The other night I listened to Alastair Roberts read Homily 1, “A Fruitful Exhortation to the Reading of Holy Scripture” from the 16th-century Anglican Book of Homilies (Book 1 first published 1542). I had lots of thoughts, most of which have escaped me, but here are two:
First, go and read the Bible. If you’re feeling a bit like you aren’t into it or haven’t read it for a while or anything like, go listen to Alastair read the homily. It’s only 18 minutes long, and it will fruitfully exhort you to read the Bible.
Second, one of the thoughts I had was how this reinforces ideas about Anglican worship and spirituality that I’ve heard people say and observed from inference. In particular, this homily reinforces the Reformation-era Anglican idea that the words of Holy Scripture are themselves powerful.
Reading the Bible or listening to someone read the Bible is good for you.
Sometimes you meet people (or read them on Twitter, I guess) who seem to think that a church loves the Bible because congregants spend a lot of time listening to a person talk about the Bible. I’m not saying those people don’t love the Bible. Nor am I saying that Anglicans love the Bible more.
However, Homily 1 represents a robust trust in the power of sacred Scripture to transform hearts and minds, to make us holier, to make us more Christ-like. In the Bible we encounter God, and God can transform us.
This trust is reflected liturgically in the Anglican tradition’s historic cycle of services. Historically, the Anglican liturgical tradition on a Sunday would have included Morning Prayer, followed immediately by Communion (or Antecommunion), and then Evening Prayer in the evening (naturally enough), coupled with a requirement for clergy and encouragement for laity to pray Morning and Evening Prayer every day, and for the lay folk to join their local cleric in the church if possible.
This centrality of Morning and Evening Prayer to Anglican worship is well worth noting, because these services differ most from their medieval Sarum precursors precisely in the question of Scripture. If you grab a Roman Breviary or Benedictine Breviary, you will find that the passages of Scripture selected for the daily office are … brief, in large part because of how complicated the Roman church’s daily office is, partly also because, for monks, at least, there is an expectation that you will read the Bible at some other part of the day. I would also hasten to add that medieval liturgy has all sorts of Scripture in use in different parts of the various services and offices; when you simplify your liturgy and reduce the number of offices, this needs rebalancing — as the BCP does.
In the BCP, on the other hand, the passages for Morning and Evening Prayer are quite substantial. If you follow the Prayer Book lectionary for daily prayer, you will read the entire Old Testament every year, the New Testament twice a year, and the Psalms every month. That’s a lot of sacred Scripture!
And if you look at the rubrics, there is no expectation that there will be preaching at any service outside Holy Communion. What matters are the words of Scripture themselves. Yes, Anglicans believe in preaching the Word (the Homily discusses that as well). But we also believe in the naked power of the raw Word of God, bringing us into contact with the God Word Himself Who lies behind the word written.
This sturdy belief in the power of the Bible is implicit in the Prayer Book, and explicit in Homily 1.
More of us should read or listen to these.