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The Lectionary of the Book of Common Prayer is a product of the theology and politics of its time, not just in the composition of the Collects but in the choice of Epistles and Gospels which necessarily reflect the issues which most engaged churchmen and statesmen during the period of the 16th Century after the breach of the Church of England with Rome. The political issues which most engaged the compilers included the nature and seat of authority in Church and state and the relationship between them and, entwined with these, the role of the episcopacy. The purely theological, or doctrinal issues which were of most concern were all consequential upon the recent Protestant Reformation in Europe and included the relationship between faith and good works, the mechanics of the Eucharist and the atonement and the efficacy of praying to God through intermediaries such as The Virgin Mary and other saints. Some of the theological politics of the time are reflected in the designation of days so that, for example, Candlemas and Holy Week are absent. Conversely, as it was assumed that the social order was static, there was little concern for social and economic justice, personal responsibility and the limits of personal expression and action. It is also significant that almost all the Collects refer to God as “Almighty” rather than “Loving”.

Although Biblical scholarship flowered in the half century before Cranmer and his colleagues set to work, they lacked some information which might have altered their choice of readings: first, they believed that Matthew was the source for Mark rather than an expansion of it; secondly, they assigned all the Epistles to the authors named in their titles; and, thirdly, they tended to think of the Evangelical narratives (the Gospels and Acts) as history rather than theology. The extracts were chosen at precisely the time when there was a radical shift from the late Medieval practice of understanding the Bible at many levels to understanding it literally. Indeed, one of the great ironies of the Anglo Saxon Biblical tradition is the practice of praising the Authorised Version of the Bible and its associate BCP as great literature while insisting, against the practice of reading such works, that it should be read like a scientific or legal treatise.

Many of the issues which divided Medieval Catholicism from Protestant reform now divide worshippers within the Anglican Communion and the Church of England and it is therefore unwise to assume that all those who read the AV and the BCP are theologically and temperamentally Protestant, although this is widely and erroneously assumed by many of their adherents. I have tried to describe the differences of outlook between the compilers and theological opinion today with the aim of alerting readers to the understandable but considerable gaps in perception which limit the usefulness of the corpus as a whole: no 21st Century Lectionary devoted to Sundays and the great Festivals could ignore, for example, Luke’s social parables or John’s account of Mary Magdalene’s encounter with Jesus on Easter morning.

I have tried to keep the duplication to a minimum through cross referencing but in a work whose individual commentaries are intended to be self contained some repetition is unavoidable and so I apologise to those brave enough to read my thoughts consecutively.

Kevin Carey
The Feast of the Assumption of Our Lady into Heaven, 2008

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