Elizabeth’s Lectionary–Payoff

After detailing some of the changes that occurred with the 1561 revision of the 1559 Daily Office Lectionary (you may want to review the previous post), it’s time to take a look at what it all means. For me, at least, there are several things that jump out at me.

User Experience

One of the big changes here is the user experience. With Cranmer’s original plan, you could stick three bookmarks in your Bible—one for the OT, one for the Gospels/Acts, one for the NT Epistles—and watch them proceed through each year in a virtually unbroken march. Thus, in the active user experience, continuity and coverage is in the foreground. With this revision, I wouldn’t say that daily march is broken, but it’s certainly disturbed. The reason is that we’re no longer dealing with a single sequential pass through the Old Testament; instead, we’re experiencing two and a half! As in Cranmer’s plan, there is a single overarching sequence that moves through the Old Testament throughout the calendar year. However, there’s now another sequential series that is appointed for Sundays. It’s a miniaturized version of the bigger cycle and, presumably, aims to hit the high points for the slackers who only get their offices on Sundays. Thus, you now have the main cycle running concurrently with the Sunday “greatest hits” cycle. But it gets worse—the Sanctoral OT readings pick up where the Sunday OT readings left off: in the Wisdom Literature. So, not only do you have these two cycles moving in loose parallel, you also have to add in dips into the Wisdom Lit for most of the red-letter days which occur at a rate of about two each month. Hence, two and a half cycles… The result is that you have to do a bit more jumping around for the OT readings.

Red-Letter Awareness

The assignment of OT lessons to the red-letter days was a real shift away from the 1552 policy and the incorporation of these lessons into the 1561 kalendar meant that they could no longer be ignored because they were in a different table as in the 1559 edition. Just to recap, a red-letter day gets its name from the old manuscript kalendars where the more important feast days would be written in red ink rather than black. This tendency continued into the age of printing and some of the BCPs from various times and places will have red letters for the major holy days or at least a distinctive font. Functionally, these tend to be the days where the apostles and other New Testaments saints were celebrated. Something interesting is going on with these… A few of them were singled out for attention by Cranmer in the 1549 kalendar; he appointed special New Testament readings for Stephen, John, Paul, Barnabas, and Peter. With the exception of John, these readings were from Acts and give some scriptural backing to the saint being celebrated. Notice what happens with this lectionary, though. The kalendar calls attention to these days by making an alteration in the Scriptural pattern. However, the readings appointed give absolutely no information about the saint; the point is not directed edification towards the individual being honored. Instead, it seems that a link is forged between notions of sanctity and the so-called “orthodox wisdom” traditions found pre-eminently in Proverbs, Wisdom of Solomon and Ecclesiasticus. That is, these traditions bolster the notion that right action brings divine favor. (These are counter-balanced canonically by the so-called “wisdom in revolt” traditions of Job and Ecclesiastes that rightly point out that crap happens to the righteous too.)  As the wisdom tradition moves into the apocryphal, Hellenistic books of Wisdom of Solomon and Ecclesiasticus, right action tends to be identified much more closely with obedience to Scripture (Torah, to be precise, but not narrowly so). I see in this otherwise unusual pattern a statement that sanctity is grounded in right—Scriptural—action. I think this is quite in line with Reformation anxieties around the saints; this is a means of both preserving the observances and re-emphasizing the importance of Scripture. The new addition of Leviticus 26 (which hadn’t ever been present in the lectionary before) seems to underscore this emphasis on the keeping of Scripture.

