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is the lectionary obligatory?

I was recently at a gathering with a wide spectrum of clergy and laity from throughout New Zealand and a discussion developed whether or not the Lectionary is obligatory.

Some were saying that at least one bishop has stressed it is; but then there was discussion whether that bishop’s position had any bearing in other dioceses…

Our Prayer Book says, “The appointed readings follow” (eg. p.409). “A duly authorised table of readings and psalms shall be followed.” (p.29). The Lectionary (Revised Common Lectionary – RCL) is a formulary of our Church. Formularies “may not be diminished”. It makes little sense to me that our Church would go through all the effort and energy of: passing a Bill at General Synod/Te Hinota Whanui about the lectionary, its needing to be passed in a majority of diocesan synods and by Te Pihopatanga o Aotearoa, and the Diocese of Polynesia, back again to be passed again by a newly-elected General Synod/Te Hinota Whanui, and then wait a year prior to it being authorised… and then the Church understanding this as merely another resource alongside the many other good ways to read the Bible that people can think of!

But the discussion does underscore, once again, my contention that it is way past time that there be a clear listing of what is required, what is allowed, and what is forbidden.

Personally, I do not find the “it is required… it is in the rules… it isn’t in the rules” approach the best way forward. I am much more interested in the merits (or not) of the lectionary. For the Eucharist I would assume that the lectionary is followed. There may, of course, be a rare exception when other readings are more appropriate, but note the words “rare” and “exception”. I would preferably use all three readings and the psalm, or at the very least a reading, psalm, and gospel. I see, more and more, the practice of using solely the gospel reading – and this from leaders who have cluttered the Gathering rite with lots of optional material (hence no excuse, as far as I’m concerned). The only occasion that springs to mind when it may be appropriate to read only the gospel reading is communion at a sickbed.

For a non-eucharistic liturgy I would look at the Revised Common Lectionary as a starting point. There may be reasons why a community, having looked at the lectionary, decides to do something else instead. We can all come up with criticisms of RCL, but I have yet to see a community which, say, prides itself on “systematic expository preaching” come up with anything as good as RCL. They tend to read less scripture and create a new favourite canon within the canon (see CS Lewis Screwtape Letters). With a little bit of longer term planning and some creativity, expository preaching can find RCL a valuable foundation.

The Revised Common Lectionary is used across denominations, across languages and cultures, all around the world. Worshippers can prepare for Sunday in their devotions at home, preachers can meet ecumenically locally or online, there are innumerable resources both as books and on the internet. It is an astonishing movement of the Holy Spirit in our day. To not use it is not only breaking our promises, it is ignoring the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

ps. regular here, Steve Benjamin, has just alerted me that the easy-to-follow Church of Ireland Lectionary for 2012 is now online (PDF). Thanks.

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32 thoughts on “is the lectionary obligatory?”

  1. So that we are on the same page, Bosco, in respect of one matter, I will state at the beginning that I agree with you that it is high time we gathered up the scattered bits of information (and dis-information!?) which lie about our church, and state clearly what is required, what is not, etc.

    Then, two observations:

    (1) The practice of a sole reading and that reading being the gospel has sound liturgical authorization in the rubrics on p. 511 of NZPB.

    (2) Growing up, and experiencing training within the evangelical wing of our church, I have experienced many instances, including my self authorised instances via my preaching plans, of readings not being chosen from the lectionary, instead being chosen to conform to a topical preaching plan or an expository preaching plan. Such practice, to my knowledge, has rarely been challenged, directly or indirectly. It would be a brave ecclesial jurisdiction which ruled against such widespread “de facto” practice in the life of our church. It is only recently that I have reckoned with the import of words such as ‘the appointed readings’. Thus I venture to suggest that whatever these words mean, our church has not actually passed legislation (whether via further rubrics in the prayer book, or by other canons) which makes explicit, plain and irrefutable, that we are meant to use the lectionary. And the waters are muddied in NZPB by providing two lectionaries to choose from … that rather suggests that neither lectionary matters absolutely in respect of the word “approved.”

