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The Lectionary (part 1)

I consider the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) as a gift from the Holy Spirit to the church. Although at the grass-roots level relationships between people of different denominations are healthy, at the power levels of institutional Christianity ecumenism has pretty much, in spite of innumerable meetings and reports, come to …. nought. Yet, Sunday by Sunday, Presbyterians, Methodists, Anglicans/Episcopalians, Roman Catholics, etc., read essentially the same readings.

In the synagogue the Torah is read through completely Sabbath by Sabbath. Some scholars, in fact, see patterns in the Gospels that the stories (pericopes) may relate to a week by week connection to the appointed synagogue reading (The evangelists’ calendar: A lectionary explanation of the development of scripture). For centuries the church also had a one-year reading cycle. It is possible that many of these readings connected to the Jewish festivals and readings at the same or similar time, and I would be grateful to any readers who could point to either books or websites that explore the connection between the traditional lectionary and Jewish roots.

That one-year cycle had a reading from a gospel generally preceded by another New Testament reading. There was normally no reading from the Old Testament.

After Vatican II the Roman Catholic Church produced a three-year lectionary. “The treasures of the Bible are to be opened up more lavishly so that a richer fare may be provided for the faithful at the table of God’s word. In this way the more significant part of the Sacred Scriptures will be read to the people over a fixed number of years” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, #51). This new lectionary has three readings and a psalm. The Old Testament became a regular part of the lectionary’s fare.

During the decade that followed the 1969 introduction many churches adopted and adapted this wonderful new lectionary. The North American Consultation on Common Texts (CCT) and the International English Language Liturgical Consultation (ELLC) took up this interest producing an ecumenical revision in 1983. After nine years of trialling, the Revised Common Lectionary was published. It differs little from the 1969 Roman Catholic lectionary – the most significant difference being that in the Roman Catholic lectionary the Old Testament reading normally relates to the Gospel reading. That option is preserved in the RCL, but after Pentecost there is a second option, to read the Old Testament semi-continuously, just as the other books of scripture normally are.

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

Part 2 of this Lectionary series

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9 thoughts on “The Lectionary (part 1)”

  1. In saying that the RCL is a gift of the Spirit to the church, I would agree. Of course, as with anything that passes through human hands, it is imperfect. Too often the lectionary avoids the “problematic” verses in the passages cited, but we’re not slavishly compelled to omit them.
    But everything else being equal, it is definitely a good thing to force ourselves into struggling with uncomfortable ideas.

    1. Thanks, James, for your comment anticipating a future part of this blog series.
      No lectionary system is perfect – possibly the Joint Liturgical Group 4 year Lectionary may be “objectively better”. The three year lectionary, however, is the one that is use by well over half of the world’s Christians. Good luck to anyone trying to convince the many denominations to change 🙂
      The standard gauge in railway lines may now be realised not to have been the best choice in the 19th century, however, again – good luck to anyone committed to changing well over half the world’s railway systems 🙂
      The intention of the lectionary is the proclamation of God’s Word in the context of worship Sunday by Sunday, particularly in the Eucharist. There is no intention that this be the only encounter with scripture for Christians. That being said what one person finds what you call a “problematic” passage, another may not. Clearly, because of the context, we do not want to be constantly proclaiming convoluted and obscure texts. But what one finds “problematic” is highly subjective – the lectionary has passed through the hands of many, many thoughtful Christian scholars and is their resulting consensus. I’m committed to it, as is my church which declares it a formulary of our church. Imperfect though it is.

  2. No one wants to give up the distinctives of his/her own tradition, so the lack of institutional unity remains; I am not a Calvinist and I don’t want to be Presbyterian. But the Common Lectionary promotes church unity in a different way, which everyone can relate to.

  3. The Lectionary is not a gift of the Holy Spirit, but rather a wicked attempt to prevent most of the Holy Bible from ever being preached. Who is to say what are the “more significant” passages of the Holy Bible. Christian Scriptures end with the warning “if anyone takes away from the book of this prophecy God will take away that person’s share in the tree of life and in the holy city which are described in this book. At the end of the 3rd chapter of 2nd Timothy Paul writes that “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful ….” Let’s preach the whole Word of God as the Spirit directs us.

    1. Interesting thoughts, thanks James. βιβλίου in Rev 22:19 in this context means a scroll and refers to the “book/scroll” of Revelation – the book, as you are using the word, was not really in currency yet, was it. At the time of the writing of Revelation, which books/scrolls would form the Christian Scriptures had not even been clarified. Here’s a good experiment for you: for three years record the texts read aloud in your church “as the Spirit directs” and then compare that to the amount of scripture read in churches following the three readings and psalm of the RCL Sunday by Sunday. Looking forward to the result of your research in three years time.

  4. James,

    The RCL spreads the reading of the Bible over 3 years, if you attend church every Sunday you will have about 95 percent of the Bible read to you. It also insures that if you go to another church that you would be hearing the same biblical readings that you would of heard at your home church… the RCL is an attempt to do just what Jesus prayed about… the church to be one. The only drawback to the RCL that I have seen is not using the “Books of Wisdom” or “Apocrypha” also called the “Deuterocanonical Books” that we used before (us Episcopalians in the states used them and still do in our Daily Offices while most Protestants don’t)… sometimes our rector will use them on Sunday especially if the reading is from Ester, he will use the Greek based text instead of the Hebrew based text.

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