Elizabeth’s Lectionary

When we get to the Daily Office lectionary of the 1559 BCP, the lectionary takes its first major turn away from the lines laid down by Cranmer ten years before. Where the 1552 book had introduced proper lessons for several of the holy days, this book goes a far sight further and appoints lessons for all the Sundays of the year.

The Sunday lessons are quite interesting for what they do and don’t do. First, only two lessons are appointed for each Sunday, the OT lessons for Morning and Evening Prayer. Thus, the in-course reading of the NT is not disrupted. This ensures that edifying lessons are selected on the day when the greatest number of congregants will be present in church.

Second, it solidifies the place of the liturgical year by making it more visible. In contrast to the earlier books, a reader know needed to be aware of what Sunday they were approaching in order to correctly discern the reading.

Third, the OT lessons were apparently selected with the older lectionary system in mind to a degree. Lessons from Isaiah are selected from Advent through the Sundays after Epiphany. Then the lectionary starts with Genesis on Septuagesima. Selected lessons run until the middle of Lent where it shifts into Exodus. The Easter season gets bits from Numbers and Deuteronomy. The Sundays after Trinity quickly transition to the Historical books: after one Sunday of Joshua, and one of Judges it moves into 1 Samuel [nb: it’s listed as 1 Kings but you’ll note that it proceeds to 4 Kings indicating that their English Bible is following the Vulgate book naming conventions]. The Samuel-Kings complex is read through the 13 Sunday after Trinity when we make a turn into prophets. Select bits are read from Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Joel, Micah, and Habakkuk. Then, at EP of the 21st Sunday after Trinity, it moves to Proverbs where it stays until the start of Advent.

In the old Office lectionary—whether we’re talking about the scheme of Ordo XIII or the Sarum Breviary—the summer was given over to History, Wisdom, and the Minor Prophets (plus Ezekiel). The 1559 system doesn’t follow that exactly, but makes general motions in that direction along with the classic placement of Genesis and Exodus with Pre-Lent and Lent. (The Old English students reading will note that Ælfric’s reading for Mid-Lent Sunday in the Lives of the Saints is actually a quick recap of Moses and the Exodus.)

Apparently, some of these selections were displeasing to the queen. On January 22nd, 1561 she sent a letter to her Ecclesiastical Commissioners requesting them: ” to peruse the order of the said lessons throughout the whole yere, and to cause some new calendars to be imprinted, whereby such chapters or parcells of less edification may be removed, and other more profitable may supply their roomes…” (Cardwell, Documentary Annals, 1.262). Given the date, such a request may not be entirely surprising: MP on the 19th was Gen 34 (the rape of Dinah and subsequent post-circumcision slaughtering of a town), MP on the 20th was Gen 36  (the genealogies of Esau and Edom), MP on the 21st was Gen 38 (Onan and Tamar’s seduction of her father-in-law Judah).

New kalendars were indeed drawn up by Parker (+Canterbury) and Grindal (+London) but only a three minor changes were made to the Sundays and Feast days; the major change was the restoration of a fair number of Sarum black-letter feast days. No change was made to the in course reading schedule that I know of. Indeed, a comparison of the 1552 and 1559 in-course schedule shows no changes whatsoever.

There is one other area where changes were made, though, and that’s in the Proper Lessons for Holy Days. As noted previously, readings—typically from Acts—were appointed as the second lesson at MP for some feast days in order that the passages about certain saints would be read on their days. What we see here is a far more thorough revision of how saints’ days were celebrated. The second lessons were left as printed in the in-course reading. This table changes the first lesson at MP and consistently appoints lessons from the Wisdom books: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes,  Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus, and Job in an oddly in course selection. (Feasts of Our Lord and the weekdays around Easter tend to get typological passages such as Gen 22—the sacrifice of Isaac—for Good Friday.)

The appearance of the Sunday table and the alterations to the Proper Lessons table may reflect a certain relaxing of the discipline of the lectionary. There was a certain easing of the Act of Uniformity around the selection of lessons and the introduction to the Second Book of Homilies (1562) allows clergy to:swap out readings at their discretion:

And where it may so chance some one or other Chapter of the Old Testament to fall in order to be read upon the Sundays or Holy days, which were better to be changed with some other of the New Testament of more edification, it shall be well done to spend your time to consider well of such Chapters before hand, whereby your prudence and diligence in your office may appear, so that your people may have cause to glorify God for you, and be the readier to embrace your labors, to your better commendation, to the discharge of your consciences and their own.

So—the original pattern laid down by Cranmer was kept for yearly in-course reading, but new options were available for Sundays, Holy Days, and cases where the lessons were seen as unfit for public consumption.

One final item to consider is the theological message of appointed Sunday readings. What did this say about what was to be the main public service on Sundays—the Mass or the Office? It’s a question that deserves more investigation but, to me, it looks like a move to either suggest a shift or to reinforce a practice that had already occurred.

4 Replies to “Elizabeth’s Lectionary”

  1. Given Elizabeth’s propensity as either a moderate Protestant or moderate Catholic, and her willingness to place her hand in religious matters, such shifts aren’t a surprise and as you say represent a change from Cranmer et al’s Reformed trajectory ensconced precisely in a different conception of our life together and our connection to the whole Communion of Saints in Christ, remembering of course that this connection had gone awry when it became a treasure chest rather than a family relationship, affecting all the rites and ceremonies of the Church.

    This underscores the contention of Christopher Haigh and many others that the use of the definite article in from of a singular Reformation is not helpful for understanding how it is that a sifting of inherited catholic faith through reforms occurred in the Isles and that this occurred in messy and incomplete rounds. Indeed, as American Episcopalians we have had our own series of reformations…

    I would also add following up to the response to Fr Gregory that Cranmer et al had a very catholic concern, namely divine initiative in Christ and what I would call a gift soteriology. As William Crockett has noted, sadly, Cranmer’s high Incarnational stance re: Jesus Christ was uneasy with his metaphysical commitments and hence his move to a Reformed sacramental outlook. Nevertheless, he bequeathed to us an outlook, however sifted by other eras, of salvation as gift as well as a much stronger Pneumatology than other inheritors of the Western Christian traditions.

  2. I’m really enjoying this little series on lectionaries in the BCP, thanks for it!

  3. It’s good to know that Queen Elizabeth likely was just as troubled by the latter books of Genesis as we are.

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