    1. Thanks for your points, Peter, which are important and which, in essence, I agree with. I do hope that as a result of our diocese’s unanimous call for clarity etc. that something will come of this, and it not be just my and your sole nagging about this in some corner regarded with eccentricity.

      The people of God, on the assumption that we meet regularly for Sunday worship and Principal Feasts and Holy Days, through the use of three readings and the psalm of RCL will be nourished, in a period of three years, with the Word of God in most of the New Testament, and a significant, reasonable selection of the Old Testament. I have yet to see a scheme from any non-lectionary, expository-preaching-series Anglican church in this land that is better than the fare that RCL provides us. Hence, my stressing that I do not find the “it is required… it is in the rules… it isn’t in the rules” approach the best way forward.

      There might be some who would argue with the use of the word “sound” in your point (1) – but let’s unpack your stressing that it has authorisation. Originally, of course, this rite was “intended for particular occasions and not for the regular Sunday Celebration of the Eucharist”. With the removal of that rubric, the church also decided to embolden that “This rite requires careful preparation by the presiding priest and participants.” Can I assure you that whenever I have been present as a participant at a Eucharist where only the Gospel was read I have never once been part of any “careful preparation”. At every Eucharist in which you participate where there is only the Gospel reading read – perhaps you can assure me that all participants were part of the careful preparation.

      P.511ff provides the absolute minimum required for a Eucharist, it does not, for example, require the use of the Lord’s Prayer. To suggest that the Gospel reading alone become the standard fare in our Anglican Eucharists, I think is moving in totally the opposite direction of liturgical and spiritual movement which is increasing the nourishment from God’s Word, not decreasing it. I remind you that the more recent Alternative Form for Ordering the Eucharist, authorised by our church, requires First Reading, Psalm, Second Reading, and Gospel.


  2. the lectionary needs to be required and followed by any church or denomination that has any interest or investment in ecumenism. anglicans getting on board with the RCL is a big plus. too bad the RCC has its own lectionary and has lost all interest in ecumenical ventures. it would be good to see EOC’s using the RCL as well.

    as for the number of readings in a worship event…all 4 should be the norm with a clause for expanding the pericope when doing such would bring more understanding to the context of the lection.

    just peace
    G Lake Dylan

    1. Thanks, Lake (is that what I call you?). We are on the same page – the three readings and psalm is best seen as the norm. And there are good ways to expand from there. The RCL is based on the RCC lectionary, so it is mostly reading the same material. Blessings.

      1. G is for Gary…Lake is my added last name by marriage and Dylan my original last name in abbreviation. I answer to all!

        The RCC Lectionary usually has (if I am remembering correctly) a different First Lection and Psalm on many of the Sunday, especially in *Ordinary Time*.

        I do appreciate the RCC, in most places, using all 4 lections…but even on the EWTN Daily Mass there are only 2 lections and psalm.

        What I have more problem with is the 4 lections being read and then the homilist preaching on a 5th or non in particular.

        My interest, as noted, is in ecumenism…that all the church would share the same readings each time it worships, at least on Sundays.

        It would also be helpful, although it would seem more problematic, to have a unified daily lectionary for the daily offices. It seems there are more varieties of such than the Sunday Lectionary.

        Thanks for your thoughts!

        Just peace, always, all ways, forever

        1. Thanks, Gary, for your comments.

          You are correct, the RCL after Pentecost provides two options – the RCC approach of linking an OT reading with the Gospel, or reading the OT semi-continuously as well. So, yes, there is some variety and flexibility.

          Not bringing any of the readings into one’s homily seems very strange to me – there may be the most exceptional of circumstances that would warrant that, but if that were the case, would such an extreme circumstance not warrant altering the given readings, I wonder? Again it sounds to me, if it is happening regularly, like poor planning.

          The daily Mass readings you refer to are not part of RCL. These have their own system on a two year cycle and only have a reading, psalm, and Gospel.


  3. I would only add, Bosco, that I have been part of single reading eucharists that have been carefully prepared and part of such eucharists which have not been!

