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There Is No Theme

There is no theme

I recently gave a talk to a group of clergy, and one approached me at the end to strongly thank me for pointing out that the Sunday lectionary normally does not have a “theme”. This priest spent a lot of time poring over the readings trying to find the “theme” of the readings. Our lectionary booklet reinforces the misunderstanding that somehow the three readings and the psalm are “Related“:

Lectionary 7 September 2014

I regularly find this misunderstanding. There is nothing in the lectionary booklet itself to help. In its explanation, “Understanding the Lectionary”, it merely states, “For the Sundays after Trinity Sunday two alternatives are provided: Continuous and Related. Choose one of these options and remain with it throughout the period. It is unhelpful to move from week to week from one column to another.” (page 8).

On Sundays, we have been reading systematically through the letter of St Paul to the Romans since we started back in Ordinary Time after the Easter Season. This is the second reading, following the Psalm, Sunday by Sunday. The Gospel reading is systematically working through St Matthew’s Gospel. So if there is any connection, any “theme” between these two readings, it is purely coincidental.

It is not the fault of the clergy here – liturgical study, training, and formation continues to be at a low point here, something that continues to amaze me, considering that leading worship is a primary role of the ordained.

NZ, in the first flush of liturgical renewal in the 1960s, developed a thematic Sunday lectionary. It chose a list of themes, Sunday by Sunday, and then, concordance-like, chose readings to fit with those themes. Soon tiring of this cycle, it chose a second set of readings, concordance-like, making a two-year “thematic” lectionary. Obviously, readings were repeated, important ones omitted, and some preachers discovered that the reading had nothing really to do with the “theme”, but were actually more about something else entirely. But this Two Year “thematic” Sunday lectionary (still dominating much of A New Zealand Prayer Book He Karakia Mihinare o Aotearoa) set up a “theme culture” which is still being passed on from training vicar to curate and in the minds of many congregants members and communities.

The Church of England (in the Alternative Service Book) approached things slightly differently. They produced a list of important readings, and then tried to cluster readings together sort-of-thematically.

In Celebrating Eucharist I wrote:

Themes

The Eucharist is a thanksgiving for creation and redemption. That is the primary theme and anything “more” is icing on the cake. Human celebrations are normally of events rather than abstract concepts. Similarly, the scriptures tell the story of a God who acts (action again) and through our remembering and thanksgiving we are renewed to act in response. A theme may be one attempt to summarise briefly a message in the readings within the context of this present gathering. Preoccupation with finding a theme for each service, however, may limit the impact of a service. Community worship is like a lake upon which liturgy can cast a number of stones, each sending out its pattern of ripples. One person (a new Christian) may connect with the opening hymn, another (a person who has worshipped since her youth) with the Collect, another (just unemployed) with the first reading, another (coming to church for the first time since her husband died) with the Psalm, and so on.

Often the feast or liturgical season provides “theme” enough. Advent prepares for Christ’s coming. Christmas celebrates Christ’s birth. Like a particular type of restaurant (Mexican, Chinese, Indian,…), such a “theme” provides the mood in which the meal is enjoyed rather than a straightjacket for the service.

It is often said that people gave a sigh of relief at the abandonment of the ASB two-year Sunday lectionary and its artificial themes. The Church of England has gone further, and in Common Worship the collect is not tied to the readings. New Zealanders, on the contrary, regularly continue to search for a theme even when there is no theme! To the extreme of trying to force the three year readings into an unfitting straight-jacket by announcing the Sunday’s theme from the Two Year thematic cycle (so that, for example, next Sunday, being the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, has the theme of “The gift of hope” NZPB p622)!

So, read my lips: there is no theme! Read the readings set for the Sunday, pray about them, read commentaries about them, discuss them – and then preach about what the Spirit is saying to the Church through them.

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25 Responses to There Is No Theme

  1. Thanks for clarifying this. I had been under the misapprehension that there was a theme and many preachers try and weave the readings together.

    • Absolutely, Br David! Continuing my image of pebbles on the water, the sermon is yet another pebble or two. We can allow the readings to speak for themselves. I think that is a good topic for a future blog post. Blessings.

  2. And from time to time I have to listen to a retired bishop who never fails to comment on every reading. Which means repeat the in different words. But then I often think none of the readings are worth commenting on the more urgent affairs of the day.

  3. Bosco, perhaps it’s my Methodist background, but I do’t think a thematic approach is necessarily a bad thing.

    Let me put it this way: There’s a difference between saying the Lectionary has no (inherent) theme, and saying we can, if we choose seek (our own) theme in the Lectionary. So, while I agree that the Lectionary does not have a single, inherent theme that must be followed, I don’t think it is “bad practice” to allow a theme to emerge for us if that helps us in our preaching and worship.

