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Abandon the lectionary?

Lectionary readings

A wise, catholic-minded priest strongly castigated those who did not seriously try using what the church provides and just, in individualistic (and congregational) pique, create their own material.

We could talk about the abuse particularly of the rights of the laity by clergy who abandon what they agree and sign up to use. But this priest would put the emphasis on trying to make what we receive work – and, certainly, if after serious attempts, and careful study of why the material is what it is, you find the church’s material is just unusable, then (and only then) adapt or change it.

That approach (at least for this post) is my starting point for looking at people’s abandonment of the three year, Revised Common Lectionary (RCL). My position is, pinching someone else’s wise saying and morphing it: “The Revised Common Lectionary is the worst form of proclaiming the Bible in worship as a Christian community, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Recently a friend sent me a (yet another) article about problems with RCL, this time with links to a wide variety of alternatives: The Narrative Lectionary, The African American Lectionary, The Open-Source Lectionary, Year D, and so on.

Here’s a table for some of the options for Advent 2013. What immediately becomes obvious is that some of the traditional focuses for Advent (eschatology, end times, Christ’s second coming, preparation for Christ’s coming in the incarnation and into our lives) are just abandoned. Immediately – we are disconnected from our roots. I have already expressed sadness how some of our recent lectionary renewals and revisions have lost some of our connections with our Jewish background (unnecessarily and possibly unthinkingly in some cases). The creation of a new lectionary ex nihilo is fraught when it is based on newly-created principles that have often misunderstood the role of proclaiming God’s Word in the context of worship. First use the RCL for several cycles (ie. 6-9 years) intelligently, seeing how it can be managed to overcome some of the shortfalls that you and others perceive it has.

What fascinates me are communities that declare themselves to have a particularly strong focus on the Bible which then do not use all the RCL provides (often using only one reading as well as the Gospel reading – ie. halving what RCL provides) then abandoning RCL (or lambasting it) because, they say, it does not cover enough scripture!!! I continue to challenge those Anglican parishes, for example, who abandon our agreed use of RCL (and there are a lot of those parishes) to show me how what they do is concretely an improvement on what RCL provides. So far not a single parish has responded with anything at all – let alone anything that improves RCL.

Even worse, possibly, are communities that have no reading from the scriptures whatsoever. Pastors of such communities while loudly declaring their Reformation allegiance appear to fear individual access to the scriptures (foundational, surely, to Reformation understanding). Instead, verses are drip-fed to their congregants but only very carefully framed by the pastor’s interpretation.

Mind you, sad also are communities where RCL readings are proclaimed, but the preaching and the rest of the service make no real connection to the Word of God heard.

***

The devil, Screwtape, C.S. Lewis says, rejoices that the vicar

has undermined many a soul’s Christianity. His conduct of the services is also admirable. In order to spare the laity all “difficulties” he has deserted both the lectionary and the appointed psalms and now, without noticing it, revolves endlessly round the little treadmill of his fifteen favourite psalms and twenty favourite lessons. We are thus safe from the danger that any truth not already familiar to him and to his flock should ever reach them through Scripture. The Screwtape Letters Chapter XVI C.S. Lewis

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31 Responses to Abandon the lectionary?

  1. Hi Bosco,
    I suggest you would be hard pressed to find congregations where the RCL is not followed which also think they are being short-changed etc by their preaching elder(ship). Such congregations expect preaching based on Scripture (and get it), over the years most of Scripture to be preached on (this happens), and no expectation that the most obscure parts of Scripture are preached on (not really a big deal viz a viz RCL which in my experience has its own flaws re omitting passages).

    I currently support the RCL, mostly for the reasons you offer above, though most important for me these days is the ideal of reading Scripture in common with many Christians globally.

    Nevertheless for many years in parish ministry I followed our two year cycle from Advent to Pentecost and then preached through books of the Bible or topically (e.g. ‘issues of the day’). To suggest or imply that I as vicar was party to “… in individualistic (and congregational) pique, create their own material.