Continued Ceremonial Hacking

A renewed emphasis on the obedience to Scripture also requires new safeguards against Scripture taken to an extreme–“Judaizing.” One of the occasional features of certain factions of the continental Radical Reformation was an over-zealous adoption of Torah regulations on Christian communities. Of the Torah material, the most suppressed material is that relating to religious observance and the ceremonial aspects of Israelite religion. Was this due to a fear that the simpler folk might decide to worship according to Jewish customs and traditions? Who knows… What canbe said is that the 1561 lectionary shows an even greater suppression of biblical material related to cultic worship. The overall effect is that fewer and fewer passages are read that show God legislating ceremonial worship, and the care and cost taken around implements, ornaments, and vestments for divine service. Can we see in this a more puritanical turn that strikes against both Jewish and Catholic traditions at a single blow? Yeah—I think so. This lectionary leaves even fewer Scriptural warrants for defenders of Christian ornament and ceremonial than previous versions.

People and Places

The big losers here are, of course, genealogies and long lists of Ancient Near Eastern place names. This is really no surprise; few people find these passages particularly entertaining and if there’s a renewed emphasis on edification, then it’s no surprise that these chapters got the boot. Is there a theological argument to be made in defense of these passages? Of course—we may not find them edifying in their particulars, but they are edifying specifically because of the principle of particularity. That is, they remind us that God tends not to work in the abstract. Instead, he works with particular tribes, and families, and individuals—who knows, maybe even us… There is an incarnational aspect to particularity which can teach us something even if all the Hebrew names blur together after a while. Keeping that little lesson in mind, I have a feeling that we won’t see many of these chapters coming back as we move through the rest of lectionary tradition.

Theological Issues

Only one chapter seems to be removed due to theological reasons, and that’s Job 23. We mentioned wisdom-in-revolt above, and Job is seriously revolting in this passage. He decries the absence of God in his experience of suffering and questions the justice of God more starkly here than anywhere else that I can recall. I can’t prove it, but my guess is that this chapter was removed because the editors were too uncomfortable with its content.

Suppression of Magic

The other interesting disappearances are the targeted removals of certain apocryphal chapters. The loss of Tobit 5, 6, and 8, the trimming of Ecclesiasticus 46, and the dropping of Daniel 14 seem to be connected by a common thread—they all have something to do with magic and the supernatural. Remember now, this was the age of John Deeand angel magic. I have a feeling that the Hellenistic spirit of enchantment hit just a little too close to home in the Elizabethan age, and that the editors removed these lest they fuel the fire and suggest that these practices had Scriptural support.


In conclusion, it’s my contention that the 1561 revision of the Daily Office Lectionary represents the culmination of a shift away from the chief principle of the 1549 lectionary. Cranmer started with the principle of coverage and arranged his lectionary accordingly. By his 1552 revision, we’d already seen some cracks appear and the suppression of certain material. This accelerated with the 1559 edition and by the 1561 version it’s clear that we have a new chief criterion pushed by the queen—edification. Don’t get me wrong: coverage was still important and the vast majority of the OT and NT was still being read on a yearly basis. Two main things are going on. First, the less edifying readings are being culled in order to foreground the more edifying—particularly the “orthodox wisdom” passages. Second, there is an awareness of the special role and requirements for Sunday reading. Elizabeth’s lectionaries reflect the first acknowledgement that not everybody is going to be following along day-by-day and that Sundays have a special role. If people are only going to hear two chapters of Old Testament a week (Sunday morning and evening), then let’s make sure that it’s going to be something edifying rather than whatever random chapters happen to roll around.

3 thoughts on “Elizabeth’s Lectionary–Payoff

  1. Tom

    As always, Derek, thanks for this thoughtful, interesting and fun work on the lectionaries of the BCP.

  2. James

    I have to wonder if the exclusion of Job 23, read as a single lesson, would be too stark to be edifying when not taken together immediately with Job 24. An obvious conclusion, really, but on its own – very uncomfortable material indeed. Job 23 is restored to the 1662 lectionary and is read on 15 June at Morning Prayer, followed by chapters 24 and 25 that evening. I remember thinking (being my first year using the 1662 lectionary) that it was a bit . . . uncomfortable, for lack of a better word. Thank God for the Te Deum that follows the OT lesson in the 1662 Prayer Book! I am enjoying your lectionary articles.

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