We read in the Epistle for the 20th Sunday after Trinity from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, “be filled with the Spirit; speaking to yourselves in psalms, and hymns, and spiritual songs.” In other letters Paul refers to ‘the Scriptures.’ We often make assumptions when new read these words, but there are questions to be addressed. It is commonly understood that Psalms WERE the hymns of the Jewish people, so what were these other ‘hymns and spiritual songs?’ Since Paul’s letters were written before either of the Gospels, what does he mean by ‘the Scriptures?’
Today we will take some time to reflect on the meaning and place of “Scripture” in the Book of Common Prayer.
If you ever wanted to see evidence of the significance of Sola Scriptura on the reformation in England, look no further than page xvi of our Book of Common Prayer to find the “Table of Lessons,” readings for Morning and Evening Prayer for every Day of the Church Calendar - with instructions! With the publication of the first Book of Common Prayer in English, it is clear that Cranmer's purpose for the Calendar was to familiarize people with the Bible. If you followed the original 1549 lectionary of Morning and Evening Prayer you would read the whole Bible in one year. Although changes have been incorporated into different versions of the Book of Common Prayer, the principle of Biblical literacy remained at its core.
This is a good point at which to share some insight into the title of our BCP itself. In our Canadian version the title is, “The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church According to the Use of the Anglican Church of Canada Together with The Psalter as it is Appointed to be Said or Sung in Churches and the Form and Manner of Making, Ordaining, and Consecrating of Bishops, Priests, and Deacons.” Did you want to read that again? Some previous versions were a little shorter, but not by much. No wonder we simply refer to it as “The Book of Common Prayer” or “BCP.” From time to time there has been some discussion over the meaning of the word “common.” Does it refer to the principle that is ‘equally available to all,’ or does it mean ‘common’ in terms of the ‘lowest common denominator’ of prayer? The explanation is far more banal in nature. The reason why the title is so long is because, as I mentioned in an earlier reflection, this Book replaced at least seven others, and most are mentioned in the litany of a title we have today! One book integrated into the Book of Common Prayer was the Breviary. The Breviary was a book which contained the seven different hours of prayer used by clergy and institutions like monasteries, cathedrals and colleges. In the Book of Common Prayer, these seven hours of prayer were reduced to two - Morning and Evening Prayer - and these services were referred to collectively as (you guessed it) “Common Prayer,” prayers which all (literate) Christians could use and, as a result, read the bible throughout a year.
In our service of Holy Communion we now come to the place and role of the Scripture in this form of worship. Whereas the Table of Lessons for “Common Prayer” required one to have their own copy of a Bible, the Communion required the integration of another pre-existing book of worship, the Lectionary, which contained the readings for each Mass/Communion throughout the year and was held by the ministers known as Epistlers and Gospellers. In the reformation Communion, one place in which all participants of worship could (and should) take part was the Scripture readings. They were right there and (I can’t express this enough) in English!
This leads us to another contextual history lesson. It’s fine and dandy for the Reformers to cry Sola Scripture, but the question remained, which Bible?
For the first 300-400 years of the Church’s existence there was no real definitive ‘Bible’ to speak of. In fact, there were two different schools of thought concerning the writings that were used in the Church. Some argued for an understanding of ‘Scripture’ as any sacred or inspired writing, others argued for the creation of a ‘Canon,’ a definitive list of which books were officially recognized by the Church. This argument came to a conclusion in the 4th Century under the leadership of Pope Jerome, whose bible, the Vulgate, was a Latin translation of the most treasured Greek resources available. Let’s be clear, these ‘treasured versions’ were not necessarily selected for their academic and historical pedigree but were themselves the products of copying and editing and commentary. By the time we get to the reformation, the Vulgate, both Latin and containing a lot of ‘official’ commentary in the margins, was the standard Bible in Roman Catholicism. The 1450 Gutenberg Bible, the first mass-produced book using the moveable type printing press was a copy of the Vulgate.
But the history of ‘Scripture’ in reformation England includes another story. The roots of reform theology in the Church of England actually predates the official Reformation period. The earliest reformers, known derisively as ‘Lollards’ also questioned the authority of traditionalism and argued for worship AND Scripture in vernacular English and not Latin. One Lollard theologian by the name of John Wycliffe, with the help of associates, translated the entire Vulgate into English in 1384, but it quickly was banned, and the Lollards slipped into the shadows of history. The Wycliffe Bible did not disappear altogether, however. It was updated to become the Matthew Bible in 1537, the Great Bible in 1538, and the Bishop’s Bible in 1568. In 1610, King James commissioned the creation of a new Bible in 1604, directing his translators to not rely on the Vulgate, but even earlier sources for their source materials. This lead to the publication of the King James’ Bible in 1611. The 1549 version of the Book of Common Prayer used the Great Bible of 1538 as its source for Scripture and only after the 1662 version was produced were the readings in the Collect, Epistles, and Gospels updated to the then modern King James Version.
An interesting thing about the Book of Common and its language. The English found within its pages covers over 600 years of linguistic history. On page 722 we find an order of service composed in the early 20th century. Its writing was carefully crafted to sound like earlier English but is only 100 years old. The Scripture we find provided for our Epistles and Gospels are from the first edition of the King James Bible, 400 years ago. Most of the collects and prayers found in the Communion Service itself were heavily influenced by Cranmer’s pre-Shakespearean English and are about 450 years old. Finally, the Psalms, which have never been updated from the Great Bible of 1538 are actually a reproduction of the Wycliffe translation, almost 600 years ago.
This is the word of the Lord!
Note: The image above is of pages from various versions of Scripture. Top Left to Right: Papyrus containing a section of the Gospel of John; The oldest extant fragment of the Septuagint; an open 13th Century Vulgate. Bottom Left to Right: A page from Wycliffe’s Bible; A page from the Great Bible; A page from the earliest King James Version.