    I could offer lots of reasons why a thematic approach can be helpful, but there isn’t space or time for that here. Let me offer just one for illustration, though: if Sunday’s liturgy is to become a journey that builds from week to week in order to aid in transformation, a theme that connects each week to the one before and the one coming can be a very helpful thing. Certainly this is better than allowing each Sunday to be a self-contained event with no connection to a larger journey.

    For what it’s worth.

    Grace
    John

    • Thanks, John. Always good to have your perspective, and I’m planning to promote your site in the next websites of note. I don’t know what your Methodist background changes?

      I think, as you yourself already suggest, we are talking about two different things. My post is about a misunderstanding about how the Sunday 3 year lectionary is constructed, thinking that it is constructed based on themes, and spending energy searching for that theme that brought these three readings and a psalm together. Yes, there will be connections between the Gospel reading and the First Testament reading in the “Related” approach, but if there is a connection, after the Easter Season, with the New Testament lesson that is coincidental.

      Certainly, search for a theme within the Gospel reading, or letter to the Romans, or whatever, if that helps. And find that theme dynamically developing from week to week. At present in Matthew, for example, most would understand that we are working our way through the fourth of six narrative sections that bracket five discourses. The current narrative is variously titled: “Acknowledgment by Disciples” or “The Church, First-Fruits of the Kingdom of Heaven”. One could do a similar exercise for the letter to the Romans.

      Blessings.

      • Thanks Bosco. As you say, we’re not essentially talking about different things – but, maybe the emphasis is a little different.

        I mention the Methodist background because our tradition tends (at least in my understanding) to emphasize preaching a bit more than the Anglican tradition. This preaching focus tends to bias us towards seeking a thematic approach, in my experience.

        I would go a little further than you do, though. For me it’s not just about finding a theme with a single one of the readings. I find, personally, great value in taking the three so-called related readings and wrestling with them to find a common thread. (Sometimes I even break the rules completely and wrestle with the semi-continuous readings as well – although I certainly wouldn’t refer to, or read, all six, seven or eight readings in a single Sunday service. ;-) )

        For me, I find it helpful to try and interpret the passage through the lense of the other passage as a creative exercise that forces my thinking into new understandings of the reading which I may not discover otherwise. From a liturgical perspective, I find a theme helpful in constructing the liturgy as a narrative journey which flows through the entire service – which I believe is an important tool of transformation.

        However, I would never force my approach on others (except perhaps through my Lectionary Worship Resources blog for those that enjoy it).

        But I fully agree – the Lectionary is not constructed with a theme that is “the” theme for the week which we have to find and then follow. Rather, I find the readings to be an invitation into the freedom of discovering a theme that fits my own context at this particular time.

        Sorry for the length of this, but I hope it gives some clarity to my approach. Again, though, I do think we’re on the same page for the most part.

        Thanks for a helpful conversation!

        • I think the key to our discussion, John, lies in your, “Sometimes I even break the rules completely and wrestle with the semi-continuous readings as well”. Yes, in the “Related” approach, the First Testament, Psalm, and Gospel reading have a “common thread”. But the New Testament lesson (at the moment from Romans) is chosen in a similar manner to the (semi)Continuous way of choosing the first reading. So finding a “common thread” between the Gospel Reading and Paul’s letter to the Romans is akin to finding a “common thread” between the Gospel Reading and the First Testament lesson in the Continuous column. Blessings.

  4. When I was an Anglican the Anglican Church in South Africa had a two-year themed lectionary which was introduced in the year I was ordained and abandoned soon after I left, so it shaped, to some extent, my understanding of liturgy and liturgical seasons.

    At one point there was a fashion of doing flower shows in church, and some in our church were keen to have one, and I suggested that they follow the themes of the Nine Sundays before Christmas, which they did. Each person took one Sunday, read the lessons, meditated it, and arranged the flowers to illustrate the theme they had chosen. The result was magnificent, and instructive.

    I thought that might be one of the things I might miss when I left the Anglican Church, but it seems that the Anglicans themselves have abandoned it.

    • I think it is a delightful idea, Steve. Just as the person leading the prayers draws inspiration from the readings, as does the preacher, I think the idea of the flower-arranger drawing from the readings wonderful. Blessings.

      • The point is, however, that this was possible because there were themes for each Sunday:

        9th Sunday before Christmas: Creation
        8th Sunday: Fall
        7th Sunday: The Covenant or Preservation (Noah)
        6th Sunday: Abraham, etc.

        And the flower arrangements reflected the themes.

        The one for The Fall was particularly striking — bright flowers on one side, dry grass and sticks on the other, and an apple with a bite out of it in between.

        Of course it was a boon for preachers too.