    We could talk about the abuse particularly of the rights of the laity by clergy who abandon what they agree and sign up to use.” is a most unwarranted denigration of ministry intent on speaking from Holy Scripture to the congregation. In particular, systematic preaching from the epistles and OT books is a way of conveying the whole counsel of God to the congregation. A great weakness in the RCL is its selectivity of OT and epistle passages. Within the whole scheme across 3/6/9 years RCL has the virtue of comprehensiveness. But it has the vice that the preacher who believes that (say) preaching through 1 Corinthians, each and every chapter, is important for the growth and development of the local community of faith cannot do so according to the RCL.

    At that point the virtue of the ‘common’ aspect of using the RCL becomes a vice according to the ‘local’ aspect of congregational life if RCL is slavishly followed. I suggest wise old priests bandying about terms like ‘individualistic’ are less than helpful.

    • Thanks, Peter.

      You are not contradicting what is being said, as you appear to think you are. You are reinforcing the point: to seriously try using RCL and all of it before adapting or creating one’s own approach.

      Let’s use the example you bring up to illustrate. 1 Corinthians is begun 19 January 2014, and we reach 1 Cor 4:1-5 on 2 March 2014 before heading off into Lent. We will pick up where we left off in 2015 and 2016. The community encounters the whole of the letter. If 1 Corinthians were a community’s focus, I would encourage the reading of the whole letter in prayer and study individually and in groups beyond the Sunday gathering – so all would have read the letter prayerfully three times from 2014 to 2016.

      So, to say “that the preacher who believes that (say) preaching through 1 Corinthians, each and every chapter, is important for the growth and development of the local community of faith cannot do so according to the RCL” merely underscores my primary point – this preacher’s belief is incorrect. S/he has not spent enough time with RCL.

      Now it’s your turn: take up my challenge and give me an actual example of a community that is “systematic preaching from the epistles and OT books is a way of conveying the whole counsel of God to the congregation”. Let’s discuss an actual concrete example. I have, over the years, followed the online lists of sermons from a number of surrounding communities and have yet to be taken by the system of choosing the reading by any as improving on what the church presents and requires.

      That is not to say that those communities are all motivated by individualistic pique. You are assuming that just because all cats have four legs – everything that has four legs must be a cat.

      Blessings.

      [For readers beyond NZ, the Two Year Series Peter mentions abandoning was a NZ creation which began from a list of Sunday themes and then used a concordance to find readings to fit. It repeated some readings from year to year, omitted generally-understood central passages, and was clearly inferior to the three year cycle used internationally and ecumenically]

  2. Hi Bosco

    Hmm. I am not sure that preachers need to preach through the RCL for years on end before finding it to be deficient.

    They could simply look ahead in the lectionary and ask questions of it.

    To take the example of 1 Corinthians.
    (a) the RCL does not help if I am convinced that the congregation needs to work through the whole letter in 2014.
    (b) the RCL offers only a selection of 1 Corinthians,not the whole. So, to take the lectionary in 2014, the following passages are omitted:

    1:19-31
    3:12-15 (incidentally, in my view, exhibiting a tendency of the RCL to omit passages about judgment)

    The last Corinthian Sunday is 4:1-5. Now I do not have the lectionary resources before me which you likely have, but I am struggling to see where the remainder of 1C4, 1C5, 1C6:1-11, 1C7:1-28 etc appear!

    Re your challenge: I accept the result of your researches re non-RCL churches not preaching through the whole of the Bible. But your own admission is that that research is not complete. I imagine that in discussion with ministers of such churches we might be informed either (a) the intent over a very long time was to preach through the whole of Scripture; or (b) the intent was not to preach through the whole of Scripture but to ensure that proper attention was paid to a canon within the canon (e.g. Pauline epistles).

