deacon in the Church where he shall be appointed to serve… to read holy Scriptures and Homilies in the Church”. If the characteristic function of the priest is to preside over the Holy Communion, the deacon is to read Scripture. The fact that there is a specific Office appointed for this function testifies to the importance of daily Scripture reading to Anglicanism. Together with this, comes the central role of preaching and teaching in Anglican understanding of ordained ministry. We note that the bishop entrusts the deacons and priests with the authority to “read the Gospel in the Church of God, and to preach the same”.
Any tradition that is fundamental should be grounded in the theology of the Church. In this last section, we shall see how Scripture reading and hearing is a reflection of Anglican theology.
The Articles of Religion (1553) does not mention every day Bible reading; yet, Scripture reading is implied. Specifically, Article 5 “The Doctrine of Holy Scripture is sufficient to Salvation” assumes that books of the Old Testament, New Testament and Apocrypha are being read in the Church: “And the other books as Hierome [i.e. Jerome] saith, the Church doth read…” A clearer doctrinal statement on daily Scripture reading can be found in the Book of Homily. Here, Thomas Cranmer writes, “And there is nothing that so much establishes our faith and trust in God, that so much conserves innocence and pureness of the heart, and also of outward godly life and conversation, as continual reading and meditation of God’s Word.” The main doctrine propounded in this homily is the efficacy of Holy Scripture to convert, sanctify and make holy its hearers through the power of the Holy Spirit. This is possible when Holy Scripture is continually and perpetually read by Christians.
Cranmer’s theology has been interpreted as follows: the hearing of God’s Word establishes the relationship between God and humankind, revealing the fallen nature of all creation; and the church is the community where God’s Word is proclaimed through speech and faithfully received in hearing. Since the Word of God is the source of knowledge and the basis of the Church, the reading of Scripture in Church ought to be the Church’s core practice. Therefore, Cranmer’s intent for daily Scripture reading was rooted not only in ancient tradition, but also in his theological understanding of the Word of God and the Church. Of course, Cranmer was not the only one who saw the theological underpinnings of Scripture reading. His successors, John Whitgift and Richard Hooker, recognised that daily reading is the foundation of the Church’s mission to evangelise the world. The Church witnesses to God most directly by continuously reading God’s saving Word in public.
While the Church’s theologians and their doctrinal statements affirm Scripture reading, they do not go so far as to prescribe reading every single day. Nonetheless, such an observation does not undermine the essential nature of daily reading to Anglicanism since it is the role of service orders and not articles of faith to detail Church worship practices. Furthermore, the idea of continuous reading is almost always found in the doctrinal statements of the Anglican Church.
What does this mean for us today? I can think of two applications to our corporate and personal spiritual life. First, those who have been appointed by the priest-in-charge to read Scripture during services should be cognizant of the tremendous responsibility given to them. Scripture reading should not be seen as a tiresome task that the clergy deign to do, but as a noble task which the laity has been empowered to do. Scriptures should be read not only respectfully and eloquently, but with the heart of love that seeks to edify others through it.
Second, those who are subscribers to daily devotions which offer bite-size verses for meditation may want to consider switching to a diet of lengthy and uninterrupted readings once in a while. For example, reading through an entire NT epistle in one sitting or the entire narrative of an OT character. You may be surprised by the insights that are revealed to you through such reading and meditation. On top of that, you may also want to consider reading aloud to yourself, so that you are both reader and listener of the Word.
May we “continually profit more and more in the knowledge of God and be more inflamed with the love of His true religion” through the daily reading and hearing of Holy Scripture. Amen.
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.