  5. Thanks for this, Bosco; I’ve seen a similar misapprehension here in Canada. Sometimes (especially at high holy days) there are themes, but for much of the year we are following three separate cycles. The only exception, in our version of the RCL, is that the psalm usually follows the theme of the OT reading.

    I also heartily agree that there is no need to comment on all the readings. This leads to a highly scattered approach to preaching. I was raised in an expository tradition that took one reading and careful built a bridge between it and the contemporary world. In the fifteen minutes that is usually the time allotted to me to preach each week, I rarely have time to do that for more than one reading.

    Finally, as far as building a continuous theme from week to week, I think this is very problematic these days as ‘regular church attendance’ now usually means once or twice a month at the most. I used to preach sermon series’, but I have reluctantly abandoned them in favour of making each Sunday a one-off.

    • Very helpful points, Tim. I’ve already intimated I’m going to pick up the idea of not preaching on every reading in a future post. I think your point about “regular” church attendance an important one to add to the mix. Somehow we have to nourish those who are not there every Sunday, and also feed those who are once-or-more-a-weekers. Blessings.

  6. First, thanks for this post and clarifying the related vs continuous approach in your comments above. That is, that in the related readings the first testament reading supports the gospel reading And it is not always thematically, it can provide an antecedenanol perspective (e.g. the Good Samaritan is sometime paired with a reading about the split between Jerusalem and Samaria).

    A question I would like your view on is about selecting music. As a lead musician one of my criteria for selecting songs is whether they reinforce the message in the readings. For example I am playing next on 14 Sept and the gospel reading focuses on forgiveness – so I have made sure there is at least one song about forgiveness.

    I am interested in your view on how much the music should reinforce the messages in the readings and/or sermon or be chosen independently of that.

    I do have some more thoughts on this – but interested to hear your view first.

    • Just quickly and briefly, David, and quite prepared to think this through further, and looking forward to your own points, I would keep in mind where in the service the music came, and also what the church season is. To stress the point: I wouldn’t use a Christmas Carol in Holy Week. I think the gathering singing, at the start of the service, needs to be a strong, uniting (ie gathering) song/hymn. I’m not sure if around the readings a song or hymn is needed – I would begin with singing the psalm… at the preparation of the gifts there might be something that picks up a reading and translates that into gathering around the table, finally, I guess, there is the song/hymn of being sent out. Any of these might pick up threads from the readings, but I wouldn’t want to feel constricted by that. What do you think? Blessings.

      • I have wobbled around a bit on what is most important. My context is I have rejoined church relatively recently (ie in last 5 years) and fairly quickly got signed up to play piano once a month. I am attending an Anglican church – but grew up in much less liturgically focused churches.
        My initial approach was to almost slavishly responsive to the lectionary in terms of song choice. This approach is supported by selections in the back of the hymn book and a number of church music sites, including the Royal College. Supported that is to the extent of providing lists of suggested songs for each lectionary week that relate to the readings.
        The big disadvantage of this approach (in its extreme) is you end up using a new selection of songs every week – which is hard on the musicians and even harder on the congregation.
        Last year, in our parish we went through the exercise of condensing our standard song list to 50 known songs and 10 new songs. This immediately reduces the ability to have a song that will fit every reading. But has the advantage that the musicians and congregation get to know the songs well.
        So I have been sitting in a funny middle ground and in reading your post, I am starting to rethink the lectionary ties.
        I absolutely agree there is a need for music to be seasonally relevant.
        But I am leaning more towards a view that the selection of music should be coherent as a selection, and appropriate to the point in the liturgy where it is used – and if you can make a nod to the readings then all the better.
        I have to say, there is very little guidance or training provided to musicians on how music works with liturgy. Something I would like to delve into more and promote more.

          • Thanks for the encouragement.
            “10 new songs” is simply that we added 10 songs that we had never sung before and which were written in the last 15 years. (The service I play in uses ‘modern music’ – except that we have come to realise that most of our music was written before 1985, so is hardly new)
            “Coherent as a selection” is something I have only just started to consider and don’t have a way of unpacking. I think it probably similar to putting together a set of songs for a concert or album. That the songs need to feel like they work as a group. It is quite subjective – but you know when it is not there. So think of a concert where each song feels like the start of the next one and you have been led through a journey (even if you don’t understand the route) and contrast that to a concert you felt the songs were chosen at random and jarred against each other.

          • yes 10 new songs a year. So idea is we have 60 songs total in our repertoire for the year – each year we drop 10 and add 10. Idea started by our new vicar, I must add.
            And coherent within the selection for each service. Still not sure what that really means – beyond the songs feel right as a group, and there is not an odd one out.

          • and the 60 songs doesn’t include seasonal songs for Lent, Advent and Christmas. So it is really quite a generous number, if they are all good.

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Rev. Bosco Peters 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.