    1. Do you mean “carefully prepared” or “carefully prepared by presiding priest and participants”? All Eucharists at which I preside are “carefully prepared” – it has been rare when all participants at a Eucharist have shared with me in the careful preparation. Blessings.

        1. I appreciate the humour of your comment, Peter. My point remains, the decision to reduce readings to only the Gospel, if justified by p511, only holds if all the participants at that Eucharist have been part of the preparation in which they decided that they would have only that reading. If the windows of their souls have not been opened, then the formulary has not been followed and we are in danger of clericalising the Eucharist in which Father knows best. Another good reason for holding to the lectionary is that what we read is decided by the whole church – clerical and lay. Blessings.

          1. No, I would disagree with you on this point, Bosco. ‘Careful preparation’ on the part of ‘priest’ and on the part of ‘participants’ is not defined as ‘if all the participants at that Eucharist have been part of the preparation in which they decidied that they would have only that reading.’ ‘Careful preparation’ (in my view and in my experience) includes ‘preparing oneself to come to a eucharist in such a way that one will fit in with the flow and form of the eucharist, the detail of which has been decided by another or others.’ ‘Participants’ also raises the question whether we are talking about ‘the ones who take certain roles (e.g. reader, intercessor, proclaimer) in the service’ or ‘the whole congregation’: I see nothing in the rubric which defines ‘participants’ explicitly as ‘the whole congregation.’

            Two instances spring to mind. (1) At a recent conference a beautiful and responsible closing eucharist was arranged by a priest, with participation by several of the conferees, but with all conferees present. The single reading = gospel was apt for the occasion. (2) Regularly at Post Ordination Training we have a closing eucharist, normally following a prayer book form, usually constrained to the one gospel reading, as arranged by the person volunteering to be priest. (We also have had previously in the day the daily office (morning) with psalm, two readings, as prescribed).

          2. Again, Peter, you are underscoring the liturgical confusion within our province. I would understand “participants” to be all those who are part of a service – not merely those in leadership, but including those in leadership. I do not think the “careful preparation by the presiding priest and participants” is intended to mean that the participants prepare themselves “to come to a eucharist in such a way that one will fit in with the flow and form of the eucharist, the detail of which has been decided by another or others” – such an attitude should be the expectation at every eucharist, not specifically for this rite. But, yes, the lack of clarity is evident here, as elsewhere.

            Your two illustrations reinforce my point that this is a growing trend. It is a trend I am firmly against. I can see no justification for omitting the first reading and psalm in the two examples you give. That it is “legal” is no justification, as I have been re-stressing that I am not arguing from “legality”. Reading the first reading and psalm will make the service 3-5 minutes longer. I believe the centrality of the scriptures is highly important. I hope you will re-consider your approach, especially as, as you underscore here, this is part of post-ordination training. If legality is to be your starting point, and you mention that you are following “a prayer book form”, I note the rubric has readingS in the plural for the Eucharist.


      1. Not with you at all Bosco! Both services are parts of events in which the gathering from beginning to end is embued with prayer, with fellowship, with the informing of the Word of God in our learning. I think it a slavishness to liturgical minutiae to then insist that closing eucharists of these kinds must have more than the gospel reading. (I should stress there is no reverse slavishness which forbids more than one reading in these situations).

        1. I think this is not “slavishness to liturgical minutiae” whatsoever, Peter. I think the thought of reducing the number of readings at the Eucharist to merely the Gospel wouldn’t have entered people’s heads until relatively recently, and so to do so will need those advocating for such a diminution to come up with a cogent reason. The inherited tradition is at least one other reading alongside the Gospel at a Eucharist, independent from whether you are praying one, two, or seven, or more offices during the day, each with scriptural reading.

          To revert to your slavish liturgical minutiae: you have not replied how you bypass the formulary when you use a Eucharistic liturgy other than p511 – or do you see yourselves as only ever using that rite?