    There is a worthwhile argument to be had about such things: one complaint I hear about the RCL is that de facto the experience of preaching is that the vicar only ever preaches on the gospel reading. (I know that does not have to be so; but it does provide a background for preachers keen to find ways to preach Paul’s epistles, each and every verse).

    • Firstly, Peter, as we continue this discussion with others listening in, can I thank you for and underscore your point of the value of reading the same readings across communities, denominations, countries. We can access shared reflections – in groups in the non-virtual world, resources (including in the virtual world), prepare together, pray together around these readings – God’s Word uniting us, speaking to us together as church…

      I’m not sure why you are missing in my comment that we pick up 1 Corinthians, stopped at Lent in 2014, in 2015 & 2016. Then back to the start of 1 Cor in 2017…

      You are not responding to my challenge, Peter. If abandoning RCL by communities is done as well as you suggest, please point us to just one single community with their online listing of the readings they have used over a period. It should not require the completing of my research as you suggest for you to be able to find one such efficacious abandoning of RCL. If you cannot present even one, I stand by my observations.

      Your last paragraph makes no sense. Yours is not a complaint about RCL, it is a complaint about the training and formation of vicars. Your preachers in your last sentence do not need to abandon RCL just because vicars in your penultimate sentence are not using it to its potential. If people are only driving the company-provided BMW in fourth gear, never using the clutch or other gears, that is insufficient reason IMO to abandon the BMW and start to try and build a transportation system from scratch in one’s limited garage.

      Blessings.

      • Hi Bosco
        I missed something in the comment above, namely the missing passages in 1 Corinthians are missing as we follow through Corinthians over the next few years.

        My point remains: if I determine that it would be important for my congregation and I to engage with the whole of 1 Corinthians in one year, then either I do not do that and obey the lectionary requirement or I disobey the lectionary requirement. Is a lectionary worth placing clergy in such an invidious position.

        Agreed, that last paragraph does not make sense.

        Our colleagues who do not preach from the RCL? I do not think they have abandoned what they never used! In the end it is your concern not mine that they are not as systematic as the RCL: have you asked these local vicars what their rationale for their preach programme is?

        In reflection this afternoon on this post I have come to this conclusion:

        I support the use of the RCL being an expectation of clergy but not a requirement.

        If we want all clergy to follow the RCL then it should be by persuasion of its merits and not by compulsion through canonical requirement.

        • Two quick responses, Peter:

          1) My point remains: you still have not pointed to a single of the many Anglican parishes that do not follow RCL as embodying “conveying the whole counsel of God to the congregation” in a way that improves on RCL. I continue to wait…

          A fascinating point of yours to note in passing – that these clergy who do not use the lectionary have not abandoned it – in all their training, formation, seminary, theological college, curacies, etc. according to you, they have never experienced using a lectionary!!!

          2) Let’s look at your point that you say remains for you: “if I determine that it would be important for my congregation and I to engage with the whole of 1 Corinthians in one year, then either I do not do that and obey the lectionary requirement or I disobey the lectionary requirement. Is a lectionary worth placing clergy in such an invidious position?” [my emphasis]. Haven’t you walked back from congregationalism into the very individualism that you thought my post was unwarranted in mentioning? And wanting to shift the emphasis to the abuse particularly of the rights of the laity by clergy who abandon what they agree and sign up to use, that I mentioned specifically as not wanting to focus on? But, OK: how did the clergy in your comment get to have this as “my” congregation? Was it not by vowing and signing and declaring in front of this very congregation that they would follow the lectionary requirement, and all other worship requirements?

          If you merely support the use of the RCL being an an expectation of clergy but not a requirement then don’t you need to set in train the alteration of our formularies just as anyone else who disagrees with our current formularies? Until that change has happened, are you and I not bound by what we have vowed, declared, and signed? On your site there is regularly the clarion call for individuals to give up their own will, their “what I determine”, for the sake of unity and community. Here, I am suggesting, one can actually achieve the goal within the current “constraints” – is not using the lectionary moving to being more about the principle of not using a lectionary?

