One of the striking features of Thomas Cranmer’s, Book of Common Prayer is the use of the Bible, and in particular the Songs of the Bible. At the heart of the orders of service for Morning and Evening Prayer is not just a pattern for the reading through the whole of the Bible in a year, but the reading aloud of the Psalms – and not just one Psalm.
So important did he consider the reading of the Psalms to be, that he designed a reading plan, a Table as it was called, for the reading of the whole of the Book of Psalms every thirty days. His plan set out the way the extra day in January and March would offset the twenty-eight days of February; he also made provision for the remaining longer months throughout the year. And, yes, he also had provision for the calendar leap year.
But Morning and Evening Prayer not only included the reading of the Psalms each month. Some psalms were used every week – Psalm 95 as a ‘call to worship’ at Morning Prayer, for example. He also brought in other songs of the Bible together with very early Christian hymns, such as the Te Deum Laudamus (We praise you O, God…) at Morning Prayer and the Gloria in Excelsis Deo (Glory to God in the highest) at Communion. What is more, the Psalms and the songs of the Bible were to be read aloud or sung.
The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Anglican Church help us understand something of Cranmer’s thinking: Article VI states : Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.
Writing during the reign of Elizabeth I, Richard Hooker, writes in his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Book V: The end of the Word of God is to save, and therefore we term it the word of life. The way for all men and women to be saved is by the knowledge of that truth which the word hath taught . . . . To this end the word of God no otherwise serveth than only in the nature of a doctrinal instrument. It saveth because it maketh “wise to salvation”.
Given that by the early 16th century most people were ignorant of the Scriptures, and given Cranmer’s desire to bring the Scriptures not just back into the life of the clergy, but into the church as a whole, we can understand his extensive use of Bible – to be read in English – in the daily services. But why read all one hundred and fifty Psalms each month?
Dr. Andrew Shead, who heads up the Old Testament Department at Moore Theological College in Sydney, comments that ‘the Psalms are poetry – and for good reason. Poetry is designed to do many things …: first of all, poetry slows us down. You can’t skim poetry; it’s about reading and rereading… Secondly, poetry brings sounds and images into conversation with the words, and makes the words say more than they can say by themselves’ (The Psalms in the Christian Life).
The Psalms don’t just speak to our minds, but to our very being, including our emotions – our hearts and souls. We see this more clearly when we consider the variety in the Five Books of the Psalms.
In Books 1 and 2 we find psalms expressing suffering and distress, weakness and yet trust in God. Book 3 takes us to the low ebb of the psalms with the cries of a people in distress where in Psalm 89 we are left with the question, ‘How long O Lord?’ Book 4 takes us back to the time of Moses and sounds a note of extended praise. Psalm 96 says: ‘Sing to the Lord a new song…’ Book 5 takes us to God’s answer to the prayers of the nation and the restoration of his people. Significantly five psalms of praise – which each begin and end with the word, ‘Alleluia’ conclude the Book of Psalms.
The Psalms speak to our whole being. Significantly, in recent years, Dr. Ashley Null, one of the world’s leading authorities on Thomas Cranmer, sums up Cranmer’s anthropology this way: ‘What the heart desires, the will chooses, and the mind justifies’.
Here we have a clue for Cranmer’s keen interest in the Psalms. He understood that the Psalms, in speaking to our whole being and our life’s experiences, are used by God to play an important part in changing us.
Surely our churches, and we ourselves, need to give greater attention to reading the Psalms each day – aloud.
© John G. Mason – www.anglicanconnection.com