          In my experience Anglican clergy very readily continue doing in their own practice whatever they experience in their formation – however inappropriate. Do you discuss that you are only using the Gospel reading at post ordination training, but that this would be inappropriate in the regular parish service where the whole RCL provision would be the norm? I vividly remember being lambasted after leading a Eucharist at a clergy conference because people thought that such a Eucharist “would never work in a parish”! I had thought I was leading Eucharist particularly appropriate for the context of the conference – and it most certainly was. I had never thought of it, but it was certainly perceived as, my “illustrating” an “example” of what I thought parish Eucharists should be like.

          It does astonish me that I am finding myself arguing with a priest who is encouraging reading less scripture, or that reading less scripture is good.


          1. Hi Bosco
            I have considerable trust that our trainees (in one situation) and our colleagues (generally) in another situation can distinguish between bending a eucharist to fit with a particular kind of gathering (over a full day, over several days) and a Sunday eucharist.

            I do not think that in such a situation reading one reading is encouraging reading less scripture.

            In the end, in these situations one could conclude a day or a conference in a number of ways: a simple prayer, a set of readings, a service of the Word, some songs, or a eucharist. Time can be precious making pastoral allowances for people wishing to travel safely home. So some compromises are made. I think that is good modelling; certainly better than pushing the training through to the last minute, quickly saying the grace and departing (as I have also been part of leading).

            Compromises are often made in liturgies. I urge them, for instance, in respect of leading appropriate services relative to people’s strength when they are ill.

          2. Peter, I do not share your confidence in the liturgical agility of clergy in our province. Having mentioned here, recently, finding unallowed “Eucharistic Prayers” in another diocese, I last week found a significant community in this diocese using a prayer in their communion service which didn’t even have the structure of a Eucharistic Prayer. With very little effort what they desired to say could have been revised to fit the ecumenically agreed structure and fit within the allowable template of p.511.

            I agree with your last sentence, and had already included that point in my original post. What people have written here previously is the spreading trend to use the rite for communion with the sick (p.729ff) as the form used at a Sunday Eucharist.

            You have finally given the reason for not having a full set of reading, psalm, Gospel at a weekday Eucharist – time constraints. I have already mentioned using the full requirement would lengthen the service by only 3-5 minutes. Please let us know how long you have for such a Eucharist. In my own experience of one-reading Eucharists there has been a cluttered Gathering rite. If you have already gathered all day, little more than a moment to focus is all that is required.

            As Chaplain of a secondary school brevity is a significant liturgical principle. A Eucharist with three hymns, sung Gloria and other Mass parts, reading, psalm, Gospel, sermon, silence, prayers takes 35 minutes. With the full choir, adding to that list, introit, two pieces sung during communion (during which we might communicate hundreds) takes 50 minutes. I do not believe we should rush worship. My experience of a lot of Anglican worship is that we clutter it – and then try to make up the time by lessening the essentials, including hearing what the Spirit is saying to us through the scriptures.


          3. I am with you on some things, Bosco!

            (1) I am not vouching for the liturgical skill of all clergy everywhere in our church; but I have confidence in the clergy I have met in the last two years in training programmes I have been part of co-ordinating.

            (2) I am not agreeable to any spreading tendency to use p. 729 for Sunday usage (without going into details, I find some aspects of that service as written in the book ‘strange’!)

            (3) I take your well made point that one could work on the beginning of the service, declutter it and make more time for readings.

  4. Of course, I have no insight into the situation in NZ, but my experience in TEC is that the RCL is followed nearly uniformly and it is very rare indeed that a Sunday eucharist would not include all four readings (weekday services are a different beast). I would liken the Lectionary to the Creed in that there is something profoundly wondrous and gracious in knowing that Christians all over the globe are confronting the same issues and espousing the same faith, especially in the face of the very real differences which confront us.
    Jon White

    1. Thanks, Jon, I agree with you about the use of the RCL readings. And I am pleased to hear that TEC is more consistent liturgically. That is the impression I am regularly given. Blessings.

  5. I find the whole idea of ‘topical preaching plans’, mentioned by P.C. (above) to be rather a ‘congegational’ method of exposition to a selective group of people who may – or may not – be members of the local congregation. This might be suitable for a one-off, distinctive gathering of the like-minded, but hardly the objective method of imparting the Church’s thematic teaching for the particular Day or Season of the Church’s Year – which is the reason for the publication of the Common Lectionary.

