Many folks accustomed to reading Bible-in-a-year plans are delighted to find out that the Book of Common Prayer (2019) has a Daily Office lectionary that leads the faithful Anglican to read through the whole Bible in a year—at least, most of it. Those same folks are sometimes a little dismayed to then find out that a number of books are missing chapters (e.g., Joshua) and some books are missing altogether (e.g., Chronicles). In fact, the whole Bible isn’t read in a year, but rather “the greatest part thereof.” A little history and explanation may be of help in understanding why this is the case.
Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, in his preface to the first-ever Book of Common Prayer (1549) paints a picture of what Daily Office Bible reading had become in his day.
“so altered, broken, and neglected, by planting in uncertain stories, Legends, Responds, Verses, vain repetitions, Commemorations, and Synodals, that commonly when any book of the Bible was begun, before three or four Chapters were read out, all the rest were unread.”
Cranmer proposed a solution: a calendar of readings that “is plain and easy to be understood, wherein (so much as may be) the reading of holy Scripture is so set forth, that all things shall be done in order, without breaking one piece thereof from another.” That calendar of readings has been the backbone of the Prayer Book tradition ever since. Here it is as printed in the 1662 BCP. The 1662 Daily Office lectionary guides readers through the New Testament three times each year (except Revelation, which is never read) and the Old Testament once.
In the late 19th century, the Church Year began to receive greater emphasis, so the Daily Office lectionary was revised to match the Church Year (e.g., Monday of Lent II, Tuesday of Lent II, rather than February 1st, February 2nd), and the lessons were shortened (more like half a chapter than a whole chapter).
In the 1979 Book of Common Prayer (BCP) revision, the Daily Office lectionary was revised again. The readings became even shorter, much less continuous from day-to-day, and only supplied three lessons for the four lesson spots.
Ironically, the Daily Office lectionary had begun to resemble the very thing Cranmer was initially opposing. The new Anglican trying to figure out what to read for “the Evening Prayer lessons for the Tuesday of the second week of Easter” often resonated with Cranmer’s words in 1549: “Many times, there was more business to find out what should be read, than to read it when it was found out.”
Cranmer’s 1549 lectionary, carried forward into the 1662 BCP, is much simpler. It also contains a number of omissions:
- Chapters that are entirely genealogy (such as Genesis 37, Ezra 2) are left out.
- The chapters in Exodus about the construction of the tabernacle are gone.
- Only four chapters are read from Leviticus.
- The land allotments at the end of Joshua are omitted.
- Of Ezekiel’s 48 chapters, only 9 are included (the most graphic Ezekelian descriptions of Israel’s idolatry are left unread).
- Chronicles is never read.
As well as omissions, the 1662 lectionary contains over 120 chapters from the Apocrypha.
One of the overarching principles of the revision process that culminated in the BCP 2019 was to rely on the 1662 BCP as a foundation and anchor. Therefore, when it came to the Daily Office lectionary, the radical (as in “to the root”) decision was made to return to a lectionary that resembled the 1662 lectionary in its calendar year organization and emphasis on continual reading through the books of the Bible.
A straight adoption of the 1662 lectionary was considered, but three problems were recognized:
- It seemed disproportional to omit large amounts of the Old Testament while keeping over 120 Apocryphal lessons,
- The length of the lessons (a whole chapter of Old Testament and a whole chapter of New Testament) would strike many as being too long, and
- Anyone who was only able to pray one of the offices (Morning Prayer or Evening Prayer) would skip a chapter each day because the readings flowed continuously from morning to evening.
A revision was needed that would solve these problems, and the result is the lectionary in the BCP 2019 that includes:
- Less than 50 Apocryphal lessons (a veritable “best of”)
- More chapters of every Old Testament book than the 1662 lectionary
- The New Testament read twice each year, with Revelation once, utilizing readings that are two-thirds the length of a chapter (as established by the 1962 Canadian Book of Common Prayer)
- Optional Old Testament abbreviations for long chapters
- Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer are on two different tracks so that if only one can be prayed, the readings still have continuity, and the lectionary can be read in its entirety on a two-year cycle (as indicated by the (I) and (II) in the month-header).
In addition, while more of the Old Testament is included in the BCP 2019 than was in the 1662 BCP, a similar principle of selective omissions was utilized. The books which have some chapters missing are mentioned in the introduction to the lectionary (pg. 736): Leviticus, Numbers, Joshua, Judges, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Ezekiel. And—but for a few passages not duplicated in Kings, which are inserted chronologically to the narrative—the vast majority of Chronicles is also omitted.
Including every chapter would have meant a Daily Office that was too long and which had lection-breaks that did not coincide with chapter divisions (which are so handy). The Apocrypha could not be totally omitted, since it has always been a part of Anglican Daily Office reading. Therefore, omissions had to be made.
The overarching principle that governed the omissions was given by the nature of the Daily Office: it is intended to be a public prayer service. It is not a private devotion, even though it may often be prayed that way. The readings of Scripture must, therefore, be edifying. Every single member of the Prayer Book Task Force believes that every word—every jot and tittle—of Scripture is breathed out by God and is, therefore, his inspired Word. Passages were not cut for any doubt as to their inspiration. Rather, we discerned how each potentially omitted passage lends itself to edification upon a public hearing.
Not-so-readily-edifying texts fell roughly into three categories:
- Lists and genealogies
- Repeated content
- Viscerally repugnant and lacking a plain Salvation-history backdrop
The land-allotments of Joshua have their rightful place in the sacred text, and yield much to study, but to the parishioner stopping by Morning Prayer on their way to work are not often of great encouragement. While some genealogies that were cut in the 1662 lectionary were restored in 2019 (especially as they play a pivotal role in Genesis), others remained omitted.
Since so much of Chronicles is re-telling the same stories found in Samuel and Kings— and since lection “spots” were limited—Cranmer’s decision to omit Chronicles made sense.
The last category only came to bear in one instance. Cranmer’s sensibilities demurred from reading Ezekiel 16 (it doesn’t appear in the 1662 lectionary), presumably because the ears of children were being considered and because it is a hard passage to be edified by upon a quick public hearing. While Scripture is full of “difficult” passages which Christians must faithfully receive (Genesis 19, for example, which is included in the lectionary), the sensitivities of the age seem to have shifted, and the felt permission in the 16th and 17th centuries to omit Ezekiel 16 (included in the BCP 2019) was transferred to Judges 19 (the rape and butchering of the Benjamite woman), which has been omitted in the BCP 2019.
The Daily Office readings are not intended to be the sum total of an Anglican’s engagement with Scripture. Private reading (“Quiet Time”) is also a key part of Christian discipleship. So the “omitted” passages of the OT can be read then or in the midst of biblical study.
One other ingenious option has been proposed by the Rev. Matthew Brench, to include the omitted chapters of the OT and Apocrypha as Midday Prayer lessons. You can see that “unofficial” midday lectionary here.
The Daily Office lectionary in its simpler 1662 and 2019 form will hopefully serve as means of presenting the vast majority of the Bible to the Christian’s ears with regularity, even as a few omissions have been made.
Ben Jefferies is the rector of The Good Shepherd Anglican Church, Opelika, Alabama. He served on the Task Force that produced the Book of Common Prayer 2019. He is married with three daughters.