          Blessings.

          • Hi Bosco
            (1) If the argument is about a scheme of Bible reading which reads most of the Bible in an efficient amount of time, then I would be surprised if the parishes we are talking about would argue against the RCL being the winner on that score.

            (2) I suggest that what parishes not following the RCL are attempting to do is to read through the Bible at a different pace and with less inclination to omit passages as the RCL does.
            (3) I am talking about the “I” and “my” of ministry in the same sense that I the Vicar might determine that this is the year to do Alpha or to run a parish camp or to make a specific drive to raise funds for a new church tower. If I don’t consult then, ok, charge me with individualism, but I am not (in a brief comment) trying to set out a whole polity of parish leadership.
            (4) Yes, clergy should know what they are signing up to re the lectionary-requirements-of-many-options; but you should know that some parishes do not expect their clergy to preach according to the lectionary, so those parishioners are hardly being deprived of anything.
            (5) I think I am allowed to express a view along the lines of ‘if I had a say in things’ then I would push for expectation and not requirement without that being a commitment to press for change. I myself use the lectionary and do not personally wish to do otherwise.
            (6) I would make the point that unless we wish to be a church policing requirements, we should not be a church making requirements. Will any clergyperson this coming Sunday not following the lectionary (for it is ‘commonly’ the Sunday of ‘Christmas pageants’) be disciplined? No. Of course not. In reality we are a church of expectations and of not many requirements!

          • I think you continue to miss the approach of this post, Peter: “trying to make what we receive work – and, certainly, if after serious attempts, and careful study of why the material is what it is, you find the church’s material is just unusable, then (and only then) adapt or change it.” Some of what you are saying argues for my point. We both know that the only real time there is a chance of discipline in our church is around the issue of gays. This is not about bringing church life down to Kohlberg’s Stage 1 of moral development – the fear of being punished.

            I am bringing in the point that we make these agreements to each other, verbal, signed, and publicly declaimed by lawyers and others, when you explain that for a raft of individuals and communities that is solely meaningless formalism. If we do not mean what we say, and vow, and sign, let’s not be surprised that, most people realising this, will not take seriously the message we present.

            As I mentioned in another comment on this thread, are these clergy and communities confusing Sunday worship gathered around the table of God’s Word and the table of God’s Sacrament with the (important) Bible study group? And is there an unmentionable, unacknowledgeable fear of letting the community and individuals gather to listen to what the Spirit is saying to the Church through God’s Word without every word being filtered and interpreted by the preacher?

            Blessings

  3. Hi Bosco+,

    Myself, I do not care for the RCL… at least not as executed. While I know it is a not a widely held belief these days, I much prefer a thematic connection among all readings. Thus, I adapted the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod’s 3 year lectionary revision (itself based off the Common Lectionary) which harmonizes these readings more completely.

    The second thing I have done is to set up Advent, Christmastide, Lent, Paschaltide and other major festival times on a 1 year cycle, which leaves me with 31 Ordinary Sundays each year over four years.

    Then, I take the readings from the lectionary and put them in chronological order by the Gospel, and spread it over four years. When the same story is paralleled in multiple gospels, they are either used sequentially (Matthew in Year A, John in Year D, such as the Passion gospels), made direct ‘pick one’ options (Transfiguration on 3rd Sunday in Lent) or one is used on a feast day and one in its proper chronological spot on an Ordinary Sunday (Confession of Peter, for example).

    I am now working on a similar approach for the Sunday Matins and Vespers lectionary – Old Testament overview over 4 years of 31 Sundays in the AM, Complete reading of the New Testament in the same time in the PM. Seasons have thematically appropriate readings, but sequential ones when possible.