    Subjective ‘preaching’ may be usefully employed in a lecture or a special ‘other-worship’ situation – but perhaps not in the context of the Eucharistic celebration – to which everyone might expect to be invited. This gives an orderly procession to the Church’s teaching in the commonly authorised setting of worship.
    It is this commonality that is a hallmark of the Church Catholic

    1. Thanks, Fr Ron. Again, I think that if a preacher has a certain list of topics that s/he thinks it is appropriate to cover over a certain cycle of time (a not unworthy idea), that with a little planning all these topics can be connected to the RCL provisions. Again, it seems to me, poor formation and poor information are at the root here. Blessings.

  6. I always prepare worship using the lectionary in Common Worship. I would advise any ministers in training, and congregational worship leaders to do the same. This way one can be sure of a good coverage of scripture through the year, including the difficult texts which merit study and exposition. The three year cycle, with a different Gospel each year adds to this sense of breadth and depth. Not using a structured series of readings runs the risk of avoiding the challenging, and getting ‘stuck in a rut’ with the favourites! This is of course my Anglican up-bringing and training! For our bretheren within the Chaplaincy from other denominations not familiar with its use, the lectionary does pose problems, especially if they are used to ‘waiting on God’ for the text of the day! This thread, therefore, is one we have debated more than once!
    Personally, from the preaching perspective, I like to mull over all the set texts for several days and listen for ‘the Good News’ that the Lord is inviting me to preach on.
    Sadly we have fallen away from using the Psalms on a regular basis during the Eucharist, electing to use all three readings. I think this is such a shame as this is a wonderful resource touching every emotion of human existence and spiritual journeying!But then many hymns are based on the psalms, so to some extent they are included.
    Our real problem within our Chaplaincy in France is that our congregations are far spread – our area is about 150km north to south and the same east to west – and so many may only be able to access worship once or twice a month. The cycle of continuous readings becomes less meaningful in this situation. We tend to use the related readings cycle.
    Best wishes,

    1. Thanks so much, Linda, for your comment – and your concrete, ecumenical context. The psalms are central in my own spiritual life, and I would argue they are the crown of Judeo-Christian worship. They are central in Anglicanism – with the BCP praying all of the psalms at least each month. Look at Nicholas Ferrar and the “psalm children”, or the Maori calling the Maori BCP “Te Rawiri” (the name of David, in honour of the psalter’s centrality). So I hope we can work towards the recovery of that great tradition. There are good reasons in many contexts to use the related readings. One of the positives of following the lectionary, Linda, is that those who cannot get to worship on a Sunday can still read and pray with the same readings that the rest of the community will be using. I think your urging to spend days praying with the set texts is really important, and that approach may be the very connection that links with the “waiting on God” tradition you describe. Thanks again for your insights. Blessings.

  7. I always thought it was ironic that, after a lifetime attending evangelical churches in the Diocese of Sydney, it was in Roman Catholic churches and later at one of the few Anglo-catholic churches in the diocese that I began to receive a complete teaching in all the scriptures not just the favourite passages of the rector. In the online world I now inhabit it is wonderful to read and compare the insights of various priests around the world all addressing the same passages on the same Sunday.

    1. Your online experience, Brian, is one of the treasures of the internet. Your experience echoes my challenge: I have yet to see an expository-preaching-style community demonstrate a fuller nourishing from God’s Word than the tradition of RCL at Sunday Eucharist set in a discipline of the daily office alongside many who have daily Eucharist. Blessings.

  8. As a layman, can I provide some feedback to those in Orders about single reading services of Holy Communion?

    I feel deprived when I attend a single reading Holy Eucharist. I consider it ‘pastorally unkind’ and consider it undermines the general flow of Biblical revelation. I note while feedback forms proliferate everywhere, they have not made it past the church door. While I have learnt to avoid bruising clerical egos, I consider that the laity should speak ‘the truth in love’ as the liturgy is a shared work in which we are all cherished participants.

