A Lenten program created by a liturgy professor and diocesan priest offers a way for congregations to study the Bible within the context of worship and community in a quintessentially Anglican way.
“I’ve always been really drawn to the preface that [Thomas] Cranmer wrote to his first prayer book,” said the Rev. Kevin Moroney, liturgy professor and chapel director at General Theological Seminary in New York and priest-in-residence at St. Peter’s, Clifton.
“What he explained in this preface is really that the Holy Scriptures can be learned by reading them, book by book, continuously nestled within the arms of the daily prayers, morning and evening,” he said. And, when they do so, Cranmer wrote, clergy and laity “become inflamed with the love of God’s true religion.”
“I love that idea,” said Moroney, who also serves on the Episcopal Church Task Force for Liturgical and Prayer Book Revision. “We do that here at General.”
But, he said, “if you don’t have a background with it, the daily offices of the prayer book are a little hard to follow.”
So he created a simplified version of Morning Prayer, short enough to fit on one folded sheet of paper and including one reading, one canticle, one collect and a revised General Thanksgiving. Then he created a daily lectionary of readings using just one book of the Bible – a task that takes about an hour, he said.
Last year, with the blessing of the church visioning group, St. Peter’s members tried out the format as a Lenten study of Luke, Moroney’s favorite Gospel. Each day at home, participants prayed the shortened prayer service using the sequential readings from Luke – usually a chapter or half a chapter at a time. On Sundays, Moroney’s sermons were a teaching on that week’s reading that incorporated questions the congregation submitted ahead of time or asked that day.
The program barely had started when the COVID-19 pandemic forced worship services in the diocese online. “We had about a day to figure out what we were going to do on Sunday,” Moroney recalled. One of the church’s leaders suggested: “Why don’t we just take this as the basis of our Sunday service and keep going with it this way?”
“So that’s what we did. It really became a long-term program.”
St. Peter’s streamed worship over Facebook Live, so Moroney addressed questions he received during the week via e-mail and text and sometimes online on Sundays during the broadcast. “There was an element of interactiveness. I wouldn’t say that that was the most effective part of it.”
“The real benefit is, you had more people reading more Scripture and praying the daily offices more – at least Morning Prayer more – than was ever true before in this parish,” Moroney said. “And they like it. They wanted to do it again.”
After Easter 2020, the congregation tackled Genesis. Over the summer, they did a thematic study on women of the Bible, from Eve to the women at the tomb. During the fall, they returned to regular Eucharists during in-person worship but moved back online again in Advent. After Christmas, they resumed the Morning Prayer Bible study format with the Book of Exodus.
“In Genesis, we were really taken by the whole idea of providence in the book,” Moroney said. “In Exodus now, we’re dealing with themes of deliverance. We were looking at it on Sunday and how in America ... we tend to craft our narrative from the perspective of who has the power. But in Exodus, the narrative is written from the perspective of the slaves, and that’s a very different way to look at things.”
The simplified Morning Prayer takes about 15 or 20 minutes and leads participants through continuous readings of books of the Bible instead of only certain passages as typically happens with the Revised Common Lectionary.
“What I’m pleased about is ... Episcopal Christians who did not have much background with the Bible, in a year, have significant books of the Bible under their belt,” Moroney concluded. “They’ve read them and they’ve read them within their daily prayer. Their prayer life is growing while their knowledge of Scripture is growing. It’s part of the genius of what Cranmer was trying to do.”