    Right now I am in year C of our first complete trial of the lectionary scheme described above. Of course, you couldn’t tell now, as we are in seasonal time that is on a 1 year cycle, but in early January, we’ll continue our chronological journey through Christ’s ministry and teaching.

    I hope to have the Sunday morning and Evening lectionary complete and peer reviewed by the end of next year so that when we start our 4 year cycle anew, we can work that in too.

    Rob+

    • Thanks, Fr Rob.

      It would help if you provide links to your developments so that people can see what you mean, and use your resources if they find them helpful.

      I am against constricting God’s Word by humanly-constructed themes. The Christian revelation is through a God who acts, and stories about this acting God. Other religions are wisdom based with themes and so-many-points schemata. That is not how the Bible presents, and I would try and preserve the heart of that presentation, acknowledging that occasionally a theme can be drawn out of stories held together (which is quite different from using stories to illustrate our own chosen set of themes).

      Blessings.

  4. Thank your for this post! I actually enjoy the RCL most weeks, there are frustrations of course.

    I wonder if the issue of changing lectionary or using locally selected readings has to do with a deeper issue of our understanding of perching and worship. If sermons are a time for teaching and bible study, than the RCL would always seem insufficient.

    If preaching, as with the liturgy, is for helping communities tell and hear of God’s action in our midst, than the RCL accomplishes the mandate very well, especially over the long term. Whereas, it is clear that long term locally created lectionaries become a means for the hobby horses of clergy.

    • Absolutely, Eric, IMO. I mentioned the issue of “misunderstanding the role of proclaiming God’s Word in the context of worship”. Having a Bible study group in the non-virtual or in the virtual world is an important complement to Sunday worship. As is daily prayer as a crown in which Sunday worship is set as the jewel. Expecting Sunday worship to be Bible study class misunderstands Sunday worship. Blessings.

  5. Thankfully, our Bishop allowed us to return to the “old” Episcopal Lectionary. Not without its weaknesses, but far better, in my opinion, than the RCL.

    • I think, Bob, that the lectionary you mention is closer to the Roman Catholic three year cycle (and the one in the NZ Prayer Book)? The spine of it is essentially the same as RCL. We will all find imperfections and annoyances. Hence my, “The Revised Common Lectionary is the worst form of proclaiming the Bible in worship as a Christian community, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Blessings.

  6. Hi Bosco,

    Have you written anything on “the role of proclaiming God’s Word in the context of worship”? I’m most at home in a sequential/expository setting, where you work through a book (or a chunk of a book) over the course of a couple of months, and where each service has only one reading, and the reading+sermon together enable us to hear what God is saying to us through that particular passage. But I have a hunch that the RCL is based on slightly different principles… can you point me to anything from the archives?

    Thanks,

    Anthony

    • Thanks, Anthony.

      I am not sure what I have written that may resonate and clarify. Part of it is that people arrive to worship with a variety of needs and a straight-jacket mono-message approach only connects with a percentage of those present, whereas God seeks to meet the needs of all. Hence RCL presents a set of three readings and a psalm which (with the sermon and prayers and hymns etc) are like pebbles thrown onto the pond of worship – all areas of the pond will ultimately feel some of the waves of those circles of ripples.

      I suggest have a look at the early part of my (online) book Celebrating Eucharist, especially around themes and readings and preaching. The search box is quite good, and the “Similar posts” also can help at times.

      Blessings.

  7. Discussions of Lectionary can become rather like the church’s equivalent to train spotting, so this has been a more welcome discussion of principles.

    The abandonment of a single annual course of readings for the principle Sunday gathering of the church and the decision to read more scripture over a longer period is one of the out workings of Vatican II which is most often praised. The adoption of this approach ecumenically (with minor local variants) seen as a supreme example of the ecumenical movement.

    However, in the UK, this has also been accompanied by a general loss if biblical literacy. People don’t know the stories. So for example universities are now running introductory courses in biblical story for art students etc. There are wider cultural issues involved in this shift but the change in Lectionary approach then plays into this.