    I recently attended a weekday Holy Communion service celebrated by a dynamic former-RC now-Anglican priest. His style was uplifting, informative, inclusive and encouraging. It was, however, the first reading that had the strongest effect on me. From the first Book of Maccabees no less! It dawned on me that the pugnacious fidelity of these zealots preserved the Messianic hope for us.

    When the OT or NT reading and psalm are omitted from the Eucharistic lections, the Gospel reading floats unanchored in faith history and we lack reference points to support, confirm or eludicate its message.

    When an OT/Apoc reading precedes the Gospel, the transition from old covenant to new is sequential with the psalm acting as a lyrical bridge. When an NT reading precedes, the working out of the Gospel by the first Christian communities introduces the Gospel reading while the psalm often highlights shared themes in one or both readings.

    The ordered reading of the Word of God is one of the hallmarks of Anglicanism but I wonder if the Cranmerian inheritance with its substantial psalter and solid OT and NT lessons each Mattins and Evensong has left the Anglican liturgical tradition with scriptural indigestion? Could this and not clerical sloth be the reason for the spreading one-reading custom?

    I’m currently worshipping in a parish that prides itself in its evangelical liturgical tradition yet does not use the authorised lectionary. OT, Psalm, NT, Gospel is always the pattern but readings are chosen thematically, eg a psalm will set the tone for a series of sermons and readings elucidating that psalm from OT and NT will be chosen, historical OT figures can feature for several weeks or an NT epistle will be read over a course of time etc

    I don’t feel deprived as I can incorporate the RCL into my private reading but I feel out of touch with the rest of the national church as our congregation does its own thing in the proclamation of Scripture. This is a decision by the clerical leaders to be congregational rather than to witness to apostolic universality (or something approaching it, given the wide use of the RCL).

    1. Thanks so much, Steve, for your perspective with which I totally agree. I have said elsewhere, as well as on this thread, that the liturgy is not the possession of the leading clergy. When I am in the Sunday congregation and not leading, like you I normally want to be nourished with a reading, psalm, New Testament lesson, and Gospel reading. Like you I am not arguing this from liturgical law, hence I can think of pastoral exceptions (eg. a Eucharist in a Rest Home, a Eucharist where the majority present are young people) but even then I wouldn’t reduce to the Gospel alone, I would have one other reading and the psalm, following the example of a weekday Eucharist. Thanks again for your points. Blessings.

  9. Yes, indeed! These insights about anchoring the Gospel with the OT to support understanding our faith history are most valid. You have made me realise why sometimes I feel dissatisfied when the OT reading is replaced by a reading from Acts, as is sometimes prescribed!I had never really identified this feeling until this thread!
    When we don’t use the Psalm per-se and I am in the planning role, I usually send it to the intercessor, because very often there is material within for use in versicle and response!
    My biggest criticism of the current lectionary we use is the way verses are sometimes edited out of a larger passage. Sometimes the cutting renders a text most peculiar. Is it an attempt to ‘sanitize’ difficult passages, or an attempt to cut out perceived editorial additions I wonder?

    1. Thanks for your helpful comments, Linda.

      We can criticise the choices made by RCL – but I would rather live with its imperfections, than have our criticism lead to our abandoning the whole thing. So often it seems that people use criticisms for such abandoning. I can certainly see your point about having Acts as the first reading. On the other hand, for regulars, it is part of what really does make the Easter Season different.

      As you described the “solution” of abandoning the psalm, I realised what is so important in my wanting to have the psalm there – it is that we are reading the scriptures in the framework/context of prayer. I make a big thing of the collect – as a community we have just spent time in deep silent prayer, concluded by the collect. We stay in this prayerful context, listening to the Spirit, the psalm keeps us in this prayerful mode, as does the Alleluia gradual verse, as do the acclamations… Removing the psalm makes it so much harder to experience the readings as being part of our communal prayer. IMO. Thank you.

      I have never seen the editing of verses as being a removal of “editorial additions” – that will not be correct. Sometimes the verses removed are read at another time. Sometimes their inclusion confuses the direction of the reading. Sometimes I can see no reason for their omission.


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