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Heart lens of the Bible

Biblical Illiteracy

Heart lens of the Bible

At our Diocesan Synod last weekend, there was a motion (Motion 16) bewailing biblical illiteracy, and there were ideas how to increase that literacy. One speaker said that a huge leap forward would be made if we simply used all three of the lectionary’s readings and the psalm at our Sunday services. Too many (and probably the majority) of Anglican parishes, it is my understanding, cut back the readings… mostly to save time!!!

I cannot agree more: in the main parish service – read all three set readings and pray the psalm.

Let me say, before proceeding, of course there are special services for which one picks special readings appropriate to the occasion. Of course there are special contexts (a school, a hospital, a nursing home…) in which three readings and a psalm is too much.

The Three Year Cycle of set readings (the Roman Catholic 3-Year lectionary and its derivative the Revised Common Lectionary with its two tracks for the first reading) gives a broad-brushstroke coverage of the Scriptures and does so through the lens of the Church Year.

In the speeches about biblical illiteracy, a person (I have to believe them) told of a friend explaining what Christians celebrate at Christmas:

Adam and Eve had a baby called Jesus who grew up and married the Virgin Mary and together they had three children – the Three Wise Men. This is what Christians celebrate at Christmas

One of the usual excuses for reducing the readings from three + the psalm is the length of time that it takes. Let’s rebut this: the average reading-aloud speed can be about 200 words per minute. So, an average reading adds about a minute and a half onto the length of the service. Last Sunday the second reading was the whole of the letter to Philemon. It took the reader two and a quarter minutes to read the whole letter (459 words). So, if time is significant as a liturgical driver for you, you can cut back on a chorus, song, or hymn; abbreviate your (uninspired) sermon; or have a better strategy for the way you distribute communion…

A relevant quote from CS Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters in which a senior devil called Screwtape is writing to his nephew, a junior devil named Wormwood, giving him advice on how to entrap a human called “the Patient.”:

[The Vicar] 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 over reach them through Scripture. (letter XVI) The Screwtape Letters: How a Senior Devil Instructs a Junior Devil in the Art of Temptation

Lack of liturgical formation, study, and training means that far, far too many church leaders do not know the origin or nature of the Sunday 3-year (Revised Common) Lectionary. Church leaders and preachers will castigate the Sunday set readings because they cannot connect the various readings into a tight little theme. Hint: for most of the Church Year, the readings are NOT connected – that is not how the Lectionary (or liturgy generally, or humans, for that matter) work!

The 3-year Sunday Lectionary is an international, ecumenical treasure. Most Sundays, most Christians all around the world, in every imaginable language, in denomination after denomination after denomination, are mostly reading the same texts of the Scriptures. That is common prayer, common worship on an incredible scale. It comes with a plethora of resources – online and IRL: exegesis; suggestions for hymns, songs, and music; prayers; sermon suggestions… Bible study groups meet week by week around these readings, preachers prepare in groups – including online…

Everyone gets irked by some parts of the Lectionary; everyone meets a piece they are convinced they could have done better. So, online (and IRL), there will always be some complaint about something. But a challenge I have put out year by year has never been met. Never. Show me a community that is consistently year by year producing a better system for, Sunday by Sunday, reading the Scriptures. What I see are communities, including Anglican ones (which vow and sign to the agreement to use the Lectionary) going their own, idiosyncratic way and in each case, they are producing an inferior presentation of the scriptures.

If you or your community haven’t started using the Sunday Revised Common Lectionary, start now.

The Lectionary (Part 1)
The Lectionary (Part 2)
Abandon the Lectionary
Is the Lectionary obligatory?

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