    Reading more of the scriptures over a longer period in my view has fundemental issues with holding the proclamation of the story of incarnation and redemption before a community in a way which enables that story to be embedded as narrative. It may be a pain for the preacher to be faced by the same reading every year at a particular point , but the repetition of particular narrative to particular part of the story helps memory.

    This to me seems more important when another cultural shift means that for many in the church, Sunday main service is now the only engagement with corporate worship.

    This also seems to be regardless of whether your preaching is devotional or expository and regardless of different understandings of worship.

    But before I abandon the RCL and do my own thing, I would like to see much more research (not simply anecdote) on how the Sunday reading of scripture is helping form our faith communities and how the use of scripture in worship is enabling all of us to proclaim afresh in this generation the message of salvation.

    • Thanks, Harvey.

      I am very conscious of the loss of knowledge of the Judeo-Christian stories and framework, and speak about it regularly. I think you should add into your variables the point that “regular” churchgoing is now once every three or four weeks. The one-chapter-a-Sunday approach of nonRCLers may encourage people to come more regularly because of the “tune in next week” effect (an effect that should be pressed more amongst RCLers), but there is a serious drop in understanding amongst those who do not/can not attend every Sunday. Not to mention visitors, travellers, holiday makers, tourists…

      Can you please reword your “Reading more of the scriptures over a longer period in my view has fundemental issues with holding the proclamation of the story of incarnation and redemption before a community in a way which enables that story to be embedded as narrative.” I am struggling to get your point.

      I regularly encourage people to read through a whole biblical book like you would a novel, in one sitting. And I try and provide a full framework of the Biblical story to those I serve.

      Blessings.

  8. Hi Bosco
    I am all for trying to make the RCL work (see my weekly postings on a site dedicated to these readings, http://preachingdownunder.blogspot.co.nz/, but I do not think any kind of fear of hearing Scripture is part of those churches not following the RCL.

    Are you overstating the nature of our agreements re lectionary usage? I understand that we have signed to using any of the lectionaries authorised for use in our church, not to exclusively using RCL …

    I would also raise the point, noting that evangelical clergy preaching through whole books of the Bible, not according to the lectionary(s) of the day, is a very longstanding feature of our life together, whether we fully understood what the implication of ‘the appointed’ readings in the NZPB services was.

    As I recall those days (me, ordained 1986; post ordination training 1987-89; NZPB used from 1989) it was never part of my formation nor of my general understanding that the/any lectionary had to be followed: that was an option which some chose to follow; others of us chose to preach differently. My (anachronistic) question is whether in the approval process of the 1989 NZPB there would have been a more concerted protest about ‘the appointed’ if evangelicals had realised that it would become a form of disciplinary stick to corral us into line.

    Nevertheless, and to attempt to be clear to any Kiwi Anglicans reading here, I do understand the nature of lectionary obligations according to the declarations I have signed and follow them mostly (with variation adapted to parish custom, e.g. two readings rather than four, and, yes, the right to vary the readings for special occasions, and from time to time to embark on a series of topical issues, with readings to suit).

    But the desire to have some slight freedom, as per the above paragraph, is a strong part of why I am keener on ‘expectation’ re the lectionary than ‘requirement.’

    Re parish Bible study apart from the Sunday services: yes, that point is well made by you, and one I personally would want to follow through on, were I a vicar.

    • Thanks, Peter.

      I think your commentaries for RCL are wonderful. I am one who encourages you to do this. Today is three years since my encouragement of Rev Nick Connolly to put online his remarkable vision for prayerfully reading through the whole Bible in three years (The Bible Through the Seasons). He has now blogged his way through the whole Bible. I will more strongly promote this, probably in tomorrow’s post. May many continue to find this encounter with the full Word of God fruitful in their lives.

