A Case for Cover-to-Cover

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For they so ordered the matter, that all the whole Bible (or the greatest part thereof) should be read over once in the year, intending thereby, that the Clergy, and specially such as were Ministers of the congregation, should (by often reading and meditating on God’s word) be stirred up to godliness themselves, and be more able also to exhort others by wholesome doctrine, and to confute them that were adversaries to the truth.

From the Preface to the 1549 Book of Common Prayer, edited¹

The first Book of Common Prayer lays out this rationale for daily Scripture reading and it could easily be dropped in any evangelical statement of faith today. We are indebted to the work of Archbishop Cranmer in shaping the first prayer book. He left his stamp upon the church and upon the English language.

I am not one to hastily correct my elders in the faith, but I do wish Cranmer would have left five words out: “or the greatest part thereof.” Those five words have doomed Anglicanism to nearly 500 years of daily lectionaries that only cover “the greatest part thereof.” Normally, the Old Testament takes the brunt of the redactions.

In my readings this year—I stubbornly craft my own plan—I recently completed Judges. Many people glaze over when confronted with extended genealogies, but for me, it was the second half of Joshua with the description of the territory boundaries allotted to the Twelve Tribes. I wish we were just given a map, though maps would not come into common use until thousands of years later. These descriptions are then immediately followed by Judges, which to my mind is one of the strangest books in the Bible, along with the second half of Daniel and parts of Revelation.

Therefore, I am not without sympathy for passing over some sections in silence. The case against “or the greatest part thereof” is not one easily made. It is hard to point to an obscure genealogy passage or some other oft-neglected chapter that delivers to us deep insight, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t give them a chance. And, more significantly, “or the greatest part thereof” can be—and has been—a slippery slope toward de facto editing of the Canon.

The Daily Offices form the foundation of Anglican spiritual formation. When we allow “skipping over” passages of Scripture that seem opaque and without benefit toward godliness and wholesome doctrine, the ability to do so creeps into our other services and devotion. The Sunday, or Eucharistic, lectionary is the most egregious victim. It would be a tall task to expect a minister to preach on the genealogies of Chronicles—and an even taller task to expect most congregations to absorb such teaching—so it seems reasonable to have passages not explicitly addressed, even in a three-year lectionary cycle.²

The problem is that once we let the ability to neglect be entertained, our reasons for using it multiply, both in formal and informal lectionaries. Significant portions of the first two chapters of Romans are skipped by the 1979 Episcopal and Revised Common Lectionaries. On the other hand, you can attend a Baptist church for decades and never hear a sermon on the second half of John 6. We all have our biases and doctrinal presuppositions. To support them through inattentiveness to the whole counsel of Scripture is to deceive ourselves and our hearers.

We counter this in the Daily Office by the reading the whole Bible through each year. No excuses. We do well to read the passages we haven’t highlighted, haven’t underlined, and haven’t seen on a pretty plaque on Grandma’s dresser. Even if the only lesson to be drawn is that we are obedient to the Church’s charge to read the Scriptures. If we are not, we place ourselves above the early church Fathers who delivered to us the Canon. We take mental scissors to Scripture to expunge those parts that bore us or, more dangerously, offend us.


¹ I took the liberty of bringing the English from pre-Victorian to modern. The original text can be found at the link.

² The three-year cycle only nets 156 Sundays, less than half of a one-year daily reading plan. In addition, our use of the church calendar directs certain texts, such as the birth and death of Christ, to receive greater focus than other narratives.

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Filed under Bible, Book of Common Prayer, Devotional, Reading

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