Prayer Book Studies II: The Lectionary

Sharing the latter half of the volume with PBS I is Prayer Book Studies II: The Liturgical Lectionary which examines and recommends changes to the lectionary appointed for the Eucharist.

Note the timing: this was published in 1950 and was based on work done before that time. The three-year lectionary is not even a twinkle in Rome’s eye at this point. As a result, this book is focused entirely on tweaks to the classical one-year lectionary. This volume could be considered an anachronistic waste of time as it refers to a system we no longer use any more but for two important points.

First, the three-year lectionary has come under fire lately and there have been a number of pieces written on the superiority of the one-year system and calls for its restoration. In light of that call, I find it quite valuable to see this list of considerations on what needed to be changed in that system by people who had lived within it for decades. It’s easy enough for people of my age and younger who have never lived under it to wax eloquent about its benefits; it’s more instructive to hear trained scholars with lengthy experience with it hold forth on how it could be made better.

Second, this volume addresses what I understand as a fundamental principle of any good Eucharistic lectionary:

In other words, it is none of our concern to impose any individualistic idea of our own as to what the Christian Year is, much less to reform it to what we might like to make it. As a matter of fact, we know what the Christian Year is only by studying what it has been: and any emendations we may make should be limited to those which will actually enable it to say better what it is evidently trying to say. (PBS II, 45)

One of the brief side-arguments I made in my dissertation that I’d like to revisit and expand upon at some time is just this notion—that there is an Aristotelian back-and-forth between the character of our liturgical seasons and the content of our Eucharistic lections. That is, the themes of the season inform the choice of the lessons; the content of the lessons establishes the themes of the season.

The argument rightly presented here is that “…the Church’s cycle of commemorations was not a system which was systematically planned and executed at any one time, but a collection which was gradually piled up through many centuries” (PBS II, 40). Indeed, further scholarly work like McKinnon’s magisterial The Advent Project (published in 2000 and argued about since then) gives a fascinating visibility into the fits and starts by which accumulation and systematic planning alternated in the life of the Church and the growth of its lectionaries and Minor Propers.

There is a not insignificant amount of unhappiness with certain aspects of the Revised Common Lectionary—the three-year cycle we currently use for our Eucharistic lectionary. While many folks take the opportunity to spout off about what’s wrong with it, this volume offers an opportunity to examine how to go about thinking through what careful, intentional, systematic revision could and should look like.

It’s worth noting that the changes discussed here are grounded in one particular book, The Eternal Word in the Modern World, by Burton Scott Easton and Howard Chandler Robbins (Scribners, New York, 1937). The introduction to PBS I/II states :

The Commission records its loss in the deaths of two of its members, whose final contributions to the Church they served are reflected in this first issue of the Prayer Book Studies. . . . The Reverend Doctor Burton Scott Easton, late Associate Member, in his published work on the Epistles and Gospels of the Christian Year, furnished the foundation and inspiration for the Study on “The Liturgical Lectionary.”

So—the first author of the book was also a participant in the drafting of this volume. I’ve never seen a copy of this work for myself, but now I’m curious about it…

Another interesting throw-away line was this one:

It is a curious fact that no Lectionary of any Church ever made a systematic attempt to secure a definite ‘liturgical harmony,’ featuring a single common theme between all the portions read at each service, until the American Lectionary of 1943. (PBS II, 44)

The reference here is not to a Eucharistic lectionary, but to the revision of the Daily Office Lectionary. While I’m aware of this lectionary and have interacted with it to a certain degree,  I’ve not yet studied it in depth. When I have the opportunity to do so, the starting point will no doubt be Bayard Jones’ The American Lectionary (Morehouse-Gorham, 1944).

Jones was one of the Big Three in the early work of the Standing Liturgical Commission, the other two being Morton Stone and Massey Shepherd, Jr. All three of these guys—as liturgy professors at Episcopal seminaries—wrote important books on the 1928 BCP and its liturgy that might make interesting reading to supplement what is found in these Prayer Book Studies volumes.

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