      As to what we have exactly agreed to – we could easily slip back into another discussion about GSTHW’s irresponsibility about such clarity. Let me be clear – we have not agreed to following what our lectionary booklet publishes. We have agreed to follow the formularies of our church which includes RCL, the 2 Year Series, the 3 Year Series (both in NZPB, a collection of our formularies), the BCP lectionary. We have not agreed to the CofE readings (Common Worship), nor For All the Saints – both presented in our province’s lectionary booklet publication.

      Nothing, as far as I understand it, changed in the publication of the 1989 NZPB. Prior to that the BCP lectionary had always been the agreed formulary – including its lectionaries. So the history of not following the agreed readings that you describe did not alter in 1989, that (twice-round) process of adding formularies merely allowed the NZPB lectionaries to be used instead of the BCP ones.

      Blessings.

  9. Fascinating discussion. I have a couple of things to add.

    I’m old enough to remember life before, not just the RCL, but the Common Lectionary that preceded it. When I started my ministry we were using the BCP lectionary – Collects, Epistles and Gospels for Holy Communion Sundays, readings for Morning Prayer on other Sundays.

    The inadequacies of that lectionary system have often been pointed out. But I would like to say that, although in my experience the set readings were almost always read, there seems to have been less of an expectation that one would necessarily preach on them all the time? It seems to me that thematic and expository series’ were very common (for example, preaching on ‘The Four Last Things’ in Advent, or doing a special devotional series for Lent, neither of which were related to lectionary provision). It seems to me that the introduction of the CL and the RCL has really upped the ante in terms of expectation that one will always preach on the appointed readings.

    Secondly, it seems to me that, in these days of increasing biblical illiteracy, the real issue is not how much scripture our people hear on Sundays (in three disconnected readings, with sometimes very little sense as to how those readings fit into their original canonical context, especially since, as you point out Bosco, most people now attend church once or twice a month at the most). The real issue is how well they know their Bibles. And I have not seen any marked increase in Bible knowledge in Anglican circles since the introduction of the CL and the RCL. I suspect that the churches you are decrying here, that perhaps read less scripture on a Sunday and concentrate on expository preaching, may perhaps have a better track record when it comes to encouraging people to read the Bible and get to know it.

    Finally, I can’t see any evidence that the early church had Bible study groups. Sunday worship was the real deal, and if I remember correctly (I’m writing at home, and my copy of Justin Martyr is at the church), Justin says that ‘the memoirs of the prophets and the writings of the apostles are read, as long as time allows, and then the president exhorts us to the imitation of these good things’. It sounds to me as if there was substantial reading of scripture, much longer than in our experience, and the president then expounded it for the congregation. Note also the excellent sermons of John Chrysostom, which seem to follow on in a continuous manner from Sunday to Sunday, much like a modern evangelical preacher, and certainly go into the text in a manner very much like what we would now call an expository sermon.

    • Thanks, Tim.

      It would be interesting to research your point about greater focus on the scriptures read now – anecdotally I hear of all sorts of “different” preaching series that significant communities embark upon…

      Peter has already mentioned the common practice here of finding even the three readings and psalm too much for a community to cope with and halving the RCL provision. The context of Justin Martyr was a culture without TV and the internet, where people had a much longer attention span. I think the church has not even begun to really acknowledge the 21st century context we now live in. How might we begin to use the amazing (and free!) resources our culture provides for the proclamation of the Gospel and the formation of followers of Jesus?

      Blessings.

    • You write: “I can’t see any evidence that the early church had Bible study groups.”

      I’m no expert here. But what about “The Road to Emmaus”? Seems to me that this story in particular contradicts your point and bolsters the points Bosco is making here (so wonderfully, I’m pleased to say).

      Seems to me that the “Road to Emmaus” is specifically urging that disciples (we!) study the texts (for us the Bible!) so as to understand and encounter the Living Lord. And that the purpose of a Lectionary is for us to do just that.

