Today we begin a new series of five articles on the elements that make up an Anglican service.
These pieces by the Moore College student orientation team were developed in 2022 to help new students understand the theological logic behind the Anglican services – based on the Book of Common Prayer – that are followed in Moore College chapel.
We’re sharing these because they help to demonstrate how and why Anglicans do what we do in church, for the encouragement and building up of the saints to maturity in Jesus Christ. We hope that you find them beneficial!
The ACR editorial team
The anatomy of an Anglican service: Why do we have lectionary Bible readings?
One of the key elements of our chapel gatherings is our use of lectionary Bible readings. Each time we come together, we have at least three Bible readings. We take on a portion from the Psalms, and progressively work through another text from each of the Old and New Testaments. And most often, these are separate from the sermon; the preacher has their own, separate series that they’re working through.
Now, this might be entirely normal for you and your church background, or it might seem entirely foreign. But let me give you three reasons why we make sure to have lectionary readings in chapel.
Firstly, we value the word of God. In fact, we love it, don’t we? The Psalmist exclaims, in Psalm 119, “Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day.” And that was just God’s law! We have the fuller revelation. We have the words of and about Jesus, which fulfil and interpret the whole of Scripture. How much more should we love God’s word! And we do, don’t we?
And since we do, how do we reflect that love in what we do together? How do we see that love in the place of Scripture in our gatherings? Or in the amount of Scripture in our gatherings? Maybe, like me, you’ve been to a church or chapel service where only five verses have been read across the whole of the gathering. Well, our Anglican tradition is a bit different to that.
In fact, Thomas Cranmer, when he put together the Book of Common Prayer at the time of the Reformation, wanted Scripture to be right at the centre of it. Just like the other reformers, he wanted his services to be dripping with Scripture. He wanted the Bible – not the preacher, nor even the sermon itself – to be at the heart of the service. So we, too, as Reformed evangelicals want to make Scripture a big part of our gatherings. Why? Because we value the word of God.
Secondly, we value all the word of God. And so not only do we want to make Scripture a big part of our gatherings, we want to read a big part of Scripture. The standard lectionary readings in Prayer Books work on a 1- or 3-year cycle; we use a lectionary modified to suit our academic year. But while neither system quite presents you with every part of the Bible, they do manage to cover much broader chunks of Scripture than you’d be able to look at in sermons alone.
In fact, doing it this way really suits those longer passages which you might have to fly over more briefly in a sermon. Week by week we can see the unfolding story of the conquest of Canaan in Joshua, or feel the weight of unrelenting obligations as we keep coming back to Leviticus. We can be trained by the breadth of the Psalms, and watch again Jesus’ journey to the cross.
This kind of biblical literacy is good for our souls. As Paul says to Timothy, “All scripture is God-breathed and profitable… [It’s] able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” And we especially, who are tasked with proclaiming the gospel from the Scriptures – well we had better make sure we’re familiar with them, hadn’t we?! We value all the word of God.
Thirdly and finally, we value the direct word of God. We believe that the Bible needs no additional human interpreter. Indeed, it does not even need an extra explanation from a person in the pulpit. Its clear truths can be understood and received by everyday Christians directly. Now, that’s not to say that we accept no other authorities. We certainly do, and even the way we read Scripture reflects traditions that we’ve inherited from those before us. And certainly, it’s not to denigrate the authority of preaching – we love good preaching, and in as much as preaching says what Scripture says, it too is the word of God.
All the same, one of the triumphs of the Reformation was in returning Scripture to its proper place: above the human teaching and traditions of the Church. Leaders and teachers have no secret knowledge hidden from the people they teach. They’re not the sole keepers of Scripture’s interpretative key. Paul does talk about a ‘mystery’ in the New Testament – but it’s a revealed mystery. A secret that’s now been proclaimed. To all whom God calls he gives his Spirit. And his Spirit gives understanding.
The Bible belongs just as much in the hands of the unlearned ploughboy, or the everyday Christian, as it does the priest or the minister. Reading large chunks of the Bible, and doing so without having it ‘explained’, acknowledges in our practice what we believe in principle: that God addresses us in his word. We value the direct word of God.
May our familiarity with God’s word and the practice of reading it like this equip us well for salvation, for our ministries and for every good work.