      It reminds me of an experience 4 years back. At the time I was volunteering at a local hospital. And the RC pastoral carer was a deeply spiritual man from the French Congo. His sermons – on a daily basis – tracked the readings for the day. And seemed to me to be like attending a retreat. Call it what you will, but it seems to me that the readings called us all to examine our lives in the light of the readings – with interesting results. The African priest returned to the Congo. And I converted to Eastern Orthodoxy. It seems impossible to me that anyone who participated in this (albeit) brief exposure to the daily readings for that year, together with the penetrating sermons which arose directly from the readings, came away untouched by an understanding and encounter with the Living Lord. (Through a Lectionary!)

      No, it was not a Bible Study – but it seems that one complements the other. (And no bible study I have ever attended had the POWER of that experience.)

      If you click my name you’ll find a meditation on the Road to Emmaus (pre Pope Francis who – in my view – abundantly answers my concerns about the Vatican at the time of the post.)

      P.S. The story about the Ethiopian studying the Torah might be another clue to bible study in the early church. I’m sure there must be other evidence of this. Including the Jewish focus on the Word and Torah study – down to the very letters themselves.

      • Thera, you are making my point for me. I’m responding to Bosco’s contention that the purpose of a Sunday sermon is not ‘Bible Study’, but that midweek Bible study groups are the place for that sort of thing to happen. So when you say – ‘Seems to me that the “Road to Emmaus” is specifically urging that disciples (we!) study the texts (for us the Bible!) so as to understand and encounter the Living Lord. And that the purpose of a Lectionary is for us to do just that’ – you are agreeing with me.

        • I’m afraid you’re mistaken, Sir. These were not mid-week bible studies. These were Lectionary readings (from the 2-year weekly RC Lectionary) in the context of Daily Liturgy – with short homilies taken directly from the readings, given by a busy hospital chaplain.

          To me the point of the Emmaus story is that when 2 or 3 are gathered in his Name, Jesus is truly among them. This could occur in a bible study, of course. But think of what the disciples did after everything occurred. They went directly to Jerusalem and when telling those gathered there about what had happened, Jesus was in the midst of them.

          Of course Liturgy is not bible “study” – but my point is that a Lectionary indeed can have profound effects on its hearers and even its preachers.

          And your assertion that the early church did not engage in bible study, it seems to me, does not hold up.

          Peace be with you. (I have no further wish to discuss or dispute these things. We’re each entitled to our opinion. If I misunderstand your original point, I apologize. But let’s just let this go.)

  10. What a terrific discussion! thank you, Bosco and all contributors. I approach the experience of the lectionary from a bit different perspective, as a life-long layman, a catechist in the RCIA process for fifteen years as a Roman Catholic, and now twelve years an Episcopalian, and the last four years a licensed lay preacher. My context is a life of very regular attendance at Sunday eucharist. By my calculation I have lived through at least 13 full three-year lectionary cycles. I remember the one-year lectionary, and although it had the advantage of well established themes (“Good Shepherd Sunday”), it was by comparison to the 3-year cycle, impoverished.

    Personally, the experience of the lectionary drew me to more regular (ideally daily) scripture reading via the 2-year daily lectionary. I have been immeasurably enriched by this regular exposure to the Bible. Specifically, I find that my imagination, my vocabulary, and the images and metaphors through which I narrate my life are pretty deeply affected by the role Scripture plays in my life.

    But from my limited pulpit experience I recognized that many, or most, have not shared my experience. So it seems to me that the task of the preacher, is to engage and wrestle with the texts, then share the outcome of that struggle, drawing explicitly the connections that the preacher discovers.

      • I mean the Episc. Church BCP lectionary for Daily Prayer. I have worked to make time for Morning Prayer each day. That is easier said than done, but I continue to repent and recommit to it when I slip (which is often).

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About This Site Welcome to this ecumenical website of resources and reflections on liturgy, spirituality, and worship for individuals and communities. It is run by Rev. Bosco Peters.

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